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Karnataka polls: The coast seems clear for BJP

By Aditi Phadnis
April 20, 2018 10:28 IST
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The economic muscle in the Mangalore region is generally sympathetic to the BJP, says Aditi Phadnis.

IMAGE: BJP president Amit Shah (2nd from right) with his party’s CM candidate B S Yeddyurappa (left) and Union minister Ananth Kumar (extreme right), in Bengaluru during an election campaign. Photograph: Kind courtesy @AmitShah/Twitter

Of all the regions in Karnataka, the most interesting possibly is its coastal region, dominated by Mangalore, or Mangaluru as it is now called. The region's socio-economic development and politics is an outcome of telescoped rapid change.

Mangalore is a city of the beautiful and rich -- both Aishwarya Rai and Suniel Shetty belong to this city -- home to many educational institutions, and a burgeoning middle class.


But the very poor -- bidi rollers, fishermen, weavers and wage labourers and backward communities -- also live here.

A change in social and economic equations began in the 1970s, with land reforms creating space for backward castes to claim new identities, largely during the regime of Devaraj Urs, considered a legendary leader in the state.

For example, Billavas, a community of toddy tappers, was able to move into other occupations and claim an identity for traders, businessmen, politicians, hoteliers, import-export businessmen.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Jains of Karnataka who were given huge tracts of land during medieval times in return for loyalty to feudal dynastic rulers, lost the greater part of their holdings. Naturally, this led to a massive upheaval in the region.

In the past -- loosely -- the backward and poor used to constitute the support base of the Congress, while the Bharatiya Janata Party voters were the upper castes, the Bunts (small feudatories with large landed interests) and Saraswat Brahmins.

But, because of social and economic mobility, these lines have blurred over the years.

Today, almost all cooperatives in the coastal belt -- arecanut, coconut, land development bank, or district cooperative banks -- have been taken over by Hindutva elements. Since 1994, the Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Chikmagalur and Uttara Kannada districts, comprising the state's coastal region, have contributed to a big complement of BJP MLAs.

In 2004, the BJP won 14 of the 24 seats in these districts (out of a total of 224 in the state legislature), while the Congress managed to win just five.

The Congress won 14 and the BJP five in the 2013 assembly election. However, the BJP won all three parliamentary constituencies of the four districts in 2014. The economic muscle in the region is generally sympathetic to the BJP.

But the region has also seen the rise and economic empowerment of the Muslims -- mainly as a result of Gulf jobs. Muslim control of the textile business, hotels, canning and timber has fuelled the fear that the economy and locality might be in danger of being taken over by them.

This is especially true of the lower-caste Muslims who used to be engaged in bidi-rolling and petty trading but have since come to acquire interests in such businesses as timber, granite, hospitals, textiles, import-export, fisheries, etc.

Naturally, there is a clash between colliding interests. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has grown in clout, presence and organisation as a result.

"There is a chief commander for Mangalore who is above the collector, the superintendent of police or anybody -- Dr Kalladka. The control of the whole district is with Prabhakar Bhat Kalladka. I am telling you the truth about what is happening in my district," Congress MLA, Vasanth Bangera, was quoted as saying by local newspapers a few months ago, about the best known local RSS leader.

"Why is it that the police cannot control groups like the Bajrang Dal, the Sri Rama Sene or the Hindu Jagaran Vedike? All these groups get their strength from Prabhakar Bhat Kalladka. I came to politics 40 years ago and I have never seen a chief controller like this," he said.

In 2018 assembly election, most of the sitting Congress MLAs have been renominated. But in the BJP, there is a degree of heartburn.

However, activists are confident -- the coast will reject the politics of minority appeasement and will vote for the BJP.

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Aditi Phadnis
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