“The Congress says the BJP has done nothing for us. I would like to ask the Congress candidate: What has the Centre done? Can you live on four kg rice for a month? That’s the ration that each adult gets now. And children below 12 get nothing. Children don’t eat, of course. They are all the same, these parties,” says Mallamma, a 32-year-old activist who organises labour on the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee sites in Chittapur taluk of Gulbarga district.
In point of fact, Mallamma’s they-are-all-the-same-these-parties comment is right on target: mainstream parties really are the same in this district. In the nine constituencies of her own district, a majority of candidates have switched political allegiance — and just within the group formed by the four major parties, ie, Congress, Janata Dal (Secular), Bharatiya Janata Party, and Karnataka Janata Paksha. For example, in Gulbarga South, the candidates from the JD(S), BJP and KJP defected just before the elections. In fact, even liberal-progressives seem to have been drawn in to this game. Till recently a JD(S) stalwart, S. K. Kantha shifted to the KJP — a shock to those who know this socialist and trade union leader. There is not one constituency in Gulbarga district that has not seen at least one candidate who has switched parties. The number goes up to three in at least two constituencies.
There is yet another aspect, less quantifiable, that knits the four parties. It is by now well established that the asset declarations of most candidates are either a partial declaration of assets, or an underestimation. Even so, the affidavits that candidates file do offer some idea of the economic status of the individual: it would, for example, be very difficult for a candidate who is worth more than Rs. 50 crore to declare assets of Rs. 50 lakh. In Gulbarga division, of the 36 candidates of the four major parties contesting from nine constituencies, only 34 affidavits are obtainable on the Election Commission website. Of these, there are two candidates whose assets are greater than Rs. 10 crore, 19 whose assets are between Rss 1 crore and 10 crore, three whose assets are between Rs. 50 lakh and Rs. 1 crore, and 10 candidates whose assets are less than Rs. 50 lakh.
Finally, the socio-economic status of each of these nine constituencies is perhaps the most severe indictment of the representatives of all four parties that in their many past and present avatars have been elected from Gulbarga district since the first elections. In his 2002 report on the redressal of regional imbalances between south and north Karnataka, the late economist D. M. Najundappa evolved a mechanism of classifying the level of underdevelopment of all 175 taluks of the state using 35 relevant indicators. He called this the Comprehensive Composite Development Index. Jewargi, Chincholi, Aland rank 174, 173 and 172; Afzalpur is 170 and Chittapur is 165.
“In Gulbarga, political ideology plays no role. Candidates appeal to the electorate on caste and by giving money. Development promises are only for the press,” said Maruti Manpade, candidate from Gulbarga Rural contesting for the Communist Party of India (Marxist). According to Mr. Manpade, a system of patronage is used for marshalling electoral support. This is extended to castes, women’s self-help groups, minority groups, or Dalits, through “vote-mobilisers”, who are the party fixers in each constituency, paid for by the candidates. Where the contest is stiff amongst moneyed candidates, cash is distributed directly to voters,” he added.
“This is a feudal area and elections reflect that,” Meenakshi Bali, an academic and writer from Gulbarga told The Hindu. “The Lingayats, with all their sub-castes, control land in the rural areas, and business in the urban. Therefore, what is called ‘the Lingayat vote’ in election analysis is actually not just their own votes, but the votes they command because of their elevated status.” An observation endorsed by what Shanta Bai from Kalagi village in Chitapur taluk says: “The zamindars threaten us if we don’t vote for whom they tell us to.”