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The wild and wonderful world of Karnataka elections

Karnataka will go to polls this May, and the state's electronic voting machines will have the candidates' photographs alongside their names

B.S. Yeddyurappa greets his supporters before taking oath as chief minister of Karnataka, in Bengaluru on 30 May 2008. Photo: AFP
B.S. Yeddyurappa greets his supporters before taking oath as chief minister of Karnataka, in Bengaluru on 30 May 2008. Photo: AFP

If there was a competition in corruption, the Yeddyurappa government would get the No.1 award," Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah said at a press conference in Karnataka recently. I don’t blame him, it’s probably difficult for Shah to keep track of all the tongue twisters in south Indian politics. North of the Vindhyas, the vowel and consonant twists of Yeddyurappa (the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate) and Siddaramaiah (the Karnataka chief minister from the Congress party) can all become one big blur.

In fact, this May, the state’s electronic voting machines will have the candidates’ photographs alongside their names. Sometimes political parties find dummy candidates with the same name in order to divide the vote. With the additional comfort of a photograph, it would be hard for anyone to get it wrong.

I wonder, though, if Shah thought it was 2012, when the BJP actually forced its teammate B.S. Yeddyurappa to resign because of the corruption charges levied on him. Back then, Yeddyurappa declared dramatically that he had been “stabbed in the back" and said about his BJP colleagues: “Some people did not want me to continue as chief minister. They tried to put me in the dock. I tolerated in the past one year with a lot of patience. I am leaving the party with deep sadness."

Then he formed his own rival party that contested 216 of the 224 constituencies in the 2013 state election. Though Yeddyurappa won a paltry six seats, his departure knocked out the BJP and the party is taking no chances this time round.

These days Yeddyurappa always looks worried (who knows what Shah and the BJP’s other star north Indian campaigner, Yogi Adityanath, might say next) and displays his leonine self only on his Twitter timeline. Siddaramaiah, who once never tired of saying he was an atheist, has been spotted at many temples in recent months. “I am also Hindu and I have Rama in my name," he declared famously.

I can sympathize with Shah, whose legendary gaming-the-system abilities have floundered comically in this part of India. Everything must be translated to Kannada, even if his audience understands what he’s saying. Otherwise, who knows he might trigger a #ShahHindiBeda campaign along the lines of the protests that started last June against Hindi announcements and Hindi signboards on Bengaluru’s Namma Metro. Translations are prone to errors, as we saw when Shah was quoted as saying, “Narendra Modi’s government will not do anything for the poor and Dalits."

As someone who votes in somnolent south Mumbai, negotiating Karnataka’s Lingayat politics, Kannada pride and the long-standing Cauvery water dispute, I feel Shah’s pain. Was Tipu Sultan just another ambitious, flawed ruler, as most Kannadigas have always learnt, or a “terrorist", as the BJP would now have you believe? There are enough archived photographs of the BJP’s top leaders in the state, including Yeddyurappa, wearing headgear that the Mysore ruler favoured and celebrating Tipu Jayanti, to answer that question.

In this world, officials on election duty routinely confiscate meaty feasts distributed to voters in an effort to woo them. “A bucket each of chicken curry, chicken fry, ghee rice, three buckets of eggs and other food items were seized," one newspaper report said.

Will Siddaramaiah’s Lingayat gamble work in his favour in the forthcoming Karnataka election, I ask my husband for the umpteenth time over our breakfast of ragi dosa, a local staple. By now all of India knows about Lingayats, that crucial 17 % of the state’s population. The chief minister recently decided to notify Lingayats and Veerashaiva-Lingayats (followers of the 12th century philosopher Basaveshwara) as a minority religious group. The next move lies with the Modi government. If it doesn’t agree, Lingayat voters will be upset. But if it does, it would go against the BJP’s oft declared, all-Hindus-must-stand-together vision of India.

It might, the husband replies sagely (and vaguely) to my question, but it’s a cynical and self-serving move and leaves Siddaramaiah looking no different from the BJP.

I was born in Breach Candy Hospital but my better half landed on Karnataka soil from the word go. He entered the world on a stormy night in a mission hospital in the Kolar Gold Fields, in the days when that famous gold mining shaft Champion Reef was one of the world’s deepest. Even though he’s Goan, his reservoir of Kannada pride can compete with any natural-born Kannadiga. He has taught our daughter to sing jingoistic verses about her state, name and nation being Kannada (namma nadu Kannada, namma hesaru Kannada, namma rashtra Kannada).

Sometimes complicated questions of patriotism and identity can be answered with a simple example. Kannada pride clashed with the BJP’s idea of India over the renaming of Indiranagar’s trendy 100-feet road. The idea to rename the road after Dr S.K. Karim Khan had been around for years. The BJP lobbied to name this road after former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The issue came to a head last year when pro-Kannada organizations protested. They said they would rename the road after Khan themselves if the government didn’t. Kannada pride in its well-respected freedom fighter and folklorist won over the Hindu vs Muslim option. Case closed.

Online too, it’s difficult to negotiate the nuances of this state. When the BJP Karnataka Twitter handle decides to use #JihadiMuktaKarnataka as its state election campaign idea, you can safely deduce that a Kannadiga didn’t come up with this hashtag. Here everyone knows the radicalized coastal belt is only one part of this state. But who will tell this to the national leaders whose only idea of identity is linked to religion.

For now, mutt hopping is the trendy activity in Karnataka. Last week, Shah visited some 20 mutts across the state; his party declared his two-day visit a success. “Ninety-nine per cent of the mutts have agreed with the fact that if the mutts and the Hindu community has to develop, then, the BJP must come to power," one member of Parliament told The Times Of India. Whether or not Kannadigas agree with him will be clear in May.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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