In the forthcoming Karnataka Assembly elections, the Congress will be the default beneficiary of the BJP’s diminished position but the JD(S), which was the real opposition in the State, could make gains too

As Karnataka readies for the elections on May 5 to the 225-strong state assembly, popular expectations of the poll outcome are vastly different from what they were on the eve of the last elections. In 2008, the Bharatiya Janata Party under the leadership of B.S. Yeddyurappa, surfed the crest of a sympathy-cum-anti-incumbency wave following the termination of the coalition arrangement with the Janata Dal (Secular) — JD(S). The BJP managed to successfully project the JD(S) as betrayers; the Congress was a rudderless, leaderless and uninspiring electoral force and the smaller parties were not even in the reckoning. The BJP was also flush with funds, having drawn to itself groups and individuals with deep pockets and money to pour into the elections.

All that has changed. The BJP faces elections with its reputation in the eyes of the general public severely diminished and the party itself split, while the Congress has emerged as the likely and default beneficiary of the former’s losses. The space occupied by the JD(S), which has traditionally been that of a secular third-force, may well expand. It has played a laudable role as an opposition party. As muckraker it exposed a plethora of urban land scams the BJP was sitting on top of, and as judicial activist it had these illegalities taken to the courts. The Karnataka Janatha Paksha (KJP), a party headed by former Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, is in an apparent state of maya. In the grip of the pretty much discredited theory of caste-as-vote-bank, the KJP expects to capture the substantial Lingayat vote in northern Karnataka, thus giving it enough seats to become, if nothing else, a key player in a hung assembly.

These then are the dominant players at this stage of the election process. B. Sriramulu, mining baron, former Health Minister in the BJP government, and business partner to the currently-jailed mining baron G. Janardhana Reddy, has launched a new party called, ironically enough, the Party of Poor Workers and Peasants (Badavara Shramika Raitara Congress). The Left parties have not had a substantial electoral presence in the State for several decades now: they nevertheless are politically important campaign players, as their candidates and mass organisations raise issues that mainstream parties are forced to address.

BJP’s setback

The BJP’s exhilaration in 2008 at having stormed a South Indian citadel for the first time was understandable. Yet for such a party to destroy its image and electoral prospects almost beyond repair in just five years is also a first. What went wrong for the party? The answer to this lies in the mechanisms of system subversion that got entrenched under its watch, and which seriously compromised established principles of statecraft. In fact, Karnataka under BJP rule offers itself as a challenging case study of how institutions were systematically sabotaged by state actors underneath the official rhetoric of developmental achievements and pro-people policies. The BJP in power was seen as spending its energies on saving its government rather than governing: infighting brought it to the brink at least 10 times.

Conflicting agendas

The interplay of the agendas of three power groups, the mining lobby, the real-estate faction, and the Sangh Parivar, also contributed to the erosion of popular support for the BJP.

The BJP had access, even prior to the 2004 elections, to unaccounted money acquired by a politically ambitious group of businessmen largely from the ore-rich district of Bellary. While the Congress and JD(S) have also been traditionally funded by business houses, real estate interests, and even private education tycoons and liquor business barons, the BJP set a precedent by offering substantial State patronage and a direct role in politics to its benefactors. The party’s strategy to shore up its Assembly strength by inducing around a dozen senior legislators from Opposition parties to quit and recontest on the BJP ticket — code-named “Operation Kamala” — was believed to have been bankrolled by its funders. In return, the government simply overlooked the large-scale violations of mining and forest laws, and the capture by the mining mafia of the administrative mechanism that was supposed to enforce laws, thereby giving them free rein to extract and export ore illegally. The report on illegal mining submitted in July 2011 by the then Lokayukta N. Santosh Hegde, unpacks this nexus and the many-layered scam that led to the loss of over Rs.25,000 crore and the arrest of the kingpin of the scandal, G. Janardhana Reddy by the Andhra Pradesh unit of the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Hindutva on Karnataka soil

By the middle of the BJP’s tenure the contours of a massive real estate fraud in which Mr. Yeddyurappa, the then Chief Minister, and his family were alleged to be involved, emerged. The Lokayukta Special Court is currently hearing cases relating to 15 instances of illegalities and corruption clubbed under five cases filed against the former Chief Minister, who went to jail for three weeks before he got bail. In addition, the CBI has filed a charge sheet before the Special CBI court in which Mr. Yeddyurappa figures as an accused for receiving kickbacks by a mining company to a family-run trust. Several other senior BJP leaders have cases relating to land fraud against them in the courts.

The ideological agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) faction within the BJP was nowhere as successful as the party hoped it would be while in power. Hindutva as a political mobilisation strategy may have been successful in other States, but in Karnataka its purpose has backfired — even in the coastal belt where it enjoys traditional support, as the recent urban local body (ULB) polls suggest.

There are several reasons for this. First, the BJP was elected to power as a political and not an ideological alternative to the JD(S) and Congress. In fact, the group that walked over to the BJP under Operation Kamala did not allude to Hindutva — not even as a fig leaf — as the reason for their defection. Indeed, the RSS looked upon this group of Yeddyurappa-supporters as outsiders, and today many of them are in the KJP. Even the mining barons had little interest in promoting Hindutva unless it segued with their business agenda. In fact, Hindutva’s abject fall from moral grace was the handiwork of none but its own — ministers and leaders of the party caught in lurid sex-and-porn scandals. This is not to deny the successes of the ideological project of the RSS in the last five years, particularly in the communalisation of educational and cultural spaces through administrative fiat, and in the innumerable instances of moral policing and sectarian intolerance by Sangh Parivar youth. Despite all this, however, Hindutva is most unlikely to figure as a campaign issue for the party.

Default beneficiary

If the Congress becomes the beneficiary of an anti-incumbency voter mood, as appears likely at this stage, it is not because it presents a credible alternative. The credit for playing the role of a robust Opposition within the legislature goes to the JD(S), and not the Congress. In fact, the party did not undertake any significant political campaign in the last five years despite the many issues and opportunities that presented themselves. But for Siddaramaiah, a seasoned leader originally from the JD(S) fold, the Congress does not have a credible chief ministerial face. Nevertheless, voter behaviour in the past seems to suggest that traditional support groups of the Congress tend to drift back to its fold if there are no strong electoral contenders.

JD(S) revival

The JD(S) has been known in the past to make a strong return from the brink of oblivion.

Interestingly, since the announcement of elections, there has been a quiet but steady stream of persons who are returning to the party fold, although it is not clear whether in the hope of getting tickets or because they sense a turnaround in the party fortunes.

The significance of the results to the ULB elections on March 7 this year has not been lost on political parties, who are reading into the results — Congress in the lead, followed by the BJP and JD(S) in a tie, with the KJP bringing up the rear — a voting pattern that may also determine the May 2013 results.

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