INTERVIEW

‘Rahul Gandhi was foolish to visit temples’: Writer Vivek Shanbhag on the Karnataka election outcome

The writer says BJP’s success in Karnataka is because its agenda there is not as divisive as it is elsewhere.

Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag has written eight works of fiction and two plays. His most recent novel, Ghachar Ghochar, which has been translated into English, is a masterpiece that provides a glimpse into the dark side of India as it seeks to become an economic powerhouse. It has been named one of the finalists in the fiction category of the 2017 Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Shanbhag is currently travelling in the United States and Canada, from where he is keeping a close watch on the political minutiae playing out in Karnataka. On Tuesday, as the results to the Assembly elections in the state were announced, Scroll.in turned to Shanbhag to understand why the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva ideology appeals to the people of Karnataka, which is India’s information technology hub and a symbol of modernity. Shanbhag provides a cultural analysis of Karnataka’s political behaviour.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is so unique about Karnataka’s culture that, unlike other South Indian states, the BJP has made deep inroads here?
Karnataka’s diversity is such that it does not allow any party to sweep its Assembly elections, although it may gift a sweep to a party in the Lok Sabha elections. No party has got 150-plus seats in the recent past. No chief minister has returned to power two times in a row since Ramakrishna Hegde did in 1985. Karnataka’s diversity prevents any political party from generating the kind of wave that was seen, for instance, in Uttar Pradesh last year.

Parties in Karnataka are generally given seats just a little above or below the majority mark. It has been no different in this election. The BJP’s vote share has gone up from 19.9% in 2013 to 36.2% now. But this increase has to be seen in the context of BS Yeddyurappa’s return to the BJP in 2014 and the merger of his Karnataka Janata Paksha with it. In fact, the Congress increased its vote share by 1.4% over what it polled in 2013.

The number of seats a party wins does not always convey a correct picture. If we take the vote share as an indicator of the people’s wish, then you cannot but come to a very different conclusion.

Nevertheless, the BJP seems to fit well into Karnataka’s diversity.
If you compare the BJP’s central leaders, including [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and [party president] Amit Shah, with Yeddyurappa, you will dub him a moderate. He enjoys credibility. That is why the BJP brought him back and made him its chief ministerial candidate. Yeddyurappa does not make divisive comments. There are allegations of corruption against him, but that is another matter altogether. People have moved to the BJP because it was moderate in its policies when it came to power on its own [in 2008].

Why do you say the BJP is moderate in Karnataka? We hear about its cadre attacking inter-faith couples, indulging in violence over the cow, and imposing a moral code on the young?
This is mostly confined to Mangaluru district. They tried to extend such acts elsewhere, but it did not work out for them. It works in Mangaluru because communities there are in competition. Muslims are traders and powerful; they are not meek as they are in other states. There is what you can call trade rivalry. That is given a communal colour. It will not work in, say, Bengaluru.

Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde made crazy statements on Tipu Sultan. But we did not hear him repeat those statements during the election campaign. He was asked to shut up; he just held a couple of rallies. Why? Because the statements Hegde is prone to making would have eroded Yeddyurappa’s credibility. I believe Yeddyurappa was instrumental in muting Hegde.

That is why I say the BJP’s agenda in Karnataka is not as divisive as it is elsewhere. People began to support the BJP because they saw it as an alternative to the Congress. And that was because of Yeddyurappa’s credibility. It is he who has given the BJP a face [that is acceptable] to the people. It is also why the BJP set aside the rule of 75 in Karnataka. Yeddyurappa is past 75, and yet he was made the party’s chief ministerial candidate.

Alright, so why hasn’t the BJP made inroads into Kerala and Tamil Nadu?
Kerala has a very high literacy rate [93.9% in 2011]. Its people read a lot, particularly literature. More significantly, the percentage of Muslims [26.6%] and Christians [18.4%] in Kerala is very high. This increases interdependence between Hindus, Muslims and Christians. People do not want divisive politics to hurt their day-to-day life. Consequently, the BJP finds it hard to penetrate Kerala with its narrative. Who knows, it may change its narrative for Kerala, but the current one will not work there.

What about Tamil Nadu?
People in Tamil Nadu take great pride in their language and culture. They are sentimental about their language as, say, France is about French. I might not have appreciated such a sentiment earlier, but I do now because it has played a significant role in blocking a hate-mongering ideology from penetrating Tamil Nadu. But one can never tell about the future – the BJP can enter the state through alliances.

In other words, it is difficult for a predominantly North Indian party, which has what we call Hindi culture, to make inroads into Tamil Nadu. Why is Karnataka not anti-Hindi?
It is because Karnataka has a high degree of tolerance for other languages, a tolerance not seen in other states. In Bengaluru, for instance, a person can manage with Hindi or English or Tamil. A person can live in Karnataka for 25 years without learning Kannada. It would be impossible for the same person to live in Tamil Nadu for 25 years without knowing Tamil.

Some of the great Kannada writers did not have Kannada as their mother tongue. [DR] Bendre, a great Kannada poet, spoke Marathi at home. Masti Venkatesh Iyengar spoke Tamil at home. Girish Karnad’s mother tongue is Konkani. All three were bestowed the Jnanpith award. You also had DVG [DV Gundappa], who spoke Telugu at home. There are many such examples. Their contribution to Kannada literature and culture was very significant.

Karnataka, therefore, does not adopt [a chauvinistic attitude] to other languages. Both Marathi and Urdu are very popular in North Karnataka.

So how do we explain Karnataka’s attraction for Modi, who is credited with swinging the elections for the BJP?
Modi has a pull, unfortunately, in the educated class.

Why is it that Kerala’s educated class rejects the BJP and Modi, but not Karnataka’s?
In 2014, people were fed up with the Congress. This is what pushed the educated class toward the BJP. Once a person becomes a BJP supporter, there is a constant flow of communication to him or her to ensure he or she does not consider other political options. I am referring here to the WhatsApp messages the BJP generates.

But the deeper reason is that Karnataka’s educated class does not have a life based on interdependence of communities. For instance, take those working in the information technology industry in Bengaluru. It is easy to sow the seeds of divisive politics in them.

Why?
So secure is their life that a divisive agenda does not impact their everyday life, they are not part of the [architecture of] interdependence that is seen in Kerala. An IT person in Karnataka writes a software programme for a company in the United States, and is delighted to see Modi address an audience in London’s Wembley Stadium. It does not matter to him whether Modi’s speech will impact the interdependence of communities. Although it is also likely that such a person will not go out and vote. It is sad that Bengaluru’s turnout of voters dipped in this election.

Isn’t this scary? Given the way India’s economic architecture is evolving, we will have more and more people living in isolation, not dependent on the interdependence of communities.
You are right. The family system has collapsed, people have moved from villages to cities. Even today, villages have a high degree of interdependence. This is why divisive politics does not work much in rural Karnataka. But when the person migrates to the city, he becomes an individual. For him, the interdependence of communities does not matter any longer.

Does Hindutva’s idea of creating a community provide relief to dislocated, isolated individuals?
The comfort is not real, it is illusory. One acute problem of our education system is that literature and the arts are being increasingly assigned a small role in it. When you open a book, you enter a world where there is another person, another community, another caste, someone who is the other. But this other is an abstraction, he is not part of your lived reality. It is difficult to be violent on someone you know. You cannot be violent on your neighbour unless you deeply hate him. But then, it is also quite difficult to hate a person you know.

Literature and other forms of art help you know the other. It is because of the small role these disciplines have that we tend to see the other in a disconnected manner [in terms of not being part of our societal self].

The Lingayats were granted a religious minority status as was their demand. Why did they not vote for the Congress in significant numbers?
My hunch is that the Lingayats might have felt that having a different government in the state and at the Centre would mean not getting religious minority status. [It is the Centre that has to officially grant them that status]. A BJP government both in the state and at the Centre enhances the possibility of them getting minority status. Their chances would be nil with a Congress government in the state and the BJP government at the Centre.

Do you think minority status for Lingayats represents a challenge to Brahminical Hinduism?
It is certainly a challenge, which is what [the late scholar MM] Kalburgi used to say. A minority status for the Lingayats certainly does not go with the Hindutva agenda. Hindtuva wants everyone under the same [Hindu] umbrella. A minority status for a Hindu group implies Hindutva having to change its narrative.

In the sense?
For instance, during the election campaign, nobody talked about building a Ram temple in Ayodhya even once. This issue does not matter in Karnataka.

Yes, but the battle for control over Idgah in Hubli was a source of friction between Hindus and Muslims?
Yes, but Idgah was a very local issue. People will not connect to a Ram temple in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP talked about it in Gujarat; it will do so in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan [where elections are due later this year]. But it will not in Karnataka because that kind of symbolism and Hindu narrative do not work here.

'People [in Karnataka] support the Congress for very different reasons, not because its leaders go to temples.' (Credit: via Twitter)
'People [in Karnataka] support the Congress for very different reasons, not because its leaders go to temples.' (Credit: via Twitter)

How do you look upon Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples and mutts?
I think Rahul Gandhi is being foolish by visiting temples. He should understand that he cannot counter the BJP’s narrative with the same narrative, and that people support the Congress for very different reasons, not because its leaders go to temples.

People support the Congress for its idea of India, its idea of society, its idea of development. People know the Congress is the party that got independence for India and what [former prime minister] PV Narasimha Rao did for the economy in the 1990s. People have not forgotten those things. If you look at the last four years, the BJP’s performance has been pathetic. Instead of attacking the government for its performance, why divert attention by going to temples? The Congress failed to build a narrative very specific to Karnataka.

But Siddaramaiah did try to invoke the concept of sub-nationalism, emphasising on issues such as the state’s share in river waters, taxes, a separate flag…
Initially, they did create the narrative. But when Modi came to campaign, his entry was so loud that the Congress perhaps became nervous. It forgot its own narrative and took to attacking him. In the last fortnight, the message the Congress was trying to send was lost.

To what extent has Hindutva damaged Karnataka?
In coastal Karnataka, it has been very damaging. If nothing is done, the damage Hindutva can inflict will spread to other parts of the state.

When you say if nothing is done, you mean that civil society and political parties have to counter Hindutva, don’t you?
More than political parties, it is civil society that has to counter it. Political parties have a perception of society, the very reason why they do what they do [resorting to communal politics]. They think it will benefit them in elections. That is why they do not allow anything that does not go with their narrative.

For instance, they [the Information and Broadcasting Ministry] invited [Pakistani poet] Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s daughter to India, but then did not allow her to speak at a function. I felt that they had perhaps decided they would not allow her to speak even at the time they invited her over. Not inviting her would not have turned it into an issue. Inviting her and then disallowing her from speaking helps their narrative. This is how they work.

Socially and culturally speaking, they oppose a Muslim boy marrying a Hindu girl or a Hindu boy marrying a Muslim girl because they think it will increase tolerance between the two communities. That is against their narrative. It is the responsibility of those engaged in the arts and literature to counter the narrative of intolerance. If people hear just one narrative, they are bound to fall for it. If they are put on a constant drip of poison, they are bound to get affected.

This is not to say Karnataka has not been resisting Hindutva. Bengaluru has had protests against divisive policies ever since the BJP came to power at the Centre.

In your father-in-law UR Ananthamurthy’s book, Hindutva or Hind Swaraj, which Keerti Ramachandra and you translated, I was struck by a passage that spoke of societal guilt in the context of Gandhi’s attempt to restore communal harmony in Noakhali. Are we as a society becoming relatively guilt-less?
It is sad that our society is moving in that direction. When you speak of guilt, I suppose you mean collective guilt. Because of the movement of people from villages to cities, our social connections have become fragile. We are losing our connection with others. When the social connection is strong, then you do feel that what is happening to others is also happening to you. This aspect of social life was always there in us.

What the BJP is trying to do is make us guilt-free with their fake narrative. The Hindutva narrative is to make everyone, irrespective of caste, feel he or she is Hindu. But they encourage this belonging-ness with a sense of insecurity. If they do not create insecurity, then how is their violence going to be justified? Violence is the extreme expression of anger and hatred. You cannot have anger and hatred against others unless you are insecure. Ultimately, the BJP wants your vote. This is the action they want from you. They do not want you to perform any other democratic activities.

Do you think the Western concept of secularism – the separation of religion from politics, the secularisation of life, so to speak – can tackle Hindutva?
I do not think so. There was something in our society that words like secularism and tolerance cannot capture. I grew up in coastal Karnataka, where Hindus participated in Muslim and Christian festivals. This they did because they believed that there is good in other religions, which would be beneficial to their children and family. That relationship was based on the idea that other systems of belief have a value for the larger society.

This worldview is precisely what makes you feel guilty when something bad happens to the other person. This is because you feel they were doing some good to you.

Karnataka’s style of secularism is best conveyed through the word sahabalve – saha means together and balve means life. Thus, sahabalve means “we live together”. This is the kind of secularism that must be addressed. It is the memories of this kind of secularism that Rahul Gandhi should evoke. I was not at all impressed by his visits to temples in a special dress.

The rise of Hindutva is an opportunity. At some point in time, people will tire of the fake news the BJP generates. I think people no longer believe in half the things the BJP says. They treat it as entertainment. I saw many of their WhatsApp messages on Nehru. It shocked people. Many do not even read those messages now. If a proper effort is made by the Opposition to attack the BJP’s fabrications, people will demand truth and substance.

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