By dubbing BJP leaders 'north Indian imports', Siddaramaiah projects self as protector of Kannadiga interests

The north vs south rhetoric has returned to Karnataka. And flagging it is none other than Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. No sooner had the BJP announced the campaign schedule of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath, the Karnataka chief minister decided to get under the party's skin. He riled the party by calling Modi and Adityanath "north Indian imports" and their presence in Karnataka an admission of the fact that "they have no leaders in the state".

"They have reduced their CM face @BSYBJP to a dummy (sic)," Siddaramiah tweeted. The Karnataka's argument was that BJP is hoping for magic from outside to kickstart its campaign, and in the bargain dwarfing the local leadership.

"PM may come and go. Here it is Siddaramaiah vs BSY (sic)," he added.

File image of Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah. PTI

File image of Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah. PTI

The tweets had the desired effect. The BJP bristled at its leaders being dubbed as outsiders to the south Indian state. The party hit back by accusing Siddaramaiah of stooping low and pointed to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, also non-Kannadigas like Modi and Adityanath. BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje cheekily told me it is Siddaramaiah's way of telling Rahul to keep off Karnataka.

While it is easy to dismiss this as a campaign strategy in the times of social media, Siddaramaiah is also, once again, bringing to the table his brand of identity politics. He knows that during the campaign, the BJP will attempt wrapping the party in the Tricolour and play up a nationalistic brand of politics. This is Siddaramaiah's way of ensuring even the voter wears his Kannadiga identity on his sleeve.

This also comes at a time when the BJP high command's decision to refuse a ticket to Yeddyurappa's son is seen as a snub for the tallest Karnataka leader that the party has. So, what Siddaramaiah is underlining is that the north Indian leaders call the shots in BJP, reducing Yeddyurappa to a figurehead.

By emphasising that it is actually meant to be a battle between him and Yeddyurappa, Siddaramaiah is also bringing out the contrast. He wants to affirm that while he is calling the shots in Congress in Karnataka, the "north Indian" leadership of BJP is insensitive to its non-Hindi speaking state leadership.

Siddaramaiah's decision to take on Adityanath is also a grudge match. When the Uttar Pradesh chief minister came during the Parivartana Yatra in January, he had challenged Siddaramaiah asking him to ban beef in Karnataka and prove he is a true Hindu. The Congress leader is trying to set the tone for the war of words this time, forcing Adityanath to react instead of hurling charges.

But while Congress may think targeting individuals will work as an electoral strategy, branding the prime minister of the country as someone who belongs only to a particular region and alien to Karnataka is not in good taste.

Siddaramaiah's thrust on labels for non-south Indians is also divisive politics. Turning states into islands of regionalism is not healthy for the concept of India as a nation. There is also a risk in taking the Kannada language and identity too far because if it is perceived as an anti-Hindi and anti-north Indian pitch, it undermines the contribution of the outsider, particularly in Bengaluru and by extension in Karnataka's development. After all, 60 percent of Karnataka's revenue comes from Bengaluru.

But Siddaramaiah with his ears to the ground is also playing to the gallery. He is aware of the sense of resentment at how Kannada is being pushed to play the second fiddle to Hindi even in Karnataka, like in exams conducted by departments of the Government of India. This is what resulted in activists defacing signage at Metro rail stations in Bengaluru last year, spraying paint over the names of the stations written in Hindi.

In Siddaramaiah's scheme of things, it is not about the language alone. Closer to the Assembly elections, it has got intertwined with the Kannadiga identity and pride. He is tapping into the feeling among proud Kannadigas who feel that a Kannada speaker is considered inferior to someone who articulates in Hindi.

Three weeks ahead of the 12 May election, Siddaramaiah's attempt is to project himself as the protector of Kannadiga interests. By terming BJP leaders like Modi and Adityanath as imports, he is also ensuring that any personal attack on him can be converted into an attack on Karnataka. The tone for the final leg of the election campaign has been set.

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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2018 09:53 AM

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