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BJP battles its communal reputation in Karnataka
Vicky Nanjappa in Bangalore
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November 08, 2007

The Bharatiya Janata Party will create history when it forms the government in Karnataka; when it happens, this will be the first BJP-led government in south India.

According to BJP chief minister designate B S Yeddyurappa, Governor Rameshwar Thakur has invited him to form a BJP-led government in the state. Yeddyurappa has added that he will probably take oath on Monday after consulting with senior BJP leaders in Delhi over the weekend.

While it will be a joyous moment for BJP supporters, questions are being raised about communal amity in the state.

The 2004 assembly election saw the BJP emerge as the single largest party in Karnataka for the first time. Now, almost four years later, after much politicking, the BJP is set to take centrestage and anoint a BJP chief minister.

The party has maintained a strong presence in Karnataka for some time now, particularly in the coastal belt. After defeating the Congress for the first time in the Mangalore constituency almost 20 years ago, the BJP has maintained an undisputed, winning record in the Mangalore belt. However, support for the BJP spread across the state only after the Babri-Masjid Ram Janmabhoomi issue.

Some members of the Muslim community feel they have no reason to worry even if the BJP comes to power. They say there were no problems in Karnataka when the BJP ruled at the Centre, hence, there should be no problem if they rule in the state.

However, others prefer to be more cautious. When it seemed likely there would be a BJP chief minister, several Muslim leaders called on the state's former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy and his father, Janata Dal (Secular) party leader, H D Deve Gowda, and sought protection. They also told the duo communal harmony should be maintained in Karnataka.

The BJP's Karnataka unit says they will not resort to communalism; they say concentrating on good governance can increase the party's credibility. The budget presented by B S Yeddyurappa -- the chief minister designate -- when he was finance minister in the H D Kumaraswamy government, earned the party respect.

Some BJP supporters believe the JD (S) played truant when it came to handing over power in the state -- the JD (S) and BJP formed a coalition government in Karnataka on the understanding that each party would rule the state with the other's support for 20 months -- as they were afraid the BJP may gain ground through good governance.

However, the BJP still has to battle its communal reputation in Karnataka. The major areas of worry would be the Datta Peeta and Idgah Maidan issues.

Datta Peeta in Chikmagalur is an issue close to the BJP's heart; there has been a long-standing dispute about the mode of worship here. The Muslims, who call it Baba Budan Giri, say the place comprises dargahs of their faith, the BJP claims the shrine belongs to Lord Dattatreya.

The BJP said earlier Datta Peeta is the second Ayodhya and it will do whatever it can to ensure the Hindu form of worship is practised there. Yet, the party may not take up this issue now; the JD(S) has made it clear that at no point should the BJP hurt the sentiments of the minority community on the Datta Peeta issue. The BJP needs the JD (S)'s support if it wants to achieve its dream of establishing the first BJP-led government in south India.

The Idgah Maidan also played a role in the BJP's agenda to widen communal polarisation in the state.

The spotlight focused on the maidan, which is located in Hubli, when BJP leaders hoisted the tricolour there in 1994. The Muslim community was angered by this act; local Muslim leaders say the land had been leased to them for a period of 999 years on the condition that it would be used for religious purpose only. They say the BJP hoisted the flag there by force, without their consent.

However, it is unlikely that these issues will be raised once the BJP comes to power. Both issues -- which had plunged the state of Karnataka into communal tension when they were raised -- did not crop up once when the JD (S)-BJP government was in power.

The BJP says it would continue to fight for the cause of Hindus, but not at the cost of disturbing peace in the state. They also claim that, though political rivals often start communal trouble, the party is the one blamed.

Once it comes to power, the BJP says it would like to concentrate on improving infrastructure across the state, particularly in the state capital Bangalore.

While communal polarisation remains a political issue, what is the feeling of the Muslim on the street? Saifullah Sharrief, a vegetable vendor in Bangalore's Muslim-dominated Shivajinagar area, says, "It makes no difference. We need a government which can give us better facilities. The Muslims do not have anything against the BJP. Why else would a BJP leader be elected from the Shivajinagar constituency for the second time?"

The Muslim community controls at least 70 per cent of votes in the Shivajinagar constituency.

Rajendra Desai, a political observer, is interested in seeing what the BJP does in the state. "It would be wrong to say communal riots will break out once they come to power," he says. "If at all it does, it will be because of political rivalry. The BJP has to take a backseat on its Hindutva agenda and concentrate on better governance. Only good governance across the state will help the BJP grow even more in Karnataka."

However, others like the Muslim community in Mangalore are apprehensive. The area suffered serious communal riots almost a year ago. Muslims there feel the accused were not punished because the BJP was part of the ruling coalition.

Irfan Qadri, a Muslim youth leader in coastal Karnataka, says, "It is not enough for the BJP to promise communal harmony in the state. They should prove they are concerned about the Muslim community by bringing the guilty to book. Although we are apprehensive, we are still confident that the BJP will protect our interests."

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