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Karnataka, you have a problem

BJP's Politics Is Threatening To Rob Karnataka Of Social Cohesion, Harmony And An Inclusive Culture, So Necessary For Entrepreneurship That Builds Start-ups Worth Billions And Fuels Growth Of A Nation


Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka and the engine of India’s start-up and tech entrepreneurship, is also blessed with great weather. By far the best for an Indian metro city. That’s an incredible asset, but not the only thing that attracts the ambitious, well-educated, entrepreneurial young to the city.

It has a lot more to add to the weather advantage: Great educational institutions that ensure a plentiful supply of talent to ‘people’ these enterprises, new jobs, loads of upcoming housing and an improving infrastructure (at long last).

The biggest advantage, however, is also its happy, youthful, let-it-be and inclusive social culture. If Mumbai was India’s dream city in the past, both for entrepreneurship, job opportunities and glamour, Bengaluru it is now.

For two decades, since I began travelling to Bengaluru often, I have maintained that any time you feel low or hassled in any part of India, come to Bengaluru and you will feel better.

It was on one of these early visits to the city, when north India was burning under its toughest summer in years with a delayed monsoon, and a little storm broke out over Bangalore (as it was then called) overnight that gave me the spark of that week’s National Interest article headlined ‘Bangalore, the feel-good city’. The argument was that if we in India also started giving our cities and states names like the Americans do — New York, the Big Apple; Chicago, the Windy City; ‘Virginia is for lovers’ — what shall we call Bangalore but the ‘Feel-Good City’.

That’s why the divisive stuff happening in Karnataka and its capital is like an ill wind blowing over it. Politics of a linguistically divisive kind, combined with militant trade unionism, had once nearly destroyed the miracle of Bombay. The last thing India deserves is worse happening to Bengaluru.

That is precisely what India’s foremost biotech entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is exercised about. She wrote this tweet appealing to her Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai to intervene and restore sanity. After several communally divisive moves, this was triggered by the latest, the egregious bans or exclusion of Muslim traders from the neighbourhoods of Hindu temples and religious events.

As if on cue, this was followed by orchestrated boycott calls on halal products. An ordinary Muslim in Karnataka will immediately see this as a kind of economic apartheid. In the larger picture, this would — and should — be seen as a devastating threat to social harmony purely driven by political purpose. The state will go to the assembly polls in about a year from now.

The BJP runs a government here after grabbing power from the Congress-JD(S) alliance through defections, has changed its chief ministers mid-stream, is battling dissidence, has a weak, ‘compromise’ chief minister and has indifferent performance. Karnataka is unlike many other states where it can simply roll over the opposition, especially the Congress. That’s why the need for the usual formula of polarisation. What works in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh should work in Karnataka too.

It might work. And in politics, what wins you elections is the most perfect way forward, never mind the morality or social consequences. For about a decade now, the BJP’s strategic approach has been orchestrating a sharp Hindu-Muslim polarisation and then rendering the advantage of Muslim votes for the “secular” parties irrelevant. In most states, if it can get 50 per cent of the Hindu vote, it wins irrespective of where the Muslims vote.

The BJP, however, is also conscious that the formula did not fully work in the last state elections in 2018 here. It had the advantage of fighting against an incumbent in a state known for its see-sawing politics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed 21 election rallies, and yet the BJP came up short.

Until, of course, it fixed it through defections about a year later. Now it’s the incumbent with a very weak chief minister, whose predecessor Yediyurappa is a silent dissident and a stronger claimant to the Lingayat vote, without which BJP is a cipher. Like Yediyurappa, Bommai is a Lingayat too, but not with a fraction of his mass following.

This BJP, in any case, treats every election like a life-or-death battle. Even if it is a mere municipal one. We saw this play out not long ago in local body elections in Telangana. This is the party’s only southern redoubt, and if stronger, more sharply divisive politics will get it across the line in 2023, so be it.

This divisiveness is upsetting social cohesion and can throw the bright young people thronging to Bengaluru with billion-dollar ideas in their creative minds off balance. I can do no better than quote from BJP’s own rising star, Tejasvi Surya, elected to the Lok Sabha from Bengaluru (South) who reminded us, on the last National Day of the Start-ups, that his city was home to 40 per cent of all of India’s unicorns and soonicorns (or soon to be unicorns).

The more updated data I find on ventureintelligence.com tells us 37 of the 95 confirmed Indian unicorns now are in Bengaluru. For comparison, Mumbai had 17, Gurugram 13, Delhi and Noida 4 each, a total of 38.

And if you come to Bengaluru, you can feel, sniff and hear this spirit and effervescence of optimism. From its commercial buildings and IT parks to its restaurants, bars, pubs and even the airport waiting areas, where you see young people lost in their laptop screens, designing products, cutting deals and scripting new dreams. Not whiling away their time watching ‘reels’, as PM Modi chided young board exam aspirants in his interaction with him this Friday.

Are we exaggerating in describing the politics of polarisation as an ill wind? Check out the series of recent happenings. The hijab row, now the ban on temple traders — freedom to carry out your business anywhere is a fundamental right — new laws and activism on bovine cattle, halal meat boycott, all fit into the same disturbing pattern. The state has also seen ‘love jihad’ crimes of late. ThePrint correspondent Anusha Ravi had investigated and reported this story on the Muslim young man whose body was found on the rail tracks near Belagavi. He was murdered apparently for dating a Hindu woman. Her family was later arrested.

Is it anybody’s case that social cohesion isn’t a pre-requisite for new entrepreneurship and investment to flourish? We can do no better than compare the fate of the nations. Who puts any money, enterprise or creativity in Pakistan today? Or in Myanmar? How badly has Sri Lanka suffered since the rise of the Rajapaksa-led Sinhala chauvinism? Why is UAE, especially Dubai, such a magnet for the subcontinent’s entrepreneurs, despite being an Islamic monarchy?

It is today’s creative, youthful entrepreneurship that builds start-ups worth billions and fuels the growth of a nation, particularly one like India which is lacking in natural resources. Social cohesion, harmony, an inclusive culture are the necessary preconditions for that virtuous ecosystem. If Karnataka’s politics is threatening to rob Bengaluru of this now, it is indeed an ill wind. It’s sadder still if it’s blowing under the watch of a chief minister who inherited his political stature from his late father and former chief minister S.R. Bommai. Who, by the way, was a follower of M.N. Roy and a radical humanist. Those guys believe in no religion and put the human above all gods.