12 MAY 2018
The fate of this State election has repercussions, nationally
No matter who wins, the Karnataka Assembly election is set to redraw the political landscape at the national level prior to the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. True, elections are due later this year in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, but the Karnataka verdict could colour these too. Winning Karnataka is essential for the BJP’s plans to present itself as a truly pan-Indian party, one with a presence in the south. It will also provide a fillip to its unrealistic boast of creating a Congress-mukt Bharat. For the Congress, Karnataka is critical. It is the only really large State where it is in power and the only one in the south, if we discount Puducherry. It is nowhere close to being a contender in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and currently is a poor second to the TRS in Telangana and the LDF in Kerala. A loss in Karnataka will be perceived as a serious setback to the Congress’s plans to mount a challenge to the BJP next year. For the BJP, a failure to wrest Karnataka will be difficult to ingest. As the principal opposition party that won a majority of the Lok Sabha seats from Karnataka in 2014, the BJP was the front-runner until the last bend. Over the last year, there is a perception that it has lost some of its earlier connect with the southern State, allowing Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to stage a fightback. With regional sentiments running high, the consolidation of the Hindu vote is not happening in favour of the BJP; indeed, Mr. Siddaramaiah has shrewdly and cynically fanned linguistic and caste emotions to paint the BJP as a pro-Hindi party opposed to regional sentiments. To this end, the Congress pushed ahead with its plans for a separate Karnataka flag, and the status of a religion for the Lingayat sect.
The return of B.S. Yeddyurappa to the party has increased the BJP’s vote-share in the northern and central parts of the State. But as the party’s chief ministerial candidate, the Congress has been given a handle to raise the corruption bogey given the cases he was embroiled in; at the same time, his candidature has diminished the force of the charges against the Congress government on this very ground. The big question is whether there exists a latent anti-incumbency sentiment that the BJP can tap into. The one certainty about this election is that the Janata Dal (Secular) will come in third; whether it is in a position to play king-maker in a hung Assembly remains to be seen. Although Mr. Siddaramaiah betrayed political insecurity by contesting two seats and secured a seat for his son, he managed to keep the focus on Karnataka and prevent the election from being transformed into a presidential-style national face-off between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi. There is something to be said for this, but in what opinion polls suggest will be a really tight race, all bets seem to be off.
Loss of innocents
The wave of lynchings in Tamil Nadu demands a firm response from the police
Three recent incidents of lynching in Tamil Nadu, unrelated except for the mindless violence and brutality, are grim reminders of the power a mob can wield. While arrests have been made in all three cases, and warnings issued by law enforcement authorities, the incidents are a cause for pause. On Wednesday night, a mob in Pulicat, north of Chennai, beat up a 45-year-old homeless man. They woke him up as he slept on a bridge, beat him up and then hung him from it. Villagers justified this by saying they thought he was a child kidnapper. Earlier, about 240 km south of Pulicat, a 55-year-old woman, who had gone with her relatives to a village in Tiruvannamalai district in search of a temple, was beaten to death. Her companions were injured. While asking a villager for directions, she had shared chocolates with children playing nearby. Locals say they mistook this as the action of kidnappers trying to lure children, and chased the car the group was travelling in to thrash them. In end-April, a 30-year-old north Indian man died in a town in Vellore district after he was beaten up by residents who mistook him for a burglar. Such instances of mob madness require a firm response from the police, one that signals that those who dispense such ‘instant justice’ will be severely punished. Equally, there needs to be continued responsiveness on the part of the local administrations in dealing with anxiety and suspicion in local communities.
The police say the trigger for the lynchings could be a rash of xenophobic messages circulating on WhatsApp warning that “north Indians” are looking to kidnap children in Tamil Nadu. They subsequently issued warnings that strict action would be taken against those who forward such messages, including by invoking the Goondas Act. At least one rumour-monger has been arrested. The social media, by its very nature, enables the unchallenged dissemination of unverified information, and its regulation presents a challenge to law enforcement. It is important to analyse such incidents to understand the underlying anxieties and the drift of trouble-making attempts. While fear-mongering is typically undertaken on social media, the counter-information campaign needs to be publicly broadcast and confidence fostered at the level of the police station so that residents feel free to approach the authorities to verify the messages or seek protection. But the signal must also be sent out in no uncertain terms that lynchings amount to murder or attempt to murder. Mobs are amorphous units that confer anonymity on perpetrators, emboldening them, on the spur of the moment, to collectively commit vile acts without a sense of individual guilt. The state needs to break this pattern through demonstrable action against perpetrators, and widely disseminate news of action taken against the guilty.