On 7 December 2017, Karnataka’s chief minister, the Congress leader Siddaramaiah, addressed an event in the Uttara Kannada district marking the inauguration of several public-works programmes by the state government. “They accuse us of being anti-Hindu. Are we not Hindus?” he asked the audience. “My name is Siddarama. My name too has bhagwan Ram’s name. We are the devotees of Lord Rama and Hanuman. … The real Hindu is one who loves all religions. You judge who the real Hindus are. Us or BJP leaders?”
Then, the minister for public works in Siddaramaiah’s government, HC Mahadevappa, took the stage and also declared his allegiance to Hinduism. And soon after, the medium- and large-scale industries minister, RV Deshpande, informed the audience that he too was a devout Hindu. “By birth, I am a Hindu,” Deshpande said. “All other people are my bandhu”—brothers.
Siddaramaiah and his ministers’ scramble to prove their Hindu credentials surprised many in the state. For years, the chief minister had embraced the moniker of an “ahinda” leader—a Kannada term that is an acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits.
Siddaramaiah’s comments seemed to be in sync with the speculation that the Congress will again adopt a “soft Hindutva” strategy to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party in the upcoming state-assembly election. The Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, had made several highly publicised visits to temples in Gujarat ahead of the recent polls in that state, and had also talked about his religious affiliations. Congress leaders have said that Gandhi will be seen temple-hopping during the campaign in Karnataka too.
The fact that Siddaramaiah and his fellow ministers took the initiative early on is an indication of how much the party is depending on its state leadership to win this election. The contrary is the case with the BJP, whose state leadership has looked weak, and cannot bank merely on the history of anti-incumbency. The BJP’s campaign will have to rely heavily on Modi’s enduring popularity and the party’s Hindutva rhetoric. The Congress’s soft Hindutva approach is an attempt to neutralise the BJP’s pitch.