Bengaluru: If you are looking for a good example of packaging communalism as secularism and lacing it with the tinge of corruption, the Karnataka Chief Minister seems to offer a good example.
Elected to power a year-and-a-half ago, thanks more to the negative public perceptions about the alternatives – the Janata Dal (Secular), which was seen as a party of land sharks, and the BJP, which was seen as both corrupt and a divided house – the Siddaramaiah-led Congress coasted to victory by default.
His government, though, is defined more by masterly inaction than purposive action, which goes to prove the old dictum that you don’t really need to go out of your way to wreck things. You just need to do nothing, and things will begin to decay and rot on their own. The fate of Bangalore city is the best example of this: the city has become increasingly unlivable as city services have been allowed to decay and crumble. And critics say what is true of Bangalore is generally true of Karnataka in varying degrees.
Business is dismayed, with Karnataka being a case of missed opportunities and lost jobs. In July 2013, South Korean steel giant Posco announced its decision to quit Karnataka, citing bureaucratic and other delays, resulting in a potential loss of $5.3 billion in investments. Then Amazon and Flipkart were harassed by the government authorities, and so were their SME (small and medium) vendors, who were ordered to stop supplying to Amazon and Flipkart. And then we had Hero Motocorp, which was chased away to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, a potential loss of Rs 1,115 crore in investments in the state. Not to speak of the loss of potential new jobs.
It would be unfair to accuse Siddaramaiah of doing nothing in all spheres. But where he acts, he seems to court not only controversy, but charges of intolerance as well. Local newspapers are rife with reports of corruption. But what is new in this Congress regime is creeping intolerance, which includes the blacking out of TV channels that air inconvenient stories and assaulting reporters who dared to expose the alleged corruption of Power Minister D.K. Shivakumar.
One area in which Siddaramaiah has gone into overdrive is what some sections see as Hindu-baiting. Among other things, he has targeted Hindu institutions, practices and beliefs like few of his predecessors.
Exhibit A is a bill to amend the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments (Amendment) Bill, 2014, introduced in the recently-concluded session of the assembly. The wording of the Bill is a dead giveaway, as reported by Deccan Herald. “The bill, tabled on the last day of the session, states that the Endowment Commissioner can issue a show-cause notice to a mutt, asking for reasons as to why it should not be taken over if the devotees of the mutt or those interested complain that it is being mismanaged and the official is convinced by their complaint. The government can take over such mutts for a maximum of five years by appointing an administrator, the bill says.”
One wonders why in a country that guarantees minority institutions the right to govern their religious and educational institutions, there needs to be a bill to run Hindu mutts and religious institutions – even if some of them are allegedly mismanaged.
But the original law exists, and Siddaramaiah has proposed to make it more draconian since the amendment bill can effectively enable the government to interfere with Hindu mutts at the slightest pretext. This is how it could happen: the government could get someone to kick up a controversy or register a complaint against any mutt at random, and then take it over. A government takeover of a religious institution is tantamount to state interference in religion – and fundamentally unconstitutional. But the sad reality of Indian secularism is that hundreds of Hindu temples have been taken over precisely using such tactics. Such takeovers have been done subtly and over a significant timeframe in the past. And now it’s the turn of the mutts.
Not surprisingly, this bill has generated outrage across the state not only from the mutt heads but from millions of ordinary Hindu devotees. The severe backlash that followed gave Siddaramaiah the jitters and he has announced that he may withdraw the bill. But the message is clear: the government will intimidate religious institutions when it wants to.
Siddaramaiah also made his “secular” intent clear as soon as he was elected by repealing the BJP’s anti-cow slaughter law.
But if this is “secularism” Congress-style, Siddaramaiah followed it up with a so-called anti-superstition Bill, which basically sought to criminalise the beliefs of some Hindus. It met with the same kind of backlash and had to be trashed. However, he tried to revive it about a month ago through the backdoor by organising a rally of sorts by Swamijis friendly to him. And then he targeted Made Snana, an ancient Hindu practice of devotees rolling on the plantain leaves of other devotees who had eaten food.
Even as he is accused of baiting the majority community and its institutions, he has gone out of his way to court the minorities. One of the first schemes he announced was the Shaadi Bhagya, which entailed a payout of Rs 50,000 to Muslim brides – the state’s marriage gift given by milking the taxpayer. The most amazing aspect of this scheme is the fact that a girl can get married any number of times and will still be eligible for the state’s largesse.
This was then followed up by sending a troop of performers to the 2014 Republic Day parade to stage a tableau glorifying Tipu Sultan, the man who was responsible for massacring thousands of Hindus in the Malabar and Coorg regions, and who indulged in temple destruction. Siddaramaiah has followed that up with a recent announcement that the government will sponsor an annual Tipu Jayanti starting this year – again using taxpayer money.
Not to be outdone, Karnataka Congress chief G Parameshwar announced in October 2013 that Muslims who have taken loans from the government under various schemes do not need to repay them.
Siddaramaiah’s alleged Hindu-baiting is not new to those who have watched his politics for more than three decades. He calls himself an atheist and socialist, which is typically synonymous with hostility towards only Hindu traditions and heritage. The fact that he reached out to zealous Communists like the late UR Ananthamurthy as soon as he became Chief Minister signalled what one could expect. His shadow cabinet comprised both Ananthamurthy, Mahadeva and Girish Karnad, among similar fellow travellers.
The damage that intellectuals and writers like Karnad and Ananthamurthy have wrought upon public discourse in India is now common knowledge. So is the fact of their distortions of Indian history, Hindu mythology, epics, and traditions. And dangerous experiments like the anti-superstition bill were the brainchildren of this shadow cabinet, a fact that is well-known in Karnataka.
But there is also a hypocritical angle to it: both Siddaramaiah and Girish Karnad are declared atheists who showed no compunction in inaugurating the Dasara festival by offering puja to Goddess Chamundeshwari, an age-old custom handed down from the time of the Mysore Wodeyars. The customs, practices and rituals involved in the Dasara festivities firmly fall within the ambit of Siddaramaiah’s definition of superstition in his anti-superstition bill. There’s still more to it; it was the same Siddaramaiah who had steered a legislation to take over the Mysore and Bangalore palaces during his tenure as Deputy Chief Minister in the JH Patel cabinet. The deceased Srikantadatta Wodeyar had challenged it and went up to the Supreme Court, where the case is continuing.
The 2014 election was the final nail in the Congress brand of secularism, with the party losing not only nationally, but also in Karnataka, where it had, just a year ago, won a handsome majority in the assembly. Yet, Siddaramaiah seems to have learnt no lessons from the disaster – his antidote to his party’s decline seems to be an even sharper version of the same shop-worn “secularism”. With the Congress losing state after state to the BJP, Karnataka is the only significant state in its kitty. And Siddaramaiah seems determined to reduce it to dust by waging a compulsive war against majority institutions and the larger Hindu society.