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Congress aims to repel BJP in key Indian election test

Party confident of retaining power in Karnataka but pro-Hindu rival believes 'Narendra Modi factor' can inspire a shock

Congress aims to repel BJP in key Indian election test

Congress president Rahul Gandhi greets a Hindu religious leader in Tumkur on April 4 as part of the party's campaign for the May 12 state election in Karnataka. (Photo by IANS)

ucanews.com reporters, Bengaluru
India

April 6, 2018

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Campaigning is heating up in India's Karnataka state, where the results of next month's state election are expected to indicate the fate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party and rival Congress in the national election next year.

The pro-Hindu BJP, which controls 20 of 29 states, aims to unseat the ruling Congress in the May 12 poll in an effort to create a Congress-free India.

Congress leaders are making an all-out effort in Karnataka to claim a victory for a party that now runs just three states — Karnataka, Mizoram and Punjab.

Five years ago, Congress unseated the BJP in Karnataka amid allegations of corruption among BJP ministers and claims the government was supporting violence against religious minorities including Christians and Muslims.

The BJP began campaigning last November with a 75-day rally through all the southern state's 224 constituencies that ended on Feb. 8. Modi asked people to vote to free the state from the "dynasty rule of Congress."

Congress has been busy setting up village-level committees in more than 54,000 locations across the state to communicate its developmental and welfare projects to voters, local media reported.

Janata Dal will be fielding candidates to fight Congress and the BJP.

An opinion poll last week indicated Congress will get 46 percent of the vote to retain power, while the BJP will get 31 percent and Janata Dal 16 percent.

"If predictions are to be believed, Congress will make a significant jump in the vote share and its victory looks imminent," said Prabhu Shastrimath, a local journalist.

However, BJP Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar, a native of the state, said these predictions have discounted the "Narendra Modi factor," alluding to the popularity and oratorical skills of the prime minister.

"Narendra Modi has not yet campaigned; once he starts visiting the state and addressing people, there will be a pro-BJP tsunami everywhere," he says.

People on the streets of state capital Bengaluru speak highly of Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and his welfare schemes aimed at making the state hunger-free. One of his pet projects was to provide free rice, the staple of the state, and subsidized lentils, salt and oil to poorer people.

"I will vote for Congress. Last time we voted for Janata Dal, but now the wave is in favor of Congress," said taxi driver Umesh Patil.

Local people who speak the Kannada language also appreciate Siddaramaiah for bringing Karnataka asmita (pride) back to political debate. The chief minister has been demanding a "separate and distinct" flag for the state.

The BJP has released a "charge sheet" in the form of a booklet listing alleged failures of the Congress government including law and order and agriculture. 

 

Religious minorities anxious 

Religious minorities including Christians have enjoyed peace under the Congress government, said Protestant Pastor Linu Thankachan at Living Gospel Church in Bengaluru.

In the past five years he has not heard of any attacks on churches and strongly feels that religious freedom is well established — unlike in BJP-ruled northern states that regularly report violence against Christians.

Hindus form 85 percent of Karnataka's 61 million people, while Muslims account for 12 percent or some 5 million. But Christians, although the second-largest minority, number only 1.2 million, hardly 2 percent of the population.

Church leaders and political observers say a BJP victory in Karnataka could persuade voters to back the pro-Hindu party in the national election, particularly in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala where it has struggled to make inroads.

Although they are not Congress strongholds, these states have resisted BJP advancement with strong regional parties. A BJP victory in Karnataka would be projected as southern states accepting BJP governance, while Congress will look to rekindle the party's spirit across India.

A decade ago, Karnataka become the first southern state to elect a BJP government but rejected the party in the next election in 2013, making the current election a test of its popularity in southern India.

In 2008, soon after the BJP came to power, the state witnessed a series of attacks on churches and violence against Christians, particularly in the Christian stronghold of Mangalore.

Pastor Thankachan said a BJP victory "could curtail religious freedom and endanger the secular values" of the Indian constitution that allows every citizen to profess and propagate a religion of choice.

Groups who want to make India a Hindu-only nation often consider the BJP's national election victory as a mandate to use violence against religious minorities, Thankachan said.

Bishop Henry D'Souza of Bellary said elections continue to be a "critical aspect" of Indian democracy and he would welcome "any government that upholds the constitution, respects the unity and plurality of Indian culture and works for an inclusive India where the Dalits, the poor, the marginalized and all are accepted as part of the country with dignity and respect."

The BJP is accused of promoting Hindu high-caste hegemony and neglecting lower-caste people, but some 60 percent of Karnataka's people belong to lower castes.

Bishop D'Souza said politicians cutting across party lines have misused caste and religion to divide people for votes without attending to the issues of poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition.

Bishop Mohan Manoraj of Karnataka told ucanews.com that the Christian community is known for its peace-loving attitude. "We don't harm anyone. We are a minority community and understand we don't have the power to fight."

He hopes that Congress comes to power and said Siddaramaiah had been a successful chief minister. "Not only Christians but all communities have benefited from the welfare and development projects introduced by him," the bishop said.

Reverend David Nathaniel from the Methodist group of churches said church leaders have been closely watching BJP-ruled areas and "we know that Christians are not secure in those states."

Church leaders stressed that churches do not endorse any political party. "But we are urging our members to pray for good leaders," said Reverend Nathaniel.

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