Karnataka is headed for Assembly elections on May 10 even as debates rage on allegations of corruption against the ruling BJP, changes in the caste reservation matrix made at the fag end of the government’s tenure and an undercurrent of communal narrative. Battle lines have been drawn between the BJP, Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), with the ruling dispensation attempting to push back with its narrative of development ushered in by what it calls “double engine sarkar.”
After nearly four years of BJP rule helmed by two Chief Ministers (B.S. Yediyurappa and Basavaraj Bommai) during the period, elections are being fought when development and governance issues are increasingly getting clouded by emotional issues drawn on caste and communal lines. Politicians across parties have also acknowledged that caste and money play a key role when ballots are cast. The Election Commission, while announcing election dates on Wednesday (March 29), also acknowledged the menace of money and freebies ahead of elections.
Reservation matrix, caste politics
The ruling BJP has in the last few months increased quantum of reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, culled out internal reservation among the Scheduled Castes, created many caste-based corporations, scrapped reservation for Muslims and enhanced reservation for the powerful Vokkaliga and Veerashaiva-Lingayat communities.
The hurriedly redrawn reservation matrix has led to confusion and a threat of legal battles. The issue is likely to resonate during the election campaign as Congress and JD(S) have opposed the new changes that have left Muslims out of OBC reservation quota. While BJP hopes to placate the SC (Left) category through internal reservation, the quota quantum has not satisfied them. Meanwhile, Banjara community is strongly opposing the very idea of internal reservation and has launched protests. The enhancement of reservation to SC/ST is being seen as an eyewash till it is inserted in Schedule 9 of Constitution following parliament approval as the new quota breaches the 50% cap imposed by Supreme Court. This has been recommended by the government to the Centre.
In its bid to woo communities, statues of icons of communities have been unveiled in the recent past across Karnataka and those include Kempegowda, the Vokkaliga icon, Shivaji Maharaj, the Maratha king, Basavanna and Kittur Rani Chennamma, the icons of Veerashaivas, and Sangolli Rayanna, the Kuruba icon.
Issues around communalism
Before the caste issues gained prominence, a slew of issues related to communalism had hogged the limelight in Karnataka. The ban on cow slaughter, anti-conversion act, controversy around Muslim girls wearing hijab in classrooms and opposition to using loudspeaker for calling Azaan among others have stoked communal feelings and led to polarisation.
Congress hopes this will lead to consolidation of Muslim votes in its favour, while JD(S) too is hoping to benefit. BJP, on its part, has claimed credit for banning “extremist” PFI, a Muslim organisation. A case related to Hijab ban, which affected thousands of Muslims girls ahead of annual examinations last year, is pending before the Supreme Court.
More recently, the Urigowda-Nanjegowda narrative has been propped by the BJP, by portraying these two characters as “brave soldiers” of the Vokkaliga community who killed the 19th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan. The king, who died in a battle with the British, is consistently painted as “anti-Hindu” by the BJP. This was part of the electoral agenda to gather Vokkaliga support, which has seen strong opposition by JD (S) and Congress.
Corruption vs. development
Congress has consistently talked of “40% commission government” to highlight alleged rampant corruption in the government. It has also raised allegations of poor governance, poor management during Covid-19 pandemic, recruitment scams and ‘”step motherly” treatment meted out to Karnataka by the Centre. Price rise and unemployment affecting livelihood too have been raised by the Congress.
The BJP has attempted to counter them by projecting its developmental programmes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has been roped in to inaugurate mega infrastructure projects in recent times to showcase the development agenda and talk of “double engine sarkar.”
Among the projects Mr. Modi inaugurated include Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway, Shivamogga Airport, Terminal 2 of Bengaluru International Airport, laying the foundation for Bengaluru suburban rail, flagging off Vande Bharat train between Mysuru and Chennai via Bengaluru, inauguration of the swanky Sir M. Visvesvaraya Railway Terminal at Baiyyappanhalli. The latest was the inauguration of the highly anticipated Namma Metro line between Krishnarajapura and Whitefield.
Key issues not in debate
Meanwhile, several key issues — such as implementing the long-pending Mahadayi project and Krishna Water Tribunal 2 awards, crucial projects for North Karnataka besides the Mekedatu project across river Cauvery in the South — are almost out of the public narrative now.
While the larger issues panning out across the State provide a peek into the electoral politics, ultimately the pick of candidate, money power and local issues could decide the winner, say political parties.