Karnataka state flag: Siddaramaiah does the balancing act among different interests
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Karnataka state flag: Siddaramaiah does the balancing act among different interests

He will have to convince the Congress high command that he is not creating a problem for it in other states, even as he calms the anger of Kannada groups on their flag not being made the official one

opinion Updated: Mar 16, 2018 21:58 IST
Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah unveiling the proposed state flag which will be sent for the Centre’s approval, Bengaluru, Karnataka, March 8, 2018(Arijit Sen/HT)

Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah’s efforts to create a state flag has been viewed with suspicion, especially outside the state. Yet, it also represents an innovative way to politically address the multiple identities that Indians — in this case Kannadigas — profess.

Kannadigas have, as a rule, been reluctant to submerge their multiple identities under a single regional, or any other, identity. Regional political parties mostly tend to remain at the fringes of state politics. Two-term chief minister D Devaraj Urs faded away when he sought to emerge as a regional political force. The JD(S) may claim today to represent regional interests in the state but it is careful not to give up its national ambitions.

At the same time, it is obvious that regionalism plays a prominent role in Karnataka politics. The intensity of mobilisation over the Cauvery dispute should remove all doubts about just how potent regional pride can be in the state. Yet, the regional identity does not supersede all other identities. It is quite common for individuals and groups to support mobilisation around the Kannada identity in times of the Cauvery dispute and shift to their Hindu identity on the Babri Masjid dispute.

In this milieu of going with the overall mood there is much to be gained politically by determining the overall theme of an election. The BJP in Karnataka has tried hard to place the Hindu identity at the core of the state’s mood during election time. They have attacked the chief minister’s Hindu credentials; they have provided a prominent place in their campaign in Karnataka for Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath; and they have mobilised support in coastal Karnataka against the killing of their cadre in ongoing battles with Muslim groups — battles that have seen casualties on both sides.

The initial response of the Congress was quite defensive. Siddaramaiah stressed his Hindu credentials, even emphasising the prominent place for Ram in his name. But over time, the chief minister has focused more on making the regional identity the dominant theme in the election. He has removed Hindi signboards from Bengaluru’s Metro, he has presented the Supreme Court verdict on the Cauvery dispute as a vindication of his defence of regional interests, and has taken the dramatic step of creating a state flag.

In seeking to adopt a state flag, Siddaramaiah ran the risk of being seen as someone who was attempting to place the regional identity of Kannadigas above all their other identities, including their national one. This was somewhat muted by the fact that he represented a national political party. But he has been careful to take other steps to ensure he was not reduced to the stature of previous, failed, regional leaders.

The first of these steps was in the choice of the flag itself. The red and yellow flag of the now defunct Kannada Paksha of the 1960s has been widely seen as representing Kannadiga interests. It is used by all Kannada organisations and it was assumed it would be the choice for the state flag. But the Siddaramaiah government has added a white strip in the middle with the state’s emblem to create a tricolour. The government is also laying out a code for the state flag to formally ensure that it will always have a status below the national flag.

The chief minister has gone on to emphasise the distinction between the state flag and the flag of Kannada organisations. He has stressed that the Kannada groups can continue to use the red and yellow flag for their private programmes, while the state flag will only be used for official government functions. Thus, he is trying to reach out to the Kannada sentiment without treating it as being above all the other identities of Kannadigas.

In walking the tightrope between appealing to Kannada sentiment without being seen as a Kannada chauvinist, Siddaramaiah has to find a balance between very different interests. He will have to convince the Congress high command that he is not creating a problem for it in other states, even as he calms the anger of Kannada groups over their flag not being made the official one. But as someone who has built his political career as a supporter of the Kannada cause within national parties, Siddaramaiah is likely to fancy his chances.

Narendar Pani is professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Mar 16, 2018 18:55 IST