Regional sentiments run deep in the states of India
Politics and play - Ramachandra Guha
The chief minister of my state, Mr Siddaramaiah, recently announced that he would take an all-party delegation to meet the prime minister. He hopes thus to convince Manmohan Singh and the Union government to (i) install a statue of the medieval chieftain, Kempegowda, at the city’s international airport; (ii) name Bangalore’s main railway station after Sangolli Rayanna, a warrior who fought against the East India Company in the early 19th century, and who has been the subject of a recent Kannada film.
Four things are interesting about this proposal. These, in order of importance, are: (i) although folklore credits Kempegowda with founding Bangalore, in fact the town existed from well before his time; (ii) it is anachronistic to see Sangolli Rayanna as a ‘freedom fighter’, since he was fighting for the retention of his aristocratic chief’s privileges; (iii) of these two heroes, one comes from South Karnataka, the other from North Karnataka, their joint invocation bringing together the different, disparate, and often disputatious regions of the state; (iv) this, to my knowledge, is the first time a Karnataka chief minister has sought to make the promotion of regional heroes (real or fictive) a conspicuous part of his political agenda.
The operative word here is regional. Mr Siddaramaiah’s predecessor, B. S. Yediyurappa, was an incompetent, if not calamitous chief minister, under whose regime the state witnessed indifferent economic growth, attacks on minorities, and gross political corruption. Among the (so to say) ‘constructive’ achievements of Mr Yediyurappa’s government was to rename a flyover in west Bangalore, located not far from the Yeshwantpur Railway Station. I had often driven over the flyover in the past, and noticed only the destinations posted on it — right to Tumkur, left to Rajaji Nagar. After Mr Yediyurappa assumed power, however, these sign-boards cowered under a much larger metal banner in blue, proclaiming that we were now on the ‘Pandith Deendayal Upadhyaya Flyover’. Now the Pandit had no organic connection with Bangalore (or Karnataka). However, in the 1950s and 1960s he had served as the influential secretary of the Jana Sangh, the mother organization of the Bharatiya Janata Party to which Mr Yediyurappa (then) belonged.
In other states where they have been in office, the Bharatiya Janata Party has likewise named junctions and roads after the builders of their party. I grew up in the sub-Himalayan town of Dehradun; returning there in 2001, after some years away, I found that a crossing I had passed a million times in my youth was now called (after the founder of the Jana Sangh) ‘Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee Chowk’. It was previously known as ‘Bindal Chowk’; which was both pragmatic and sensible, since a river by that name flew alongside it, whereas Dr Mookerjee had probably never visited the town himself.
The BJP is a party of the ideological Right. Its counterpart on the Left is the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The CPI(M) has been episodically in power in Kerala and for much longer stretches in West Bengal. I know Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram only from fleeting visits, whereas I spent five formative years as a student in Calcutta. Two streets I knew well in those years were Lenin Sarani (formerly Dharamtala), that runs at the end of Chowringhee, and Ho Chi Minh Sarani, which is also in the heart of the city. I am told, meanwhile, that a major road in south-western Calcutta is called Karl Marx Sarani.