How BJP is taking the Tulu identity and culture route to electoral success in Mangaluru South seat

BJP's candidate — Vedavyas Kamath — is a Goud Saraswat Brahmin and Congress's candidate — JR Lobo — is a Christian. Both are vying to woo Tuluvas.

ByHarsha Bhat

Published Apr 21, 2023 | 1:00 PM Updated Apr 21, 2023 | 1:00 PM

In Mangaluru South constituency, Vedavyas Kamath has been fielded by the BJP and JR Lobo has been fielded by the Congress. (Facebook)

With the 10 May voting day for the Karnataka Assembly elections less than three weeks away, it is a “woo-all” period for parties and candidates.

In Mangaluru South — a multilingual constituency — both the BJP and Congress are looking to woo Tuluvas — the Tulu-speaking majority in the seat — especially given that BJP has fielded a Goud Saraswat Brahmin, and the Congress, a Christian.

The BJP has predominantly fielded Konkani-speaking candidates from the seat for the last few decades. Incumbent MLA Vedavyas Kamath has once again been fielded by the BJP this election. Although a Konkani speaker, his campaign this time around is centred around projecting himself as a “proud Tuluva”.

The candidates that were fielded

BJP candidate and MLA Vedavyas Kamath. (Supplied)

BJP candidate and MLA Vedavyas Kamath. (Supplied)

The BJP has always fielded a candidate from the Goud Saraswat Brahmin (GSB) community in this constituency as a considerable number of community members are settled around the central area of the constituency.

The Congress here has always fielded a Christian candidate right from 1972. But speculation was rife that the party would break its tradition and choose a Billava candidate this time. When the list finally came out, the Congress had stuck to its tradition and picked JR Lobo, instead of another aspirant, Padmaraj.

Padmaraj, the treasurer of the famous Kudroli Gokarnanatha temple, had been very vocal about rights of the numerically-dominant Ediga-Billava community.

Congress candidate JR Lobo. (Facebook)

Congress candidate JR Lobo. (Facebook)

In February this year, he was heard voicing concerns of the Billava-Ediga community that the BJP government had neglected it by delaying the formation of a corporation for over four years.

But the third list announced by the Congress had JR Lobo as its candidate for Mangaluru South.

This put all aspirations of the community leaders who had been lobbying for representation from various constituencies, in both parties, to rest.

The Ediga-Billava community is the largest OBC community in the region and have traditionally been seen as foot soldiers of the saffron force.

Also Read: Karnataka polls: Congress, BJP release final list of candidates

Rife with controversy 

Karnataka Assembly election Mangaluru South Dissent within the BJP had begun rising in the last election season where representation of its two leaders Kota Srinivas Poojary and Sunil Kumar was also seen as tokenism.

Kerala social reformer Sree Narayana Guru had been at the centre of controversy in this constituency in 2021, with the community demanding the renaming of a circle which was, until then, called the Ladyhill Circle, as it is stationed at the junction of an old convent school by the same name.

Congress, in the city council, is said to have opposed the renaming of the circle. This was highlighted by the BJP later when the Congress raised the issue of the rejection of the Republic Day tableau, which had been designed keeping Narayana Guru as its theme and accused it of insulting the reformer.

A resolution for renaming the circle had been submitted in 2020, after which the school and various allied organisations had opposed it saying that it “will wound feelings of lakhs of students” who studied there. News reports drew parallels to the renaming of the St Aloysius Road to Mulki Sunder Ram Shetty Road.

Also Read: Siddaramaiah, Basavaraj Bommai, BY Vijayendra file nominations

To rename or not to rename?

It is to be noted that the Congress, which rallied against the renaming of this road, lost the sizeable vote bank of the Bunt community which then shifted allegiance to the BJP.

BJP leaders at the newly-renamed NarayanGuru Circle. (Supplied)

BJP leaders at the newly-renamed Narayana Guru Circle. (Supplied)

Lobo, who was the MLA then, had, in 2018, opposed and delayed the renaming — this despite the state government led by Siddaramaiah approving the proposal. This then turned into an election issue with promises of “remaining it within 30 days of the BJP coming to power”, which it did as Lobo lost the election to Kamath by 16,075 votes.

This time around, the BJP has tried quelling dissent by responding affirmatively to the demands of the Billava groups in the region. The circle was renamed and a statue of the reformer was established at the junction with pomp in time for Mangaluru Dasara last year.

Mangaluru Dasara is a festival held at the Kudroli temple and the junction with the statue is the north-side entry point of the temple. And this year, the first full-fledged celebration since the pandemic, saw the life-size statue in all its glory, with strings of yellow buntings all around.

Also Read: Karnataka polls 2023: AIADMK fields own candidate 

Pandering to the right crowd

All this had observers and voters in the region look at the possibility of the Congress, too, fielding a Billava candidate. But it hasn’t.

While on the one hand it would like to retain its loyal vote bank, the Christian community, which has been miffed with the entire circle episode and weary of the rising Hindutva politics in the region, on the other it would want to steer clear of playing to the galleries of caste politics.

Whether it will pay for this by displeasing the Billavas like it did the Bunts last time around, remains to be seen.

The BJP, on the other hand, can be seen going the extra mile to appear inclusive and appeal to the larger public through “lighter, crowd pulling events”.

Though the party hasn’t changed its candidate, the candidate has changed his posturing to be seen as a more “Mangalorean” or Tuluva leader.

Also Read: ‘Humiliated’ by BJP, Former CM Jagadish Shettar joins Congress

Taking the ‘culture route’ to politics

Kamath at a Pili Parba with Sunil Karkala and Nalin Kumar Kateel. (Supplied)

Kamath at a Pili Parba with Sunil Karkala and Nalin Kumar Kateel. (Supplied)

Various public events have been held under the aegis of the organisation Kudla Samskritika Pratisthana that has MLA Kamath and MP Nalin Kumar Kateel as its patrons.

To begin with, it conducted a Pili Parba, a mega competition of the traditional tiger dance, in October last year. This, as was visible to all observers, had stark similarities to the “Pili Nalike” organised by Congress youth leader Mithun Rai, who has been organising it for several years, without politicising the same though.

As Dasara is the largest festival and this was a gathering after a two-year-long hiatus, the Pili Parba did manage to garner eye balls with various youth groups participating.

Kambala season also saw Kamath associating with the organisers of Jeppinamogaru Jodukere Kambala with him in traditional Tuluva attire featuring prominently on posters.

Next, the Pratisthana recently held a week-long food carnival on two streets that lead from the debated Narayana Guru circle on either side, one towards the city corporation and the other to the Kudroli temple.

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Inviting people to join his yatra

Highly publicised, the event saw people walk the streets with the event being positioned as a first and one-of-its-kind effort. Large posters with the faces of the MLA and MP greeted visitors all through.

And on the day he chose to file his nomination, Kamath visited various temples, but chose to start his “nomination yatra” from the Kudroli temple itself. His social media handles too put out posts in both Tulu and Kannada script, inviting people to join him.

Culturally, the semiotics of all these efforts make for interesting reading as the Konkani or GSBs are traditionally not ones to associate themselves inclusively with the other “non-Brahmin communities”.

The Mangaluru Dasara too was initially started, locals say, by Congress leader Janardhan Poojary in response to the celebrations held by the GSBs at the other end of area in their temple square.

But as Poojary fades from the political playground, the Billavas have become a force to be reckoned with (socially, economically, and politically) and the saffron party’s positioning is aimed at socio-cultural inclusivity as part of its social engineering process, instead of its tried-and-tested “core Hindutva” pitch in the Mangaluru South seat.

Also Read: SF K’taka pre-poll survey: Congress, BJP, JD(S) express confidence