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Temple Ban: 2 Karnataka BJP Leaders' Support of Muslim Vendors for Election Win

MLC A H Vishwanath and MLA Anil Benake were the only two BJP leaders to support Muslim vendors at Karnataka temples.

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BJP MLA of Belagavi North, Anil Benake referred to himself as 'Kattar RSS,' but later told The Quint, "On account of their religion, people should not be prevented from selling products." Benake, was the only MLA of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to have issued a statement opposing a ban on shops set-up by Muslim vendors near Karnataka temples.

The only other BJP legislator to oppose the ongoing ban on Muslim shop owners near Hindu temples, was BJP MLC Adaguru H Vishwanath. Why did the duo support Muslim vendors at the cost of irking the Hindu right wing including Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagaran Vedike, Hindu Janajagruti, and Sri Ram Sene?

The answer to this lies in the composition of the voters they want to woo.

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Muslim Votes Decisive Factor in Benake's Constituency

Benake candidly said, "I come from a constituency where there are Lingayats, Marathas and Muslims. I cannot win the constituency without the support of all."

In Belagavi North, from where the MLA hails, Muslims form 30 percent of the population. A source close to the BJP in Belagavi accused Benake of taking favours from the Muslims. "Benake has support among Muslim businessmen. He does get financial support from them," he said.

In 2018 Legislative Assembly election, Benake won Belagavi North with a thumping majority of over 17,000 votes.

He wrested power from Indian National Congress leader Fairoz Nooruddin Saith, who came second in the constituency. Meaning, a good number of Muslim votes in the key constituency had swung in favour of Benake.

The MLA said he has had close links with most communities including minorities in district. As a law graduate he cannot set aside the Indian constitution, he added.

"I think as per the constitution, anyone can sell and purchase what they want. We cannot ban people from their vocation." He, however, did not directly oppose the "right of temples to issue boycott notices" to Muslim vendors.

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Is Secular Tag Vishwanath's Strong Suit?

Adaguru H Vishwanath was once a staunch Congress leader who had spent four decades of his life in the grand old party. In 2017, he split with the Congress citing differences with Siddaramaiah and joined the Janata Dal (Secular). The following year he was made the JD(S) state president.

Though Vishwanath won 2018 election, along with 11 other MLAs he jumped ship to BJP, resulting in the fall of the Congress-JD(S) government in Karnataka. Vishwanath was then disqualified by the Assembly speaker and the Supreme Court of India upheld the disqualification. He was, however, allowed to contest byelection from Hunsur constituency, which he had won earlier.

In 2019, Vishwanath suffered a humiliating loss, by a margin of over 39,000 votes, to Congress leader HP Manjunath.

In Hunsur, Muslims form 21.72 percent of the population. While the community did not favour Vishwanath in the election, his association with the BJP also cutdown the Hindu Kuruba caste support he used to enjoy. While the BJP has retained him as an MLC, for which he has not had to win any election, Vishwanath is currently in charge of Mysuru district where Muslims form over 8 percent of the population.

In Karnataka's political milieu, has the septuagenarian realised that his secular credentials may win him votes to come back to power? Vishwanath had lobbied for a ministerial berth in the BJP government.

He, meanwhile, upheld the constitution. "The belly matters over religion and caste. Without food how could you survive. Petty businessmen of any religion – Hindu, Muslim or Christian – should not be banned," he said, unequivocally.

However, how will Benake and Vishwanath then get the support of BJP's core vote base – the Hindus, right?

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Benake, Vishwanath Balance the Act for Hindu Right Wing

Though they uncharacteristically expressed support for Muslim vendors, both Benake and Vishwanath has been upholding other demands of the Hindu rightwing. The two leaders held that they support the ban on hijab in educational institutions.

"The Karnataka High Court has given its verdict that hijab should not be worn in educational institutions in the state. The Supreme Court is likely to uphold the HC decision. I am in support of the verdict," Benake said. Muslim women can still wear hijab outside educational institutions, he pointed out.

Benake was also in support of the anti-cattle slaughter bill that the BJP government passed in 2021. The act affected Muslim cattle traders the most.

Vishwanath, too, has been supporting the ban on hijab. He has also been maintaining close ties with BJP's top leadership including ST Somashekhar and BS Yediyurappa who had aided his transition to the BJP.

"In Benake's case, the RSS can treat him lightly because he has always been a staunch worker of the outfit from the beginning stages of his political life. But, with Vishwanath, the RSS may not be too kind. He does not have any real ties with the RSS," the BJP source explained.

Benake, meanwhile, seemed confident. "I don't think I will land in trouble with any one, be it the RSS or the BJP," he laughed. The next Assembly election in Karnataka is scheduled to be held in 2023.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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