The real challenge before the newly formed Siddaramaiah government is to transform Karnataka from the laboratory of Hindutva under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to a laboratory of secular governance. This cannot be accomplished by routine governance. On May 24, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah told the top brass of the State police force that “the police must not look at crimes through the prism of this or that religion.” This is a good beginning and needs to be pursued in letter and spirit. The BJP’s electoral defeat in the Assembly elections does not imply ideological de-capitulation of the Hindu Right, particularly when the party has retained its vote share. Therefore, the claim that the Hindu Right has been wiped out from the south is exaggerated. The Hindu Right is demoralised by defeat, but could bounce back at the next opportune moment. Patience and an ability to maneouvre are some of the virtues of India’s Hindu Right.
In 2022, the Government of India banned the Popular Front of India (PFI). The Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), founded by the PFI in 2009, had fielded 16 candidates in Karnataka, but failed to open its account. This speaks volumes about the voting behavior of Muslims. Most crucially, it sends an unambiguous message that the SDPI’s political agenda has no resonance with Muslim voters. Likewise, the Asaduddin Owasi-led AIMIM drew a blank with only 0.02% votes. Nine Muslim MLAs of the 15 that the Congress fielded won, whereas the JD(S), which fielded 23 candidates, drew a blank. This is because Muslim voters consider the Congress and not the JD(S) a viable alternative to the BJP. The Karnataka results should further reassure those who expressed concern about the modest success of the AIMIM in the Bihar and Maharashtra Assembly elections. These results confirmed the secular voting behaviour of Muslim voters. Another interesting result is the defeat of Pramod Muthalik, chief of the Sri Ram Sene, which led the attack on women in Bengaluru bars in 2009, from the Karkal constituency. These results need to be seen as a vote against not just Hindutva or corrupt governance, but also against religious extremism.
During its campaign, the Congress was bold enough to announce in its manifesto that it would ban the Bajrang Dal. But the Bajrang Dal is a small player in the larger ideological campaign of Hindu Right organisations that have shaken the foundation of India’s secular polity. The Hindu Right organisation that has given India two Prime Ministers — Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi — is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and not the Bajrang Dal. At this juncture, it is worth recalling a speech delivered at Lucknow by Sardar Patel on January 6, 1948. He warned his peers in the Congress that their “power and authority” will not be able to crush the RSS. The present-day RSS is far more organised, larger in size, and more resourceful. Most importantly, it is a global organisation compared to what it was in 1948. This is the real challenge — and the government needs to think deeply about this.
Another fact is that the RSS does not have any magical powers to help the BJP win in every election. As an electoral force, it has limitations.
Karnataka has also seen violent killings of cadres of the Hindu Right and secular parties in recent years. In the context of this, outgoing Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai had threatened to introduce the “Yogi model” in Karnataka. One of his ministers even said that the State would go five steps beyond Uttar Pradesh. These are the signs of the violent side of an ideological power struggle among secular and Hindutva organisations. Priyank Kharge, a minister in the Siddaramaiah government, suggested withdrawal of the Bommai government’s regressive policies. This is encouraging. But while rolling back policies may bring short-term relief, it will not foreclose the possibility of the return of such policies under future BJP governments. The dynamics of an ideological power struggle in an electoral democracy is such that what is rolled back today can be brought back tomorrow. But the 2023 results present some opening for the secular forces to plan for the revival of India’s secular polity. Karnataka society needs healing. It cannot be accomplished by routine governance or Twitter activism.
Sheikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi