Analysing BJP’s success in Bengaluru this election | Azad Times

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Azad Times News Desk.

Even in the worst flood affected region – Mahadevapura, where there was widespread anger against the ruling dispensation BJP, the winner is once more a saffron party candidate, Manjula.

Democracy is a noisy business. It involves argumentation, contestation, compromise, arbitration, opposition, struggle for leadership and confrontation as well. All democratic methods are efforts to seek common ground in a landscape of divergent – even opposing – views and ideological positions. A truly democratic outcome ensures that the choice arrived at finally may not please all, but everyone can live even with misgivings. Contrast this with any region of the world where authoritarianism rulesthere is no noise, and as some may point out: people are ‘disciplined’. In countries like Saudi Arabia or China brutal power is employed to obliterate dissent and debate, and force people into conformism.

After the Emergency of the 1970s, India came close to experiencing similar brutality with the passage of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in 2019 amid efforts to subjugate minorities and vulnerable communities. According to legal scholar Gautam Bhatia CAA "explicitly and blatantly seeks to enshrine religious discrimination into law, contrary to our long-standing, secular constitutional ethos". This law was rammed through both houses of Parliament by the Narendra Modi administration despite vehement opposition. As was wont, democratic opposition that was actively disallowed in Parliament duly spilled out onto the streets in just about every city and town across India.

On December 19, 2019, about a week after the law was passed, several anti-CAA organisations decided to organise protests against the law at Bengaluru’s Town Hall and other places. Police were intimated and permissions secured. But the then Commissioner of Police Bhaskar Rao decided to impose Section 144 from the midnight of December 18, thus banning exercise of a fundamental constitutional right to protest and express dissent peacefully. The protests took place nevertheless, thousands participated, and hundreds were arrested. This protest went on for weeks until COVID-related restrictions kicked in. The widespread popularity of such protests indicated massive rejection of the Government of India’s discriminatory law and the Police Commissioner’s abuse of power.

Rao’s controversial order was challenged in the Karnataka High Court by Sowmya Reddy, then MLA of Jayanagar constituency, Rajeev Gowda, then Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha), this author and several others in a Public Interest Litigation. In a remarkable verdict delivered by a Division Bench headed by Chief Justice Abhay Oka, Bhaskar Rao’s order was held illegal on the premise that “there is no indication whatsoever of any application of independent mind by the District Magistrate,” who is the Police Commissioner in Bengaluru. 

A few months later Rao resigned from the police force and was warmly accommodated by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). This was post the horrific Delhi riots in which scores of Muslims died. Clearly, for the AAP, Rao’s dubious record attacking fundamental rights did not matter. But his stay there was brief and he soon ended up comfortably in the Bharatiya Janata Party, where he was rewarded MLA candidacy in a prime constituency – Chamarajpet. 

Chamarajpet has a chequered history with communal unrest. Which is not surprising as Muslim and Dalit communities, and also a substantial Christian population here, have been ghettoised over time. Well planned expansive areas are populated by upper caste and upper class communities, mainly Hindus. This is in large part, an outcome of the sanitary movement that shaped the area post the plague epidemic over a century ago. Several Sangh Parivar organisations, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have made this region their locus, and several of their institutions are located here.

The Chamarajpet candidacy handed to Rao should be seen in the backdrop of Sangh Parivar efforts in August 2022 to claim the centuries old Idgah Maidan for celebrating Ganesha festivities.  From British era maps and the widely respected association of the space as a Maidan for Namaz by Muslims, Ganesh festivities had never been held here before. But BJP embarked on a shrill pitch exhorting the space was not exclusive to Muslims, and while the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, quite obviously under pressure from the ruling party, dithered, a High Court order directed the status quo.

Just days before the state elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi coursed through streets of Chamrajpet and the abutting Basavanagudi and Jayanagar constituencies, in a floral chariot, asking for votes. Despite BJP’s best efforts to polarise the neighbourhood in its time-tested tradition, which included Modi’s exhortation to invoke Bajarangbali when voting, made to checkmate Congress’s promise in its manifesto that it would ban Bajrang Dal, Rao lost. Zameer Ahmed Khan of the Congress won. Rao got 23,549 votes, Janata Dal’s Govindaraj 19,046 and Zameer Ahmed 77,532. In Jayanagar, Sowmya Reddy of Congress was initially held as winner by over 160 votes over the BJP’s CK Ramamurthy but the decision was overturned through a controversial late night recounting of (earlier rejected) mailed-in ballots. This led to Ramamurthy being declared as winner by 16 votes. Reddy has decided to challenge this verdict.

Despite the decisive defeat of Rao and almost near loss for Ramamurthy, BJP appears to have done remarkably well in Bengaluru winning 16 seats (11 in 2018), compared to Congress’s 12 (15 in 2018). The BJP ducked in Bengaluru the drubbing it suffered across the state. What’s more, it also managed wins for Bengaluru MLAs, who defected from the Congress and Janata Dal in 2019 to BJP even as such turncoats were rooted out elsewhere.

This outcome is counterintuitive for multiple reasons. The metropolis has had no good news to report in recent years. Last year’s flooding particularly indicated how ill prepared the city is for monsoon rains. Yet, in the worst flood affected region – Mahadevapura, where there was widespread anger against the ruling dispensation BJP, the winner is once more a saffron party candidate, Manjula. Just weeks before the elections, across the metropolis, which saw woeful neglect of essential infrastructure, around Rs10,000 crore was spilled to tar and paint broken roads. This seems to have made the electorate forget years of life-threatening miseries they endured.  

Perhaps, the electoral outcome in Bengaluru is indicative of the nature of the electorate. Largely composed of middle classes, mainly Hindu, and caste divisions not as stark a marker as in rural areas, BJP’s strategy of garnering these votes appears to have worked.  The rather low turnout in the city – only 53% voted compared to a record shattering 73% across the state – also appears to have worked against Congress and JDS candidates. Was the Modi factor at play?

Post elections, I chatted with a group of men – all BJP campaigners, who typically hang out every morning sipping filter coffee at a local hotel. I asked one of them I know well what happened. He was unable to comprehend the party’s loss. But then their candidate, who they fondly call Somanna (ST Somashekar, who has been in Congress for very long, defected to BJP in 2019, won the byelection and was rewarded with the Cooperation Minister portfolio) had won. It was not as resounding a victory as in the last round. Yet he won. The party did not matter to Somanna’s supporters.

Similar is the case of Munirathna, who has been re-elected from Rajarajeshwari Nagar over Congress’ Kusuma with a significantly reduced margin. The margin of votes went down from 57,672 in 2019 to 11,842 this year. Munirathna was with Congress and defected to BJP in 2019 and was rewarded with the portfolio of Minister of Horticulture, Planning, Programme Monitoring & Statistics. He has been caught in multiple controversies, both in the run-up to the last elections when he was booked in a fake voter ID scam and during his term as minister, when he actively promoted diversion of massive tracts of Malathalli lake for mega religious ceremonies (Mahashivarathri) and to install a toy train. He, allegedly, also supported building of a road through Hosakerehalli lake to provide easy passage for a high-end apartment. The Karnataka High Court has come down heavily on such violations, which are legally serious criminal violations.[3]

Another interesting outcome is of SR Vishwanath being voted once more from Yelahanka constituency with a victory margin of over 64,000 votes. This in the face of major opposition to him from 17 villages in the constituency holding him personally responsible as Chairman of Bengaluru Development Authority for pushing forth the controversial Dr Shivarama Karanth Layout, that resulted in extensive destruction of farmlands of thousands of farmers who are yet to be compensated. Nine farmers were thrown in jail for protesting this draconian act.

Taking into account individual candidate’s strengths to retain support and BJP’s energetic campaign, Congress’ poor showing in Bengaluru can be explained as a direct outcome of their rather listless campaign in the metropolis. There were some efforts by the Congress to reach out to the middle class voters, like holding meetings for apartment and gated community associations in the 5-star Shangri La Hotel. But there was no similar reaching out to voters from slums, lower income groups and working class neighbourhoods. This exposed the party’s class bias, and rather willful neglect of their traditional vote bank in the city - the poor. Perhaps this can explain why several of the Congress MLAs lost their seats in Bengaluru.

BJP, on the other hand, reached out to people house-to-house and utilised every opportunity of state-led public events to promote its cause. The saffron flag was just about everywhere, especially when the Modi rallies were held in the city. Their social media strategies were  pushing out messages through carefully constructed networks built over the years. Further, the party quite openly and extensively played the upper caste and dominant religion card, promising Uniform Civil Code and active implementation of CAA.  There was, of course, the expected emphasis on building infrastructure to make the city ‘world class’.

Given all this, the low voter turnout possibly worked in BJP’s favour, as its voter base appears to have come out and voted. This is especially true across the sprawling peri-urban area, where specific campaigns were held to influence entire apartment blocks to vote in particular ways. Typically dominated by Hindu upper class and upper caste communities, the support from them for BJP was palpable.

What this portends for this metropolis is that its cosmopolitan promise is now perched at the crossroads of axes of caste/class/religious affiliations. Conservatism, thereby, is likely a gainer. Going forward, particularly keeping in mind the impending elections to Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), there is much to be done to ensure that the city’s traditional liberal attitude can be given a boost. This is not going to be easy given how under the BJP rule the city has become a bastion where state power has been abused to crush dissent and debate. 

Actively reclaiming public spaces for protests, reasserting citizens’ rights to demand accountability and transparency in administration, ensuring that the commercialised, corporatised and communalised public spaces are returned to the public are some of the obvious steps a progressive government has to take. The government also needs to advance the rights of religious and sexual minorities in every aspect. The right to practise the religion of choice, choose what one wears, what one eats, goes out with or lives with should be protected. There will be resistance from conservative groups and violent fringe elements but this needs to be tackled effectively and without leaning on soft Hindutva, which the Congress has gotten used to for a while now.

The emergence of BJP as the main party representing the metropolis with a population of 1.5 crore (15 million), is writing on the wall. In a fast urbanising world, reaching out to all communities, especially the poor and vulnerable, should not be a task undertaken on the cusp of elections by progressive political forces. Continuous engagement with them, through deeply democratic means and cultural and educational activities, to reclaim and reassert the progressive constitutional values that took a beating in recent years, is urgently needed. If Bengaluru can reclaim its liberal values, soon Mangalore and other urban areas which once were bastions of such civic cosmopolitanisms could follow. Then the state may well be set on a path of guiding the country out of the morass of hate and divisive politics it now finds itself stuck in.

Leo F Saldanha is a trench fighter for progressive politics, urbanisms and constitutionalism. He is associated with Environment Support Group as an environmental governance and policy analyst.

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