Updated: May 11, 2021 8:39:49 am
Since 2019, Karnataka has had its own Ajay Bisht aka Yogi Adityanath. His looks, age, educational background — and not least his sartorial style — unsuccessfully conceal the same extreme, intemperate impulses. It was Tejasvi Surya who, even before he turned 28 and was elected to India’s Parliament on the BJP ticket in 2019, openly declared his “dread” of women’s reservation in Parliament and the legislatures. That tweet has since been deleted, but the people — especially the women — of Karnataka possess longer memories than he credits them with. He successfully evaded a summons to the State Women’s Commission on a sexual harassment complaint while on his campaign trail in 2019 — the woman concerned later withdrew the case. But not before he put his legal training to protecting “national interest”: He obtained an ex-parte temporary injunction against the publication of “defamatory statements” about him, covering 49 print, television and internet media providers, including YouTube, during the election campaign. Fortunately, the Karnataka High Court thought better of such “prior restraints” and set the injunction aside.
Since his election, Surya has been the battle-axe on behalf of Hindu dharma that he promised to be. He began by asking the National Investigation Agency to set up a full-fledged branch in Bengaluru, which he had determined was the “epicentre of terrorist activities”. According to his own account, his request was seriously considered. He often boldly “corrects” history by deciding which “good Muslims’ should be taught about in schools — not Tipu Sultan but Shishunala Shariff. Like Ajay Bisht, he compensates for what he lacks by way of knowledge with a high-decibel conviction that his supporters feel no desire to correct or question. He has understood the mesmerising power of repetition, even of untruths.
Surya’s public actions during the Covid-19 crisis were singularly unremarkable and unimaginative. If anything, he strictly conformed to what politicians of his ilk have been publicly endorsing, by attending a political rally without his mask, and was lightly rapped on the wrists for that misdemeanour.
But the swashbuckling hero came into his own following the death of 24 Covid patients in Chamarajanagara, Mysore district, on May 2, due to an oxygen shortage. His detective skills and loud assertions rescued the BJP from almost paralysing critique. So, following up reports that had already appeared about beds in Covid hospitals being blocked for those paying bribes, Tejasvi Surya charged into the South Bangalore Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Covid war room, with battle cries against 16 Muslim men who were employed there. He was ably aided by three BJP MLAs demanding to know whether this was a madrasa or a Haj committee. Their sensational and dramatic confrontation of the service provider over 16 Muslim employees out of 200-plus telecallers led to the instant suspension of the young Muslim men.
It is another matter that those eventually arrested in the scam bore no relation to the 16 or their religion. The minor inconvenience of the central government, state government, and the BBMP all being in the hands of the BJP was also sidestepped by briefly dragging in a Congress “hand”.
Whether or not he tendered an apology, on which there is now doubt, Tejasvi Surya’s “decisionism” mimics his masters’ and signals a shift in the career of Karnataka’s BJP. The Karnataka BJP, unlike the party at the Centre, has practiced an old-style corruption, allowing money to stick to the hands of its MLAs rather than funnelling it upwards to the party alone. Secondly, many of the party’s MLAs such as Basangouda Yatnal and A H Vishwanath, and its ministers — notably K S Eshwarappa and B C Patil — had recently participated in vociferous campaigns for changes to the reservation policy. Thirdly, Yeddyurappa’s old style and pronounced “pro-Hindu” stance consisted of courting dominant-caste Lingayat votes, and appeasing (Lingayat and other) dominant-caste demands through the symbolics of establishing development corporations.
Tejasvi Surya’s “decisionism” challenges CM Yeddyurappa’s vacillations and old-style politics. It refocuses the Karnataka BJP on its mainstream national goals. Such “mainstreaming” is subtly happening at other levels that go almost unopposed. In January 2021, a plaque unveiled to inaugurate the RAF in Bhadravathi used only English and Hindi; apart from the usual outrage among litterateurs and public intellectuals over the complete absence of Kannada, the event has now been forgotten. In February 2021, the cow protection bill was passed by voice vote to become law.
Now Tejasvi Surya has publicly revealed a bias against Muslims. He does this as a practising lawyer, and as a lawmaker, defying Articles 15 and 16 of the Indian Constitution that he swore to uphold. But more unfortunate is the “terrorism” tag that has stuck to the 16 men. It serves to normalise an “anti-Muslim” stance: Consider the alacrity with which the service providers and the senior administration acted to suspend the 16 innocent men. But even if they are re-employed, it will be only because they have been “proved innocent”.
Surya’s “decisionism”, apart from revealing his ambitions at the local level, also attempts to seal the wide public cracks in a Karnataka BJP teeming with discontent. His vitriol and misogyny have been made more acceptable in English. Whether he will be allowed to go even further than the UP’s man in orange will depend on whether Karnataka’s enviable heritage — of developmentalism, secularism and social justice — can be firmly reclaimed. Or we are surely making our way to the UP model.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 11, 2021 under the title ‘A saffron battle-axe in Karnataka’. The writer is former professor of history, JNU
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