Karnataka polls: BJP will not come to power in the state, says Prakash Raj

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Actor Prakash Raj has hit the campaign trail in Karnataka with a single-point message for the people: keep doubting, keep asking. A known critic of the BJP, he has left the comfort of social media and is canvasing extensively on the ground against the saffron party. As much as he would like to assert his independence, he has had to face much criticism for his overtly political role from sections of the Right. However, he says that does not bother him because defeating BJP’s “communal and divisive” politics is his top priority at the moment.

Raj met with The Wire in Udupi, where he addressed the regional media first and appealed to all political parties to do “effective politics, not politics for effect”. He said that by dividing the electorate on religious lines, the BJP is not only violating the Indian constitution but also inflicting permanent damage on the social fabric of the country. In his own words, the immediate task he has set for himself is to stop the BJP from coming to power in Karnataka. Excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity:

You have named your campaign #justasking. What are you asking?

Just Asking, a foundation now, is a movement by itself. We think it will remain like this for the next ten years. It was a hashtag I started on social media when I started asking questions. I received great support across India. This is the second round of tour in Karnataka. I started touring the state three-four months ago, trying to connect with like-minded people. Now, there is a #justasking team in every district. Our team comprises lawyers, retired IAS and IRS officers, students, lecturers, writers, doctors etc. who have a similar thought process. I thought this was not the time to just sit in our own islands. And if your voice has to be heard, there has to be a connect. I have succeeded in getting many of these people together under one platform.

What are the fundamental issues you are raising?

The most important issue we are raising is why does a government propagate a religion, instil an ideology? We need to understand its agenda. One thing is clear that the (Union) government is not interested in progress and administration. Basically, all political parties in India are parties by themselves. But here is a party (the BJP) which is run by a different organisation.

You mean the RSS.

Yes, naturally. When the writing is on the wall, there are no conspiracy theories. Isn’t it really obvious from the way they are going? Somebody has to call a spade a spade. We have seen across the world how such political agendas end up. For me, this is a more important issue than corruption. Take Pakistan, for instance. When the whole country is consumed by religion, what happens? There is no progress, there is poverty, there is no science. The current government is taking this country back to the stone age. I can’t let that happen.

So you think the Modi government is driving India away from its liberal-democratic traditions?

Isn’t it really obvious? Look at the leaders speaking. Modi ji is asking his ministers and party members now to keep quiet, to stop giving “masala” to the media, to stop motor-mouthing. I want to tell you, my dear prime minister, they are speaking the truth. I thank them because they are speaking. Otherwise we wouldn’t have known what is inside them. So you need to take action against them, you need to disown them, not ask them to keep quiet. You think that what they have said is “masala”. These are thoughts which are disturbing the social fabric of this country.

You are one of the popular actors who have taken a strong position against Hindu majoritarianism. How do you think BJP’s Hindutva shows itself on the ground?

We have to understand how the BJP has been successful. They are not talking about Hinduism. They are trying to bring Hindu majoritarianism by creating hatred against other communities. They create scare. They tell you that the other communities will throw you out. They say that the the very existence of Hindus will go. They are not talking about the spirit of dharma.

In a democracy, even a single individual has his own dharma. If you want to propagate dharma, you have every right to build temples, build maths. But the government cannot do that. The government’s job is to be equal to everybody. That is how the constitution is formed. Now they say that they will change the constitution. That is their narrative.

See, dharma should enrich you. It should not destroy you. It has to be like a lamp that shows light. It cant be a fire which burns things down. When a man is struggling to survive, he may get threatened. The animal instincts in a man may come out. But we need to tell people that this is not how things are. We need to keep telling people that they are spreading hatred.

Many BJP supporters have indirectly alleged that you are batting for the Congress by speaking out against BJP.

See, whenever someone comes to speak out, everyone has the right to doubt that person until they hear him out. But I have the patience. I am not interested in a T-20 match. I am here for the long haul. I will continue to talk. See so many people are using the #justasking now. Slowly, it will gather more traction.

My success will not depend on whether I am able to mobilise one lakh people or not. But one speech, one speech of mine, one jibe of mine, if it is shared and discussed by people on different platforms, it is a success. That is a slow revolution. I believe in whatever I say. I have the facts with me.

The problem with the BJP is that they did not anticipate me emerging as a critic. Unlike political parties, I am just a citizen. I have not here to grab political power. I speak with conviction.

Modi ji says that 120 crore people are with him. That is a big lie. The BJP is not there is Karnataka, Telangana, Punjab, Goa, Tami Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala. Even in states where they are in power, there is opposition to them. The problem is that political parties believe that once they are voted to power, everyone is with them. That is not true. People have the right to change the government every five years. People can throw them out of power.

What the BJP is doing now is instead of talking about governance, they are getting into religion, which in Indian society is the most revered thing. They work in the grassroots like that. That is the most dangerous thing.

The problem is that by the time they go, they would have already inflicted deep wounds in society. Our job is to prevent that, keep telling people the truth. We need to explain and expose their narrative.

Karnataka is your home state. What is your assessment of the upcoming assembly elections?

See, the BJP has made inroads in districts like Dakshin Kannada and Udupi by using a communal narrative. We have to remind people that this is the same BJP which was in the government five years ago and changed three chief ministers. The same government was charged with many corruption charges. Siddharamaiah has delivered to an extent. It is not that he has not done anything. Let the people decide what they want.

Karnataka is the first state where you are actively participating in an election campaign.

Yes, elections are here now. For me, it is very important to stop the BJP. I use the elections to spread my message across the state. This is the time when people listen the most. I will definitely travel to other states too as the elections keep coming.

But I think are important because if the BJP wins in the state, it will go back to the north India, where it is facing great resentment, and tell people that the party has won even in the south. It is part of their plan to manufacture a national wave ahead of the 2019 general elections.

I want to bust that myth. BJP understands that it can’t even step into Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. And this is their only chance. For that, it is running this divisive and polarising campaign in Karnataka. I need to use elections to say what I want to say. Go to people and tell them the reality. Ask them to doubt, question more. I am not important. It is important that what I say seeps in, especially in places where the BJP thinks it is strong. For that if I need to stop shooting for films, I will do that.

What has the been the film fraternity’s response to your campaign?

Very little support. They are supporting me in their own way. I wish artists were more aggressive. Not only the film fraternity but artists, who are the conscience of the society, should be more aggressive. Yes, you will face backlash from those who are in power. But if you don’t realise that you are rich enough to lose, then why are you rich. The artists must realise that they are what they are because of people, not because of political parties. If richness does not empower you to be bold, honest, passionate then why the hell are you rich?

But some people say that while deriding the BJP, you ignore of other corrupt aspects of other parties.

I am not saying that other political parties are not corrupt. But today what is the most dangerous thing afflicting the country? It is communalism. First, stop the cancer; cold and cough can be looked after after that.

The BJP has used a mix of anti-Muslim rhetoric and development in its campaign. What do you have to say?

See, they started communal politics in the state. The minute there was a backlash, it asked its leaders to stay silent. Because now they want to use Modi as the development icon. When development is being questioned, they bring in Hindutva again. I am pretty sure they are slipping in Karnataka. And that is why they have been maligning those who question them.

There is campaign against you too.

It is fine. I am still talking to each and everyone, taking the message of manava dharma. I don’t want to fall into their trap. I want to tell the people that I have no personal vengeance against BJP leaders but I have a problem with BJP’s politics and divisive agenda. I want to tell people that the BJP is using them. I want to keep my language simple. You need to show your concern towards people more directly. I am simply saying don’t believe politicians by what they say, but by what they do. I feel that people are understanding what I am saying.

When I am talking about communal politics, I challenge the BJP to prove me wrong. Incidents of communal riots in Bihar and West Bengal show how the BJP has been at the forefront. The rapes in Kathua and Unnao has direct involvement of BJP leaders. Now there is a situation when Ambedkar’s statue is being guarded against possible destruction. There is an attack on the constitution and its principles. On February 14, if they can take sticks and hit the youngsters and mixed couples of the country and still not get arrested, one must ask what have you let lose?

State patronage to communal politics is the biggest danger India is facing today.

Your message to the electorate of Karnataka is…

Think, look at what is happening around you. If you don’t think and vote conscientiously, then you will lose your moral right to question again. You listen to me, listen to Modi and And then decide.

I mean who is What is his claim to glory? That you should be afraid of him. That he can buy as many people as he wants. Or is he very intelligent? That he can terrorise people. Are these the qualities in a politician that this country needs?

The very narrative of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat‘. How healthy is that? They want an opposition-mukt Bharat. How dare they bring out an order to take away accreditation of journalists?

Any personal backlash you have faced?

They have managed to stop some of my ads, some Hindi films. What they don’t realise, however, is that I am rich enough to lose. I dare them to come and stop my south Indian films. In 2019, Modi is not going to be the prime minister. I can clearly see that BJP is not going to form the government in Karnataka. They are desperate and let them be desperate. I am saying that Adityanath and are not going to be the leaders of Karnataka. I am asking people to choose their leaders and have some self-respect.
Published in arrangement with The Wire