There are already more than a half-dozen on-again, off-again demands for separate states: Vidarbha (to be sliced from Maharashtra), Bodoland (from Assam), Saurashtra (from Gujarat), Gorkhaland (from West Bengal), Harit Pradesh, Bundelkhand, Purvanchal and Awadh Pradesh from (Uttar Pradesh) and Kongu Nadu (from Tamil Nadu) among other places.
Now add one more to this dreary list: The demand to make the abysmally backward North Karnataka a separate state. This demand, being revived after some two decades, is the direct result of a dangerous game being played by chief minister HD Kumaraswamy, whose Janata Dal (Secular) is in a troubled coalition with Congress. Farmers and student organisations have called for a bandhin the 13 districts of North Karnataka on 2 August in support of the demand.
The feeling in North Karnataka that the region gets a step-motherly treatment from successive governments in Bengaluru is nothing new. But it only got much worse after Kumaraswamy took over following the 12 May Assembly election. He has successfully created an impression that he indulges the south at the cost of the north.
South Karnataka is where his home district Hassan is and where his JD(S) and Vokkaliga caste are strong. The sops he announced in his 5 July budget — ranging from a Disneyland to super-speciality hospitals — pampered the south, which accounts for most of the 37 Assembly seats his party won. Even the controversial Rs 34,000-crore farmers’ loan waiver, it is alleged, would largely benefit JD(S) strongholds. Despite Kumaraswamy’s furious denials of discrimination, he was not, like Ceaser’s wife, above suspicion.
Then his true feelings tumbled out after he questioned the “moral right” of northern farmers to make demands. Addressing a rally in Channapatna, that elected him to the Assembly, he said on 23 July: “While voting, they remembered their caste and money. Now, they want me to work (for them). If they had thought beyond caste and money during elections, they would have the moral right to ask for a complete loan waiver.”
What this means is that Kumaraswamy feels that Lingayats, who dominate north, shouldn’t have voted for BJP, whose leader BS Yeddyurappa belongs to the community.
Here is how the parties fared in North Karnataka, which accounts for 90 of the state Assembly’s 224 seats, in recent elections:
And in the 27-member Kumaraswamy ministry, only eight are from North Karnataka
Karnataka’s worse half
What’s known as North Karnataka comprises the Kannada-speaking districts that were part of Bombay Presidency and Nizam’s kingdom before they were annexed into Karnataka at the time of 1956 states’ reorganisation. The entire area stood by Congress till it slipped away to Janata Dal in 1990s and BJP a decade later. Before the 2013 Assembly election, the UPA government extended special benefits to Hyderabad-Karnataka (part of North Karnataka) under Article 371(J), but this saw little development in the region, which continues to be blighted by drought, unemployment, malnutrition and woeful lack of healthcare. While the Krishna river’s potential is yet to be fully exploited, the Mahadayi is tangled in a water-sharing dispute with Goa.
It’s too early to say whether the 2 August bandh will be a success and whether the demand for separate statehood will crystallize into a major agitation. It’s possible that the clamour will slowly die down in the absence of a leader to spearhead it. But the feeling of discrimination can only get worse if Kumaraswamy does nothing to assuage fears there. Kumaraswamy, however, has nothing much to lose if he chooses to neglect North Karnataka even now.
Consolidating his party in the south further is at the top of his agenda. Everything else — be it the development of any part of Karnataka or repairing the sour relations with Congress — is secondary. Call it geographical polarisation if you will. And if he is crying hoarse about BJP’s communal polarisation, that’s part of his game too.
Divide and win?
But Congress, which picked up 38 seats in the north, has a lot to lose if Kumaraswamy goes ahead with his risky game of punishing an area which didn’t vote for JD(S). So, it was in the fitness of things that state Congress president Dinesh Gundurao said on Thursday that “to discriminate against any region or any group only because they voted against a particular party is not correct.”
But Gundurao must know that the divide-and-win strategy of Kumaraswamy is only an extension of the politics of polarisation that his own party’s Siddaramaiah played earlier as chief minister.
Siddaramaiah had played caste against caste, and called it social justice. He had played religion against religion by appeasing Muslims, and called it secularism. He also tried to pit south India against north India in devolution of funds. None of these shenanigans worked. After being eulogised as a mascot of Congress in the south and a grand benefactor of the downtrodden and minorities, he lost the Assembly election.
The lesson Kumaraswamy must learn is this: A divide-and-rule strategy can end up in divide-and-perish.