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Vokkaligas, politics and symbolism: Why Kempegowda’s statue matters

CM Yediyurappa's plans to construct a 101-foot-tall Kempegowda bronze statue at the Bengaluru airport at the cost of Rs 100 crore is widely seen as an attempt by the BJP to gain leverage with the Vokkaliga community.

Written by Johnson T A | Bengaluru | Updated: September 18, 2019 6:54:37 am
Kempegowda statue, Vokkaliga, Vokkaliga community, Karnataka politics, Karnataka BJP, Express Explained Bengaluru airport, main bus stand, key road named after Kempegowda

The name of the founding father of Bengaluru — Kempegowda or Nada Prabhu Kempegowda — is hard to miss in the city. The city’s airport is known as the Kempegowda International Airport, the main bus stand is the Kempegowda Bus Stand, a main arterial road in the old city is the K G Road or the Kempegowda Road.

In history lessons in schools, Kempegowda is the man who marked with towers the four corners of a Bengaluru he imagined. The chieftain from the Vijayanagar empire in the 16th century, who conceived the idea of a new city of Bengaluru while he was out hunting with a minister, is a political icon for the dominant agricultural Vokkaliga community in south Karnataka.

Wooing Vokkaligas

Last week, Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa announced plans to construct a 101-foot-tall bronze statue of Kempegowda at the Bengaluru airport at the cost of Rs 100 crore. The move is widely seen as an attempt by the BJP to gain leverage with the Vokkaliga community, which has shown little inclination to support the BJP until the recent Lok Sabha polls.

Yediyurappa also garlanded an existing statue of Kempegowda on the premises of the Bengaluru City Corporation on September 4 and lit a Kempegowda torch. “To make Bengaluru founder Kempegowda immortal our government has decided to release Rs 100 crore. The BJP has also decided to install a mammoth statue of Kempegowda at the Bengaluru airport,” he said.

The announcement of these plans came a day after the Vokkaliga community held a big protest in Bengaluru over the alleged targeting of its members — Congress leader D K Shivakumar, the Café Coffee Day founder V G Siddharth and former Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy — by investigative arms of the BJP-led central government.

Over 20,000 people marched and staged a rally that was backed by the opposition Congress and Janata Dal (S). The rally came at a time when the BJP was making plans to poach several Vokkaliga community leaders from southern Karnataka as part of a strong push to make inroads in the old Mysuru region —the Vokkaliga heartland.

The BJP, which has never won a clear majority of over 113 seats in the 224-member Karnataka Assembly thanks to lack of traction in southern Karnataka and the Vokkaliga heartland in particular, has been sensing a new opportunity after the Lok Sabha polls where it virtually swept Karnataka.

The waning fortunes of the JD(S), the party of former PM H D Devegowda, with which the Vokkaliga community has firmly allied in the past, too has given the BJP hope.

Politics of symbolism

Yediyurappa has conceived the idea of immortalising Kempegowda on the lines of his declaration to celebrate (including by announcing holidays) the birth anniversaries of several community icons in Karnataka during his first tenure as Chief Minister during 2008-2011.

During that tenure, the birth anniversaries of Lingayat spiritual leader Basavanna, backward caste Kuruba community spiritual leader Kanakadasa and Scheduled Tribes icon Maharishi Valmiki were declared holidays and jayantis.

Incidentally, the birth anniversary of Kempegowda was declared a celebration in 2017 by the Congress government, led by then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, at the instance of Vokkaliga Congress leader D K Shivakumar, whose father’s name is also Kempegowda.

The Siddaramaiah government had also declared the birth anniversary of the erstwhile Muslim king of Mysuru, Tipu Sultan, a holiday and an occasion for state celebration, but the move has been resisted by some sections of the society including the right-wing groups allied with the BJP.

Although Yediyurappa and other BJP leaders have participated in Tipu Jayanti celebrations in the past, one of the first decisions taken by him after he became the chief minister again in July was to cancel state celebrations of the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan.

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