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Mangaluru's transition as communal hotbed not reflected by a shift in voter mood towards BJP

Editor's note: This is the third of a four-part series on the changes in Mangaluru and coastal Karnataka's socio-political mileu over the years. The series traces the region's transformation from a tranquil coastal town to a hotbed of communal tension.

Mangaluru: Politicians and psephologists make strange bedfellows. But when it comes to predicting the voters' behaviour in coastal Karnataka, ironically, they are often found on the same page; that the region is a gauge that can throw up valuable insights into the outcome of General Elections on a national scale.

Predictably, the electoral behaviour of the region during the past three decades has proved the pundits, as usual, wrong. The region, without leaving a shade of doubt, has proved that when it comes to choosing their representatives, they have their own choices and preferences, putting the integrity of the candidates in the fray first, with political affiliations playing second fiddle.

An aerial view of Mangaluru. Image courtesy: Rajesh Shetty /101 reporters.

An aerial view of Mangaluru. Image courtesy: Rajesh Shetty /101 reporters.

There is a common notion that coastal districts in Karnataka are strong bastions of Hindutva outfits. But history tells us that it is a misnomer. In the 2013 Assembly elections, the voters elected more Congress candidates than the camp followers of BJP and the vote bank of the saffron party’s Mangaluru Lok Sabha candidate tanked by a whopping 20 percent in 2014 compared to the previous election despite the NaMo wave tidal changes in national politics. If this can be taken as a trend, then the voting pattern of the region has not shown any visible tilt towards the Hindutva party.

"In fact, it was not the growth of BJP but that of the fringe groups that make big noises now and then by attacking poor college students in love, for holding a birthday party and chugging a beer together in a pub and even observing Valentine's Day.  But the election analysts made it a different ball game by attributing it to the growth of saffron parties," says Prof PL Dharma, who teaches political sociology at the Mangalore University.

But then, coastal Karnataka has always voted for different alliances or gathbandhans by shuffling them on and off when it comes to the state Assembly polls and the General Elections. In 2013, the region threw its weight behind a debilitated Congress party in the elections to the state Assembly. But they voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections en masse that followed immediately.

In other words, while the region (Mangaluru, Udupi and Chikmagalur) sent 10 Congress representatives to the state Assembly in the 2013 polls, BJP's tally was two while a sole independent made it to the 'Mantralaya'. Fast forward to the 2014 General Elections, when brand Modi swept the polls, BJP bagged all the three seats from the region with Congress drawing a blank. These diverse trends by backing different political coalitions for the Assembly polls and General Elections have been evident from previous elections as well.

(Data is sourced from the Election commission of India Website

(Source: Election commission of India website)

Though critics of the Sangh Parivar were scared of the 'imminent' saffronisation of the coastal region, the people proved them wrong yet again by choosing two legislators each from the Janata Dal (Secular), the BJP and the Congress in the neighbouring district of Uttara Kannada during the Assembly elections in 2008.

In Udupi, however, BJP took four out of five seats with Congress winning a lone seat in Karkala. "Karnataka missed the Modi wave by less than a year and when it goes to polls in 2018 the BJP hopes and yearns that the Modi wave will be still there and it will be a litmus test for the saffron party on the coast. Let us not forget that the coast of Karnataka has been nicknamed as the laboratory of Hindutva and any upsets here will have a telling effect on state politics," former BJP MLA from Puttur K Ram Bhat said.

The highlight of the 2003 elections was that the Bhatkal constituency, a densely Muslim populated area in Uttara Kannada district, voted for Shivananda Naik of BJP, leaving the political pundits and psephologists, who bank heavily on religious profiling of the electorate to forecast the poll verdict in their pre-poll analysis, with egg all over on their faces.

It may also be recalled that in 1996, BJP MLA from Bhatkal Dr U Chittaranjan was shot dead, but since then a number of socio-political changes have taken place there as the voters have accepted the fact that no partisan politics will ensure that Bhatkal becomes a safe place to live, says Rathnakar Kamath, a local political analyst. This town, known for its traders, was once infamous for communal clashes but during the last three to four Assembly elections, the region remained peaceful, he adds.

However, the swing in favour of BJP has been more pronounced in the Lok Sabha elections. In the 2014 elections, the coastal areas chose to vote for the BJP, giving all the three seats to the saffron party. This is partly attributed to the Modi-fication wave that took the nation by storm. In the last three elections, BJP has swept all the three Lok Sabha seats.

(Data is sourced from the Election commission of India Website

(Source: Election commission of India website)

Therefore, in hindsight, one could see no paradigm shift in the voting pattern and preferences of political parties and ideology among the coastal Karnataka voters; one could only say that it is a mixed bag. Notably, the role of fence sitters or the so-called independents has faded fast in both Lok Sabha and state Assembly elections in the region. Further, regional parties could only make minimal nuisances on the electoral scene and had very little say in the poll verdict. That is why parties like JDS did not grow on the coastal belt but for leaving a few blips on the political radar.

To the frustration of the saffron brigade, the rise of BJP had been slow in the coastal belt of the state while the slide of the Congress party in the popularity chart has been secular. The fast fading clout of the Congress in the region was cushioned to a greater extent by the support of Left parties and their allies since they are equally wary of the saffronisation of the region. This is more so because the Islamic outfits usually aligned with the Left parties and the Social Democratic Party of India spares no efforts to keep this delicate balance of power between the 'secular' and 'fundamentalist' parties.

It is not that the BJP was sitting pretty on the coastal belt of Karnataka; it too had its share of political troubles. Halady Srinivas Shetty, a BJP MLA has had a humiliating experience when he was called to take oath as a minister in the last cabinet reshuffle by the previous BJP government that ran the state during 2008-13. He was called to the Raj Bhavan but was denied entry which enraged his followers. And he left BJP in a huff and decided to contest the elections as an independent candidate in 2013 and won.

Mangaluru MP Nalin Kumar Kateel got away with a rap on the knuckles by his party for making a provocative statement, saying that "Mangaluru would burn if the government arrested RSS strongman Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat" in a speech at Kalladka, before a fortnight-long communal flare-up.

The coastal Kannada is not fully insulated against the caste conflicts from the 'malnad' areas. The Udupi Chikkamagaluru Lok Sabha constituency was formed after the delimitation of the Lok Sabha constituencies in 2008. There was another constituency with two districts making up for one seat – the Mysore-Kodagu constituency. While in Chikkamagalur-Udupi constituency one can see a clear division of voter preference between the Assembly segments, the Mysore-Kodagu seat remains relatively tranquil.

So, it seems that coastal Karnataka still remains elusive for the khaki shorts and saffron flags.

Part 1: Mangaluru's present identity as hotbed of communal tension sharply contrasts with its peaceful past

Part 2: Mangaluru sees uptick in vigilante violence as politically-backed Hindutva fringe groups multiply

The author is a Mangaluru based freelance writer and a member of, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

Updated Date: Oct 05, 2017 12:32 PM

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