May 18, 2020
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Flagged Down

The BJP sees an opportunity in Uma's arrest at Hubli, but the public isn't charged Updates

Flagged Down
Saibal Das
Flagged Down
There is an irony in worshippers of the bhagva-dhwaj (the RSS flag) wrapping themselves in the tricolour and claiming to be the last word on patriotism. But then if you start believing Uma Bharati’s version of history, she is Shivaji and Sonia Gandhi is Aurangzeb. Karnataka chief minister Dharam Singh is Jai Singh, whom the Mughal emperor (Sonia) had sent to vanquish Shivaji aka Uma Bharati. Such is the stuff of Uma Bharati speeches, which reached a fever pitch as she was forced to quit as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh after a court in Hubli, Karnataka, issued non-bailable arrest warrants against her.

BJP leaders claimed that the revival of the 10-year-old case presented the party with a political opportunity. Party president Venkaiah Naidu told Outlook: "We have put the upa on the defensive on the tainted ministers issue". What was left unsaid was that the moody and unpredictable Uma was also becoming something of an embarrassment and many state mlas were actually relieved to see her go. Another obvious gain from the point of view of both the BJP and the larger Sangh parivar was that Uma’s tricolour agitation had managed to link the national flag with Hindutva.

Uma is, after all, one of the finest agitationist leaders in the BJP mould. She is great at rabble-rousing, chest-thumping, taking crowds to a fever pitch. Just the sort of histrionics that leads to mob frenzy. And though the BJP keeps claiming that Uma is "charged" with trying to raise the national flag at the Idgah maidan in Hubli a decade ago, the charge against her is actually rioting and attempted murder.

What exactly happened in Hubli a decade ago? With assembly elections round the corner, the BJP was on an overdrive to inflame passions in the communally sensitive town. The flag-hoisting at the Hubli Idgah was seen as some sort of a subplot to Murli Manohar Joshi’s highly-publicised attempt to hoist the national flag at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk.

Since prohibitory orders were in force, Uma, then the BJP Yuva Morcha president, sneaked into Hubli in disguise wearing a magenta sari and with a new hair cut. On August 15, at around 11:30 am, she suddenly emerged and tried to march to the maidan. She was arrested a kilometre from the Idgah. Simultaneously, other BJP leaders like Prahlad Joshi, Yediyurappa, Jagdish Shettar and Ananth Kumar were also trying to reach the Hubli Idgah. When a mob of around a thousand people approaching the Maidan turned unruly, the police opened fire and six persons, including a 13-year-old boy, were killed.

The impression created by the Sangh parivar was that the Muslim community was opposed to the national flag. But that is far from the truth. The decision not to allow the hoisting of the flag was taken by the administration, as it reasoned that the Idgah Maidan was a disputed site and a civil suit was pending in the court. The Veerappa Moily government was also worried about the Idgah becoming a communal flashpoint. In fact, the very next year, the Deve Gowda government solved the problem when it got a Muslim body, the Anjuman-e-Islam, to hoist the national flag at the Idgah. Yet the BJP’s drama at the Idgah did help polarise Hindu votes in its favour. Since 1994, the Hubli-Dharwad belt has remained a BJP stronghold.

So from the BJP’s point of view, the Uma Bharati brand of politics can yield rich dividends. A decade later, Uma again provided histrionics at Hubli. A bold vermilion mark on her forehead, a dash of turmeric on her cheeks, the sanyasin-politician launched a tirade against Sonia Gandhi. Earlier, the BJP leadership in Delhi had taken a collective decision to blame Sonia for the revival of the case. Ten cases had originally been filed in connection with the Idgah incident. In January 2002, the Karnataka government decided to withdraw all the criminal cases filed but the courts only permitted eight cases to be withdrawn.Eighteen warrants have been issued for Uma’s arrest and have been ignored. The sudden desire of the Dharam Singh government to prosecute Uma did indeed raise eyebrows in political circles. Was this the upa’s revenge for the revival of an old rioting case against Shibu Soren?

Meanwhile, the BJP will try to milk the situation for all it is worth. High jinks in Karnataka are to be expected given the fragile nature of the Congress-Janata Dal government in the state. The BJP’s decision to project this as a national issue only exposes the party’s desperate search for ‘emotional’ causes that can match the Ram temple agitation which originally catapulted it to power.

Uma Bharati’s surrender before the Hubli court, therefore, had all the ingredients of a good political tamasha. In a single sentence she invoked the names of Savarkar, Gandhi and the virtually forgotten Lala Lajpat Rai. And for once the BJP workers had relegated their party flag to second position. The tricolour was being carried with a new enthusiasm. Uma typically made a quick visit to a local temple before surrendering to the court.

But all the usual Uma tantrums were also on display amid the drama. From the moment she arrived in Hubli, she began complaining about health problems. Her lawyer also asked for special concessions on grounds of poor health. The court agreed that Uma will be accompanied by a secretary and a lady assistant in jail. When the court remanded her to 14 days judicial custody, and deliberations began about sending her to Belgaum jail, Uma is believed to have argued that she should be put up in a university guest house in Dharwad because of continuous back pain.

Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly clear that Uma will be out of Madhya Pradesh politics for a while. As it is, she had become something of an embarrassment and her eight-and-a-half-month-long rule was dogged by controversy. She seemed to have had the knack of rubbing both bureaucrats and her own legislators the wrong way. The fact that her family members also had a knack for inviting controversy did not help.

Yet the BJP is worried that Uma has placed Babulal Gaur, a political cipher, in the chief minister’s chair. The obvious choice for the post was the charismatic Shivraj Chauhan, but his candidature was strongly opposed by Uma.

Meanwhile, the high-profile sanyasin is enjoying all the media attention as she played to the gallery. The crowds outside the court were impressed. But across the country and in Karnataka, the response to bandh calls by the BJP was muted. The partymen are relieved that they have at least a flag to wave.

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