Congress president Rahul Gandhi talks to the press in Kalbugi district of Karnataka state on Feb. 13, the penultimate day of his four-day campaign tour. (Photo by IANS)
The all-important political question in the poll-bound Indian state of Karnataka seems to a religious one: Who is a better Hindu?
Rival political parties have taken a clear religious slant ahead of the April-May provincial election in the state of 60 million people, 84 percent of them Hindus.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress party, ended a four-day campaign tour on Feb. 14 with a series of visits to popular temples despite criticism from political rivals.
Gandhi defended his visits to temples. "I like going to temples. Wherever I get a religious place, I go there. I feel good and feel happy, and I will continue [to go]," he told the media.
But the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which projects itself as the guardian of "real" Hindu culture, dismissed Gandhi's temple visits as a gimmick, calling him "an election-time Hindu."
"I don't know if Rahul Gandhi is visiting temples for votes or to conduct a recce," BJP national general secretary P. Muralidhar Rao told reporters.
The wrestle between Congress, the BJP and the local Janata Dal (people's front) is to find newer ways to galvanize Hindus without offending minority Muslims and Christians, who are also powerful voting blocks in some areas.
"Congress is coming to the same level as the BJP. They seem to be saying 'We are Hindus but not rabid Hindu nationalists,'" said Vincent Vijay Kumar, director of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society.
The grand old Congress party, which once led the freedom movement and ruled India for most of its 70-year history, has lost power to the BJP almost everywhere. The BJP now controls governments in 19 of 29 states.
But Karnataka is one of only four Congress-ruled states along with Punjab and the smaller northeastern states of Mizoram and Meghalaya.
"The Congress leadership is strong in Karnataka, at least at this moment," said Kumar, adding that voters cannot be polarized in the name of religion as could happen in northern Indian states because people in Karnataka are more educated.
"Whether that perception changes or not depends on celebrities of the BJP campaigning in the state, and the reaction of the people," he said.
The main issues in the state are farmers' struggle to get a decent income and lack of water. "But issues of the people are being raised in a narrow political sense" of votes, Kumar said.
The one million Christians in the state are traditionally seen as Congress supporters. "But today's citizens cannot be convinced to vote based on religion. Christians especially have independent thought," Kumar said.
Muzaffar H. Assadi, a political observer and professor at Mysore University, told ucanews.com that the BJP has been trying to appease Karnataka Hindus by reminding them of the steps they have taken to protect their revered cows from beef eaters and traders, who are largely Christians and Muslims.
They also project the federal government's attempt to end religion-based personal laws and verbal divorce among Muslims, which Muslim leaders said was targeting their religious freedom, Assadi said.
But these negative approaches will not work in the state because "Karnataka is different," he said.
"The politics of affirmative action have long been adopted in the Karnataka, Muslims are very much the part of the state. It is not the same in Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims are outside the state polity," Assadi told ucanews.com
"A large number of minorities are with Congress, and it is not possible for a political party to come to power without the chunk of Muslims," who form 13 percent of the state's population or eight million people.
"The main concern of minorities — Christians and Muslims — is physical security in the event of the BJP coming to power in the state," Assadi said.
From 2008-13, when the BJP was in power, the state witnessed unprecedented violence against Christians and Muslims. At least 57 churches across Karnataka were attacked in a few months after the BJP came to power in 2008.
Dexter Maben, a theologian with Protestant United Theological College in Bangalore, echoed the hopes of several Christian leaders that Congress will retain power.
"As a party, Congress has been doing some work in the state. Minorities feel secure under the Congress regime. So far we have not seen a prominent discourse of the BJP on development," Maben told ucanews.com
Bishop Henry D'Souza of Bellary told ucanews.com that no one expects political parties to fight elections on the basis of religion, but people feel insecure when religion becomes the center of political discourse.
"Attempts to polarize or communalize people are not acceptable. When that happens, communal hatred and violence come into play, and women and the poor will be the most disadvantaged. That is the fear," Bishop D'Souza said.
He said Indian democracy is strong and resilient.
"We have already been tolerating a lot. No party can rule permanently. They keep changing because public opinion keeps changing," he said.
"People take their voting rights seriously. I must say that difficult times are the best times for democracy.
"Our people will make a difference, especially the large majority of economically and socially poor people."