When Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived at the Mangaluru airport in Dakshina Kannada on April 13, fans lined up along a 15-km stretch of the city to see him. BJP workers and activists of Sangh Parivar groups regulated the traffic, ensuring smooth flow of buses with their load of youths, shouting ‘Modi, Modi’, to the rally at Nehru Maidan. Those who couldn’t enter the packed ground pulled down barricades to get in.
“This is a sea of saffron… On my way I was wondering if anyone would be here because so many were lined up along the road,” Modi remarked at the rally.
The April 13 meeting reflected the support for Modi in Mangaluru, which is unparalleled across Karnataka in the run-up to the polls. The BJP’s candidate for the Dakshina Kannada constituency, two-term MP Nalin Kumar Kateel, 52, is only a footnote in the campaign. The seat will vote on April 18.
While the BJP always had support in this communally polarised region, Modi’s muscular brand of politics, especially the air strikes on Balakot, Pakistan, appears to have cemented that support.
“The MP is a useless fellow but people are going to vote for Modi,” says Krishna Poojari, an auto-rickshaw driver. “If children could vote, they would also vote for Modi.”
As a consequence, Kateel is set to return to Parliament, like in the 2014 Modi wave. “There are divisions on the lines of caste, there is unhappiness over the performance of Kateel, there is anger against him in the cadre, but all these things are going to be set aside in the interest of the country, Hindutva and Modi,” an old-time Sangh Parivar organiser says, adding, “Much of the policies in the country are borrowed from the West… This is why you have Supreme Court rulings favouring adultery and homosexuality. How can such things be allowed? A few more years of Modi can lead to a change in the western ways of thinking.”
Prof Rajaram Tolapady of the political science department at Mangalore University agrees, saying, “There is great dissatisfaction in a section of the RSS with the BJP candidates in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, but ultimately they will all support Narendra Modi.”
Social activist Vidya Dinkar attributes this to the RSS and BJP work in this region. “The ideology has been planted in minds over the years and the ground is now fertile. The younger generation are also good students of WhatsApp university.”
Asha Nayak, a senior advocate who often represents right-wing youths arrested for violence and moral policing, says, “There is a fantasy about Modi in the minds of youths. They blindly believe him.”
Perhaps aware of this himself, Kateel, at the April 13 rally, compared Modi to former US president Barack Obama. He also tackled the negative opinion against him, calling it propaganda. “I have got Mangalore the status of a Smart City and piped gas supply to homes. The Dakshina Kannada MP was declared the best MP in a survey last year for attendance and for utilisation of central schemes,” he said.
Still, there is some concern that the unpopularity of Kateel could ultimately mean an erosion in the BJP’s local base. “If the interests of the cadre are not addressed, a new right-wing force could emerge,” says a Sangh organiser unhappy over the choice of Kateel.
He also claimed that they initially wanted to pull support for Kateel. “When the initial projections showed Modi will win over 300 seats, we considered teaching Kateel a lesson. With new projections showing lesser numbers, we changed our minds,” he said.
The RSS has over 40,000 shakhas in the Dakshina Kannada region and with its workers key to shepherding voters to booths come polling day, it can determine the BJP’s performance.
In 2013, for the first time in nearly 20 years, the BJP had been routed in Dakshina Kannada in the Assembly polls after the Sangh Parivar stayed away, angry over then BJP Karnataka government’s “failure” to act against cow slaughter, religious conversions, ‘love jihad’ etc. While the internal tensions had continued to simmer during the 2014 parliamentary polls, the Modi wave had swept that aside.
In last year’s Assembly elections too, the BJP was seen to be facing problems because of tickets to the dominant Bunt and Brahmin communities rather than the backward class Billava community to which the field workers of the Sangh Parivar belong. But the party had managed to win seven of the eight Assembly segments after a strong campaign on communal lines.
The Congress candidate for Dakshina Kannada is a young leader, Mithun Rai, 35. A business associate of rising Congress strongman D K Shivakumar, who has a reputation of a good organiser since his Youth Congress days, Rai is playing the soft Hindutva card and often sports a saffron scarf. He has also been saying during campaigns, “I am a Hindu… but my Hinduism is about taking everyone along.”
Rai, who has ventured even in pockets considered favourable to the BJP and generally avoided by Congress candidates, is relying upon Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy and Shivakumar to campaign in areas with Vokkaligas. But Rai faces the prospects of losing minority votes to the pro-Muslim SDPI party that is also in the race.