MANGALORE, Karnataka -- It should have been a time of great debate with family and friends over the pressing issues of the day and the motley crew of candidates running in the Karnataka assembly election.
But 20-year-old Melwyn and 21-year-old Salman are losing out on the joy and excitement of voting for the very first time in their deeply polarised hometown in Mangalore.
The young men who live on the coast, which locals call the "laboratory of Hindutva" in Karnataka, have been told by their families to stay indoors and keep their mouths shut until the election is over.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the two friends believe, is a threat to the physical and mental wellbeing of religious minorities, while the Congress Party is uninspiring and tainted by corruption. They plan to vote for the Congress with the sole objective of defeating the BJP.
"Is voting out of fear really voting?" asked Melwyn, a college graduate. While Salman, who is just finishing college, asked, "Are elections a curse?"
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Are elections a curse?
With polling in two weeks, the high stakes Karnataka assembly election is playing out like a do or die contest.
Three major pre-poll surveys out so far predict a hung parliament with neither party getting the 113 seats needed to form a majority, and the Janata Dal (Secular), an influential regional party led by former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, playing kingmaker till the end.
Earlier this year, the BJP had flown in Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath to preach Hindutva, while just last week the BJP's lawmaker from Belagavi, Sanjay Patil, declared, "This election is not about road, drainage or drinking water. This election is about Hindus and Muslims religions."
This election is about Hindus and Muslims religions.
For the Congress Party, losing the last major state that it controls, other than Punjab, would not only be a psychological blow in the run up to the 2019 general election, it would further compromise Rahul Gandhi's image as a leader, making it less likely for other parties to accept him as a leader of a potential third front against the BJP.
As a senior Congress leader put it, "Karnataka is a matter of life or death."
Yet for Salman and Melwyn, this election seems almost a betrayal of the democratic process: an exercise to pick a lesser evil.
"I don't even like the Congress but I'm so scared what will happen if the BJP comes to power," said Melwyn. "We will live with fear all the time. It is a fear that lives and grows inside you."
We will live with fear all the time. It is a fear that lives and grows inside you.
Salman, shares these concerns.
"There will be killings," Salman said. "The first thing they will do is impose a beef ban and then the cow vigilantes will go wild."
Turning to Melwyn, Salman asked if he had watched the interview in which actor and director Prakash Rai had described BJP as a "cancer" and the Congress as a "viral disease."
Laughing loudly, Melwyn said, "I agree. BJP is a cancer and Congress is a like a cold and cough."
Melwyn, who grew up in Mangalore, recalls that his family had voted for the BJP in the 2008 Assembly election.
While sipping nimboo paani, Melwyn explained that once upon a time, there were many things that he liked about Modi, especially his style of speaking and his promise of jobs.
"I thought he would be a great leader for this country, but his promises turned out to be fake," he said. "I don't hold Modi responsible for every crime committed against a Muslim or Christian, but it has happened in his name, in the name of his party, and he has let it happen."
For first-time voters, Melwyn and Salman, employment, or rather looming unemployment, weighs heavily on their minds.
There are hardly any lucrative prospects for them in Mangalore, which is a bustling port of trade and commerce, but bereft of multinational companies that can offer jobs to young people graduating with a wide assortment of degrees.
Modi, in 2013, had promised that the BJP would create 10 million jobs if it came to power. The 2016-17 Economic Survey showed that unemployment rate had increased from 4.9% in 2013-14 to 5%, and 641,000 jobs were created between July 2014 and December 2016 in eight major sectors. Earlier this year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) projected that India's unemployment rate is expected to remain static at 3.5 percent, while the number of unemployed persons is expected to rise from 18.3 million in 2017 to 18.6 million in 2018 and 18.9 million by 2019.
Melwyn, who recently graduated with a B. Com degree, and Salman, who recently returned from Saudi Arabia to pursue BBA, believe that it is the violence ensuing from the Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism along the coast, which keeps MNCs and big business away.
Melwyn said, "Here, I could probably get a job for Rs.8000 per month, that's it. In Bangalore, it could be Rs. 25,000. Things are very bad for the youth."
But when asked to pick the one thing worth voting for, they both cried, almost in unison, "Freedom."
"For me, freedom is to not be judged and to live without fear," said Salman.
For me, freedom is to not be judged and to live without fear.
Far from not being judged, Melwyn said that Muslims and Christians had been "branded" by the Hindutva forces.
"They have branded us. The Christians are all about 'booze and dancing.' The Muslims are about 'women and beef.' That is what they make people think of us," he said.
Melwyn added, "I know what freedom is but I don't know who can deliver it."
I know what freedom is but I don't know who can deliver it.
James Manor, emeritus professor of commonwealth studies at the School of Advanced Studies, University of London, said, "This is the first campaign in the state's history marked by extravagant name calling by BJP leaders, referring to the Chief Minister as Mullah Siddaramaiah, Sultan Siddaramaiah and Siddaravana. The BJP may still do well, but it will be in spite of these oddities, not because of them."
Manor, who has studied Karnataka elections for the past four decades, also noted that BJP party president Amit Shah was running a "strange" campaign involving a pre-determined set of slogans and tactics, without considering everyday issues, and without taking any advice from grassroots workers in the state.
"He did the same thing in the Delhi and Bihar state elections which led to disaster, and to the deep anger of state BJP activists," he said.
A "strange" campaign involving a pre-determined set of slogans and tactics...
The Congress is banking on a host of Siddaramaiah's schemes of free rice, free milk, and subsidized canteens for the poor, the granting of religious minority status to the community of Lingayats, and the Muslim (12.92 percent of the population) and Christian (1.87 percent) vote.
If the Congress manages 113 out of the 224 seats in the Assembly, it would be the first party to form a majority government in the state for a second consecutive term since 1989.
While the coastal Karnataka has been a Sangh Parivar frontier for nearly half a century, it was in the 1990s, after the fall of the Babri Masjid in that BJP's political clout started growing in the region.
Karnataka was the first southern state where the BJP came to power in 2008, but four years of mis-governance, corruption and infighting led to defeat in the 2013 state election. The BJP, reduced to 40 seats, won just five out of the 24 assembly seats in the coastal districts of Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Chikmagalur.
The BJP bounced back as the Modi wave swept the country one year later, winning 17 out of 28 Lok Sabha seats from Karnataka, including all the three parliamentary constituencies along the coast.
K Phaniraj, a civil engineer and member of the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (Karnataka Forum for Communal Harmony), said that the BJP had spent its five years in the Opposition raising communal issues and embarrassing the Congress government over inter-state matters.
"Okay, we get it, you don't like Muslims, but my question to the BJP is what have you done for the state? Except for communalism, what issues have you raised?"
My question to the BJP is what have you done for the state?
The BJP's campaign, even beyond the Hindutva hotbed along the coast, has focused on communalizing a spate of political killings since 2013, when the Congress came to power in Karnataka.
In the narrative peddled by the BJP and its right-wing allies, "jihadists" of the Muslim organisation, including the Kerala-based Popular Front of India (PFI), and its political wing, Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), have killed 23 Hindus in the past four years.
The state government, desperate to counter accusations of minority appeasement, claimed that only nine of the 23 murders had anything to do without religion. The other deaths were caused by personal enmity, accident or suicide. In fact, it turned out that one man on the list, Ashok Poojary, was actually alive.
Facts and figures, however, have paled before the fiery rhetoric from the Hindutva camp.
While Karandlaje, who represents the coastal constituency of Udupi-Chikkamagaluru, told Lok Sabha that "jihadi forces are killing Hindu activists in large numbers," Hegde from Uttara Kannada asked whether Siddaramaiah would celebrate 'Ajmal Kasab Jayanti.'
Addressing a public rally in Bengaluru, earlier this year, Adityanath asked Siddaramaiah to prove his Hindu credentials by banning cow slaughter and beef in the state.
Addressing a public rally in India's Silicon Valley, a month later, Modi pointedly raised the murder of Hindu activists. Making a play on the phrase "ease of doing business," he said that there was "ease of doing murders" in Karnataka.
Given that communal violence has increased by 37 percent from 2014 to 2017 in Karnataka, and the state is ranked among the five states with the most communal incidents from 2008 to 2017, it is fair game to call out the state government for its failure to maintain law and order. (The BJP ruled Karnataka from 2008 to 2013).
There have been over 90 political murders in the state from 2000 to 2017, an average of five every year. Karnataka, in fact, also constitutes 11.78 percent of political murders in South India, but still fares better than Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala.
On the one hand, the Congress government has failed to solve the murders of rationalist M.M. Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh, both fearless critics of Hindu right wing politics. On the other hand, it has tried to drop charges against Muslims accused in communal violence case, which has allowed BJP to raise hell over minority appeasement.
Political analysts, however, doubt if BJP's communal blitzkrieg has gained traction.
"Voters have tired of, or largely disregarded, communal themes and claims about killings on the coast, just as they know that BJP claims about chaos and the breakdown of public order are gross exaggerations of just plain lies," Manor said. "The BJP may still do well, but it will owe much more to these very sophisticated voters' views that their MLAs or the Congress government have been disappointing."
Phaniraj, who hails from the coastal city of Udupi, noted that unlike Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, religious prejudice did not necessarily fashion electoral choices in Karnataka.
"Karnataka is not UP or Bihar," he said. "Here, a person can be communalized, he or she may not like Muslims in their personal lives, but they will still vote on secular issues."
Here, a person can be communalized, he or she may not like Muslims in their personal lives, but they will still vote on secular issues.
The Congress has also countered BJP's communal campaign by stressing on regional identity, with Siddaramaiah removing Hindi signs from metro stations and unveiling a state flag ahead of the election.
The chief minister, however, has not remained aloof to the BJP's Hindutva campaign. At one point, he declared that 'Rama' was part of his name. "I am also Hindu and I have Rama in my name. BJP people should refrain from calling me anti-Hindu," he said.
Shaking his head, Melwyn said, "I don't think anyone is behaving like Lord Ram these days."
I don't think anyone is behaving like Lord Ram these days.
When ensconced in UP, Adityanath has knocked the Taj Mahal, but in Karnataka, his target has been Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore.
Flaying the chief minister's decision to mark the birth anniversary of Tipu Sultan, the UP chief minister said, "Tell the Congress that in India, Hanuman will be revered and not Tipu Sultan."
The Muslim ruler has gone down in history as the "Tiger of Mysore," who fought long and hard against the East India Company, and as an innovator who introduced all manner of technologies from cutting edge weaponry to organised silk farming. There are, however, those who denounce him as a tyrant that destroyed temples, churches and forced mass conversions.
While chief minister has rebuffed allegations that he is pandering to Muslims by celebrating Tipu Sultan's birth anniversary, violent protests have rocked Coorg, around 260 kilometres from Bangalore, where the Muslim ruler's exploits still live in infamy.
Salman can see how both sides are using Tipu Sultan to get votes, and he resents getting caught in the crossfire.
"I personally don't care whether the Congress chooses to celebrate Tipu Sultan or not, but what ends up happening is, whether it is the Taj or Tipu, the BJP uses it to make Muslims look bad," he said. "It's like how the beef ban is less about protecting cows and more about attacking Muslims."
It's like how the beef ban is less about protecting cows and more about attacking Muslims.
The conversation took an interesting turn when Melwyn piped up about how the Catholics in Mangalore had also not forgotten the destruction of their churches at the hands of the Muslim ruler.
In the classes that he took to learn the Konkani language, Melwyn learnt how Tipu Sultan razed the Milagres Church in Mangalore in the 18th century.
Laughing loudly, Melwyn reassured Salman that he was over the destruction of the church and bore him no ill will.
As they both laughed, Melwyn said, "If the BJP or Congress think that I'm going to vote in 2018, while remembering Tipu Sultan from 200 years ago, then they must be mad," he said.
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