President Kovind chose to praise Tipu Sultan. Will he stand up to BJP in future?
Bharatiya Janata Party might have hand-picked least-fancied Ram Nath Kovind to be the President of India but in his first visit to South India, the country’s first citizen demonstrated that he has a mind of his own.
Speaking at the controversy-marred diamond jubilee of Vidhana Soudha, the seat of Karnataka legislature in Bengaluru, he recalled the glorious contributions of many Kannadigas to nation building, which were warmly applauded by the assembled legislators and other dignitaries.
But President Kovind’s reference to one name – Tipu Sultan – received a thunderous response from the Congress benches, while there was a stunned silence from the other side consisting of BJP and Janata Dal (Secular) members.
Over the past few weeks, the leaders of the Congress and the BJP have been involved in a bitter wrangling over ‘Tipu Jayanthi’ (his birth anniversary) proposed to be celebrated by the state government on November 10.
For the third year in a row, the two sides are locked over the issue, though Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is determined to go ahead, keeping the elections, less than six months away, in view.
The Congress terms Tipu a “great warrior” and a “freedom fighter,” while the BJP calls him a “religious bigot” who allegedly killed or converted to Islam, thousands of Hindus and Christians. Historians generally agree that Tipu was a great ruler and the ‘aberrations’ during his period should not be judged in today’s context.
President Kovind, however, was unequivocal in his praise of Tipu, saying, “Tipu Sultan died a heroic death fighting the British. He was also a pioneer in development and use of Mysuru rockets in warfare. This technology was later adopted by the Europeans.”
He also named Krishnadevaraya, Kempe Gowda and Rani Chennamma as other “formidable soldiers of Karnataka.”
The President’s remarks on Tipu immediately snowballed into a controversy with the BJP and the Congress indulging in a fresh bout of blame game. Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly Jagadish Shettar alleged that the President’s speech was prepared by the state government and the Tipu reference was deliberately included.
A visibly delighted Siddaramaiah retorted that the BJP had no basic knowledge about who prepares the President’s speech and the BJP leaders who were opposing Tipu Jayanthi, stood exposed. He said Kovind had spoken “like a statesman.”
The truth behind the President’s speech is that Rashtrapati Bhavan had sought inputs from the state government for the speech to be delivered at the diamond jubilee and the government had forwarded through Raj Bhavan, a detailed note on ‘personalities and achievements of the state.’
The speech was prepared by the President’s staff at Rastrapati Bhavan and the line about Tipu, which came from Karnataka government, was included as it was factually correct. The President and his staff could have chosen to ignore this input but clearly no one saw it as one-sided or inaccurate.
An official source said that President Kovind, being well-versed in history and also the periodic controversy that erupted in Karnataka over Tipu Sultan, had carefully gone through the speech. Given the occasion of diamond jubilee, he wanted to focus only on the positive aspects of the state.
He also elaborated on how Karnataka had become the ‘engine of Indian economy.’ He said, “It is a mini India that draws, without losing its cultural and linguistic distinctions, youth from all over the country. They come here for knowledge and for jobs and they give their labour and intellect. Everybody gains.”
Kovind recalled that the state was the land of ancient Jain and Buddhist traditions, besides being the seats of Shankaracharya and Basavanna and always encouraged a syncretic culture. It was an indirect criticism of today’s politics where everything is seen through the prism of religion and communalism.
Though state BJP president BS Yeddyurappa preferred not to make a comment, first-time BJP MP from Mysuru, Pratap Simha tweeted and tagged the President, saying “Tipu did not die in the battlefield, but died like a coward inside the fort…If he had rockets, as mentioned by you, why didn’t he use them against the British in the third and fourth wars which he lost?”
Siddaramaiah might consider President Kovind’s endorsement of Tipu as a national hero as a moral victory for the Congress party, but the state BJP leaders are unlikely to discontinue their campaign against the government ‘sponsoring’ the Tipu Jayanthi.
They allege that the Tipu birth celebration is being hyped up for vote bank politics and the government had no interest in giving similar importance to other freedom fighters.
They point out that last week Siddaramaiah chose not to attend the birthday celebrations of Kittur Rani Chennamma who fought against the British, even though he was present at Dharwad, which was her area of operation.
Meanwhile, political observers will keenly watch whether, in future too, President Kovind will continue to adopt a non-partisan approach and carve his own path when he is confronted with such controversial issues.
Is Kovind’s strong defence of Tipu Sultan, unmindful of the BJP’s stand and the severe embarrassment it caused to the party, indication of an independent-minded president who is ready to stand up for his beliefs?
Will he, when confronted with many other agenda-driven issues of the BJP, show similar ‘spunk’ and surprise the leaders who chose him to the highest office in the country?
Time will tell.