|Nilekani with Ananth Kumar (right) at the event; the furore over language in Bangalore on Saturday. (Bangalore News Photos)
Bangalore, March 29: A novel attempt in India’s “cosmopolitan” IT capital to have its Lok Sabha candidates debate before citizens went awfully wrong this evening when hecklers insisted that everyone speak in Kannada.
BJP supporters shouted down Congress nominee Nandan Nilekani, whose mother tongue is Konkani, when he started off in English.
Eventually, the two-hour debate, organised for four key Bangalore South candidates, had to be called off after 45 minutes as BJP supporters invaded the dais when party candidate Ananth Kumar was asked by the moderator to stick to the point.
Yet the setting and dramatis personae had seemed perfect for the experiment in forward-looking democratic practices.
Bangalore is a globally renowned city that draws its residents from across the country and various nationalities. Nilekani is a former techie and two of the other candidates are urbane, sophisticated social activists.
The moderator was Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, chairperson and managing director of Bangalore-based biotechnology major Biocon Limited, who heads the citizens’ group Bangalore Political Action Committee that organised the event.
Some 2,000 people had packed into the venue, a college auditorium. The BJP workers clearly outnumbered Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) activists.
Nilekani took first strike. As soon as he began speaking, the crowd erupted into cries of: “Kannadathalli maathadu (Speak in Kannada).”
The candidate, who did his schooling in Bangalore before joining IIT Bombay, is self-confessedly not a fluent Kannada speaker and had had to brush up his Kannada before embarking on the election campaign.
Like most other Saraswat Brahmins from the Konkan coast, which stretches between Mangalore and Goa, he grew up in a home where Konkani was the spoken language.
Nilekani’s repeated requests for calm, in Kannada, failed to silence the crowd.
After several minutes of chaos, his BJP rival asked his supporters to calm down and let the debate continue. Nilekani gamely continued in Kannada but spoke haltingly, often stumbling into English.
The sloganeering in favour of Kannada resumed when Aam Aadmi Party candidate Nina Nayak too began in a mix of English and Kannada.
Nayak shot back: “Do you have any issues if I speak in my mother tongue Konkani --- or should I speak any of the other six Indian languages I know?”
Bangalore Political Action Committee trustee and secretary K. Jairaj saved the situation by requesting her to stick to Kannada. Nayak was followed by Janata Dal (Secular) candidate Ruth Manorama, and five-time MP and former Union minister Kumar.
After each candidate had spoken for three minutes during the initial “introduction round”, the second round began with each of them given two minutes to talk on three issues they would take up if elected.
“I shall work for better transportation in Bangalore and have better drinking water pipelines considering we are a plateau and water has to be pumped up from the Cauvery,” Nilekani said.
Nayak said: “I’ll work for my party’s promise to give the people a purer Lokpal bill and work to create jobs.”
When his turn came, Kumar launched into a political speech lambasting the UPA government’s economic, foreign and defence policies. “We’ll shut down the India-Bangladesh border,” he thundered.
As Mazumdar Shaw, the moderator, intervened, all hell broke loose. A group of BJP workers charged menacingly towards the dais, which was packed with hardcore Kumar supporters within minutes. On the floor, a few hundred BJP workers chanted slogans.
A handful of Congress activists who tried to counter them were shoved around and left quickly. When repeated pleas fell on deaf ears, the organisers stopped the debate.
“This is hooliganism. Fighting over language is real primitive in a city like Bangalore,” said R. Ravindran, a member of the audience. “Such behaviour shows that we are not mature enough to behave democratically.”
A young woman was heard telling her companion: “The BJP just lost one lakh votes.”
Yesterday, Shaw had told the media she had high hopes from the series of candidate debates the action committee had planned before the April 17 vote. This evening, she looked helpless and angry as she was escorted out of the venue.
Later, the action committee said it would go ahead with the two other debates planned on April 2 and 5 for the candidates from the city’s two other seats, Bangalore North and Bangalore Central.
“It’s extremely disappointing that we have an MP who has no interest in talking about his agenda,” Nilekani commented tonight on his blog.
“When Ananth Kumar was asked about his agenda for Bangalore, rather than answering the question, he began attacking the central government. Ananth Kumar, however, proved that he had no interest in doing any real work.”
Nilekani made only a passing mention of the disruption.