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Karnataka's lessons for the Congress
January 30, 2006
We have all known for the past decade that Karnataka was likely to be the Bharatiya Janata Party's 'gateway to the South'. Despite dalliances with the DMK and the AIDMK in Tamil Nadu or with the Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh, it was only in Karnataka that you could see any evidence of a BJP presence on the ground. But who would have guessed the identity of the gatekeepers who would hold out the keys to Bangalore?
H D Kumaraswamy has taken the flak -- or credit! -- for the move to split the Janata Dal-Secular and align with the BJP. But did he truly act without the knowledge, if not the approval, of his father?
While that question hangs in the air, I must point out that there are a few others who deserve their share of the limelight for the drama in Bangalore. Let me focus today on two specific Janata Dal-Secular MLAs, Ikbal Ansari and Zameer Ahmed Khan.
Ikbal Ansari, the MLA from Gangawathi, was minister for medical education in the Dharam Singh ministry. He is, according to the Bangalore rumour mills, one of those pushing Kumaraswamy most aggressively toward an alliance with the BJP.
Zameer Ahmed Khan represents Chamarajapet, which happens to be one of the VIP assembly constituencies in Karnataka. In the 2004 assembly polls it was won by none other than the sitting chief minister himself, S M Krishna.
The removal of Krishna from the state was one of the chief demands made by Janata Dal-Secular boss H D Deve Gowda before he agreed to a coalition with the Congress. Sonia Gandhi obliged by packing Krishna off to the Mumbai Raj Bhavan. A by-election was then held on June 2, 2005, and Zameer Ahmed Khan wrested the seat for the Janata Dal-Secular. (I write 'wrested' since the Janata Dal-Secular and the Congress put up opposing candidates, even though the coalition had then been operating for several months.) The transport magnate -- he is the owner of National Travels in Bangalore -- is also a votary of tying up with the BJP.
A third constituency to which we must pay attention is Ramanagaram, the seat that elected Kumaraswamy himself in 2004. On January 22, a delegation from Ramanagaram went to meet H D Deve Gowda, to ask for his blessings in making their MLA the next chief minister of Karnataka. The interesting thing is that Ramanagaram has a significant number of Muslim voters.
'Secularism' is one of those words which has been twisted out of any context in India. Fooling around with the status of Aligarh Muslim University is 'secular'. (The courts disagree.) Reserving jobs for Muslims in Andhra Pradesh is 'secular'. (The courts disagree.) But this silly gimmickry is pursued for the simple reason that it has worked over the years. Is that still true?
Analysis of the Bihar results shows that Muslim voters voted for the BJP, but that could be because the party was allied with Nitish Kumar. But how do you explain the same phenomenon taking place in the local body elections in Gujarat, especially given the amazing amount of abuse heaped on Chief Minister Narendra Modi? And now the same thing seems to be happening in Karnataka as well.
It might have been easier to understand had the BJP still been in power in Delhi; the Congress could then have said that it was just an instance of some myopic people pursuing their own interests. But it has been about 20 months since the last general election, and there is absolutely nothing to gain by throwing away an alliance with the Congress to form another with the BJP. So why would prominent Muslim leaders like Ikbal Ansari and Zameer Ahmed Khan join hands with the 'communal' BJP, and that too pursue the goal so relentlessly?
It would be utterly absurd to say that Muslims, whether ordinary voters or the leaders of the community, have jettisoned all their reservations about the BJP. But it would be even more untrue that the old blind allegiance to the Congress continues to be a fact of life. That has long been true in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, and it is something that the Congress leadership must confront in Assam and Karnataka as well.
The events in Karnataka will not have an immediate fallout in Delhi. But they pose a challenge to the central thesis behind the existence of the United Progressive Alliance regime. That uneasy coalition is propped up by the Left Front, a marriage of convenience with no love lost between partners. Read the strictures of the Left on everything from the nuclear deal with the United States to the Iran issue, and you know that it certainly wasn't foreign policy that keeps the ministry in power.
Listen to (Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary) Comrade Karat fulminating about foreign direct investment in the retail sector, and you get an idea of the canyon separating them on economic policy. No, the only cementing factor is the need to keep the BJP out of power. If that fails -- as both Bihar and Karnataka would indicate -- what keeps the Congress and the CPI-M together?
I have no idea, at the time of writing, who the next chief minister of Karnataka might be. But there is a possibility that two taboos might have been broken by the time you read this. The minor one is that there could never be BJP ministers in any South Indian state. The major one is that the Muslims shall always shun the BJP. And it is the second that should provide more food for thought to the Congress high command.