With the battle for the crucial May 12 Karnataka Assembly poll set to enter a decisive phase, “Hindu terror” is emerging as the chief talking point of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign as it seeks to corner the Congress in the election-bound state.

Reports from Karnataka suggest that the BJP and the ruling Congress are evenly-matched in this contest. Over the past few months, the BJP has made several attempts to seize the narrative in the run-up to the polls but Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah has proved to be a tough opponent, not giving the saffron party an opportunity to set the agenda.

However, the acquittal of all five accused, including Swami Aseemanand, in the 2007 Mecca Masjid blast case, has provided a much-needed opening for the BJP to highlight the question of “saffron terror” in its poll campaign to paint the Congress as “anti-Hindu”. It is no coincidence that the court verdict came a few weeks before the forthcoming election. And the alacrity with which the BJP launched a belligerent attack against the Congress for coining the term “Hindu terror”, suggests it was itching to take on the grand old party on a subject that it identifies with. The BJP positions itself as the chief spokesperson of Hindus and the custodian of the Hindu faith.

‘Muslim party’

After its opening salvo, the BJP went a step further on Tuesday when it specifically targeted Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his mother for defaming Hindus globally and demanded an apology from them. Fielding its combative spokesperson Sambit Patra for the latest onslaught, the party referred to a nine-year-old conversation between Rahul Gandhi and the then US ambassador Timothy Roemer (quoted by Wikileaks) in which the Congress leader is purported to have said that “the growth of radicalised Hindu groups” may be a bigger threat to India than Laskhar-e-Taiba.

“If Congress considers India to be its own, then Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi must apologise to the whole country for defaming the great Hindu religion by trying to prove that there was something called ‘saffron terror’,” Patra said.

Sambit Patra

The reason for this personalised attack is not far to seek. The BJP has been feeling uncomfortable with the Congress president’s well-publicised visits to temples, first during the Gujarat election and now in poll-bound Karnataka. Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala had gone as far as to declare that Rahul Gandhi is a “janeu-dhari Hindu” to underline his identity as not just a Hindu but as one who wore the sacred thread, thus marking him out as an upper-caste Brahmin. The Congress chief felt the need to play up his temple visits to blunt the BJP charge that the grand old party indulged in so-called minority appeasement. In fact, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi admitted, at a recent programme, that Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples were being greater publicity to correct the impression, created by the BJP, that the “Congress party is a Muslim party.”

But the acquittal of the Mecca Masjid accused has put the spotlight on this issue once again. Putting up a brave face, Congress leaders in Karnataka insist that the BJP’s communal agenda would not work in their state. “The dynamics in Karnataka are not the same as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar,” remarked a senior party leader. Pointing to the BJP’s several attempts in the recent past to polarise the electorate by highlighting the killing of RSS workers or the state government’s decision to celebrate the Tipu Sultan Jayanti despite the BJP’s protests, he said, these efforts had failed to gain traction.

According to Congress leaders, the BJP’s “Hindu laboratory” is essentially confined to coastal Karnataka which, they maintain, is also showing signs of moving away from the saffron party’s Hindutva agenda. The Congress is particularly encouraged by the public response to Rahul Gandhi’s last visit to the area. “There was a huge turnout…people were joining in voluntarily,” claimed a senior leader.

‘Polarising personality’

Despite the confidence exuded by the Karnataka leaders, the Congress in Delhi appeared to be on the back foot. When the verdict was announced on Monday, Congress leaders and spokespersons parried questions on the court’s decision. Congress general secretary Ashok Gehlot shared details about the party’s April 29 public rally but said nothing on the acquittals. Similarly, senior party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad chose to speak on the Kathua rape case while party spokesperson PL Punia said the Congress would come out with its response after reading the court order. Even senior leader Digvijaya Singh, who had earlier been vociferous in accusing the BJP and its ideological mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of abetting acts of terror, chose to remain silent on the subject.

Realising that the BJP was running away with the narrative, the Congress belatedly fielded a fairly junior spokesperson – Jaiveer Shergill – on Tuesday to respond to the saffron party’s charges. While accusing the BJP of raking up religious matters whenever it faces public criticism, Shergill hit back at the BJP by also referring to Wikileaks, this time to a 2005 document, in which Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who was then a BJP leader in opposition, was quoted as having told a US diplomat that Hindu nationalism was an “opportunistic issue” for the BJP and that “Modi was a polarising personality”.

Awaiting Modi

But despite the Congress show of bravado, there is no doubt that the party is worried about how this subject will play out as the Karnataka election draws close. The party is particularly nervous about how Prime Minister Narendra Modi will pitch this issue during his election campaign in the Southern state. Modi did succeed in changing the narrative from development to what he said was the Congress party’s policy of minority appeasement during the last few days of the campaign in the Gujarat Assembly election in December. So far, the poll campaign in Karnataka has been led by BJP president Amit Shah and the party’s state leaders while Modi has stayed away from the battlefield. It is expected that Modi’s clever wordplay and combative oratory will change the tone and tenor of the campaign. Predictably, the BJP is waiting expectantly for Modi’s arrival while the Congress is hoping to devise an effective strategy to counter the prime minister.