Ban on PFI puts minority votes under spotlight in poll-bound Karnataka
In recent years, the now-banned PFI, along with its associates such as the political offshoot SDPI and the students' wing Campus Front of India (CFI), have made their presence felt in the state's Muslim-dominated areas, particularly along the coast.
The potential electoral impact of the Popular Front of India (PFI) ban in swing states Karnataka has sparked debate in political circles as its associate political wing, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), which is not illegal, remains relevant in certain constituencies with a significant minority community presence.
The ban imposed by the Union government on the PFI and several of its associates for alleged terror activities will be closely watched in Karnataka, where Assembly elections are just months away.
The now-banned PFI, along with its associates such as the political offshoot SDPI and the students' wing Campus Front of India (CFI), have been making their presence felt in the state's Muslim-dominated areas, particularly in the coastal belt, in recent years.
The SDPI has over 300 public representatives in various local bodies and has attempted to gain a foothold in several assembly segments.
It remains to be seen whether the ban on its parent organisation weakens the SDPI or allows it to consolidate its voter base further.
Many political observers believe that the ban will further consolidate Muslim votes in favour of the SDPI, at least in the pockets where it has a base, which could be detrimental to the Congress's efforts to unseat the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state.
According to Muzaffar Assadi, chairperson of the Department of Political Science at the University of Mysore, the ban may push the SDPI to contest more seats to consolidate its vote base, citing the victimisation' of the community as an argument.
In the seats that the SDPI would contest, this would have a 'cascading effect' on the electoral outcome because it would divide Muslim votes from Hindu votes, which would benefit the BJP and hurt the Congress, according to Assadi.
However, he pointed out that the ban's electoral implications are likely to be limited to the coastal belt and possibly a couple of other constituencies where 'conflict with the right-wing is very sharp.'
"In the rest of the state, PFI is not a major force to be reckoned with...also, the victimisation argument would be sellable only among the lower and upper middle classes," he added.
Political analyst, A Narayana, from Azim Premji University also stated that if a Muslim mobilisation occurs in support of the SDPI on the ban issue, it will be detrimental to the Congress in certain pockets and advantageous to the BJP.
Some argue that the ban on PFI will weaken the SDPI and benefit Congress by reuniting Muslim votes that were previously split among several constituencies.
Both Assadi and Narayana, however, reject this argument, claiming that there is no prohibition on the recruitment of SDPI cadres and that if the consolidation occurs, PFI sympathisers will undoubtedly join its political wing and work for it.
According to some analysts, the BJP will project the ban to demonstrate that it kept its promise to take the strongest possible action against 'anti-national forces.' Analysts believe it will try to capitalise on nationalistic sentiments to turn the tide in its favour.
Assadi claimed that the ruling party, the BJP, used the ban to re-consolidate Hindu votes with Muslim votes.
According to Narayana, the ruling BJP will almost certainly use the ban to project itself as the only party that is decisive in dealing with forces such as PFI.
He also stated that the ban appears to have served two purposes for the state BJP for the time being. The first is to strengthen the narrative that Siddaramaiah (Congress leader and former chief minister) is 'anti-Hindu' and that Congress is pro-Muslim and soft on terrorism by blaming them for the growth of PFI during their rule. The second goal is to divert public attention away from Congress's 'PayCM' campaign, which targets Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai on corruption charges.
The BJP has long blamed the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in power between 2013 and 2018 for the growth of PFI in the state, accusing him of withdrawing cases against the now-banned Islamist outfit.
Meanwhile, a state SDPI leader expressed confidence that the party will have legislators in the next assembly, saying that people have goodwill and sympathy for the party, which will benefit them.
While talking to PTI, BJP leader and state Energy Minister V Sunil Kumar said his party and government never saw the ban as political, but the decision has given the party's cadres confidence.
"It has restored faith in our workers, who previously believed that no one could control religious violence against them. Now they think that our government can do so, whether electorally or politically; we must wait and see what happens on that front. We (BJP) never saw it politically whether they went to SDPI or Congress, "In response to a question, he stated.
Following incidents of 'communal' murders, including that of BJP activist Praveen Nettar in Dakshina Kannada district in July, it sparked widespread protests and resignations by some of its Yuva Morcha members across Karnataka, accusing the state government of failing to protect the lives of Hindu 'karyakartas.' Kumar had also borne the brunt of their wrath at the time.
According to Congress MLA Rizwan Arshad, the ban on PFI is an 'eyewash' to appease the BJP cadre and will make little political difference.
"What about the government's political wing (SDPI) if they have concrete evidence and have decided to ban? How are they running for office?" he asked.
"SDPI will not be able to cut much ice in state elections. It makes no difference to us politically. The Assembly election will be a direct battle between the Congress and the BJP," Congress's leader stated.
(With inputs from PTI)