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The ebb and flow of Karnataka politics

Mysore Chief Minister K. Hanumanthaiya and future Chief Minister S. Nijalingappa at a convention of Congress Workers at Hubballi in 1954.

Mysore Chief Minister K. Hanumanthaiya and future Chief Minister S. Nijalingappa at a convention of Congress Workers at Hubballi in 1954.   | Photo Credit: STAFF

It was around 50 years ago that Karnataka politics began to witness certain fundamental changes. Early in the 1970s, the social power blocs in the State’s ruling class began to undergo a transformation, a process which changed the face of power politics for ever. In the mid-1980s, the monopoly of the Congress ended with the emergence of a centrist alternative in the Janata Party (renamed later as the Janata Dal). The eventual disintegration of the Janata Dal in the late 1990s paved the way for Karnataka becoming the first State in the South to host the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Political contests that emerged in response to these shifts ensured a more even distribution of political power amongst various social groups, diminishing the dominance of the two major caste groups — the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas — although they continue to enjoy, till date, a disproportionate share of power and influence in State politics.

The Urs era

The 1969-split of the Congress between the organisational wing, represented by the old guard of the party, and a faction led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi jolted the political equilibrium in Karnataka.

Post-split, the State had the Congress (O) government, which had the backing of some stalwarts. Indira Gandhi’s faction of the Congress appeared pale before the powers of the old guard.

The State president of Indira Gandhi’s faction, D. Devaraj Urs, himself was a relatively lesser-known figure then. The two dominant castes from which the undivided Congress drew its mainstay were solidly behind the Congress (O).

In a strange combination of class and caste in politics, Urs weaved together a coalition of the economically weaker sections among the two dominant castes and the traditionally disadvantaged social groups, such as OBCs, SC/STs, and the minorities. This social formula worked successfully in the 1972 Assembly election. Defying all political calculations, the Indira Gandhi faction, which later came to be known as Congress (I), won 165 of the 216 seats. In the 1978 Assembly polls too, the Congress (I) won 149 of the 224 seats. The OBC representation in the Assembly, which was a mere 18 in 1967, increased to 36 in 1972 and 45 in 1978.

Clearly, the hold of the disadvantaged social groups in the power structure enhanced vis-a-vis the two dominant, landed castes. Urs fell out of favour with Indira Gandhi and eventually parted ways with the Congress after the 1978 elections, but by then he had substantially changed the social sub-structure of the Congress in Karnataka.

Urs was not from an OBC caste. Hailing from the erstwhile ruling family of Mysore, he was “the calmly efficient aristocratic Chief Minister” as a news magazine had described him. However, his politics ensured that in the 40 years after him the State had four OBC Chief Ministers, whereas all Chief Ministers before him hailed from one of the two dominant castes.

As British scholar James Manor puts it: “Urs forged disadvantaged groups into such a powerful force that no party which came to power after him, including the BJP, dared to depart from substantial power sharing between them and the two dominant castes.”

Second shift

1983 saw Karnataka politics undergo the second major shift. In the Assembly elections held that year, the Congress lost power for the first time in Karnataka. Ironically enough, Urs, who gave a new lease of life to the Congress during the 1970s, was indirectly responsible for the State politics taking a clear non-Congress turn the next decade.

After he quit the Congress and lost power in 1980, Urs floated a regional party called Karnataka Kranti Ranga. Urs died in 1982 but his outfit survived with its own share of factional feuds and splits to fight another day. The Kranti Ranga joined hands with the Janata Party, now constituted primarily by leaders from the anti-Indira Congress faction of the previous decade. The combine won against the Congress in 1983 election by emerging as the single largest party and formed the first non-Congress government with the outside support of the BJP, which won 18 seats. The new government, under Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde, appeared refreshingly different for the first two years in office despite its precarious numbers. Waiting for an opportunity to consolidate the Janata Party, Hegde dissolved the Assembly after the Lok Sabha elections in December 1984, in which the Congress scored an impressive win leaving just four seats to the ruling Janata Party. In the mid-term Assembly elections, held just three months later in March 1985, the Janata Party bounced back with a clear majority. The 1983 results were not a fluke. The era of a two-party competition was here to stay. The BJP, whose fortunes plummeted to a mere two seats, was a minor third player, for the time being at least. As the Congress cultivated a new social base during the Urs era, the Janata Party now became the new arena of battle for supremacy between the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats.

Despite some deft management by Chief Minister Hegde, the party’s inherent tensions prevented it from growing into a cohesive political formation. The second innings of the Janata Party rule [1985-89] saw the factional battle at its worst. Hegde, a Brahmin and the compromise candidate between the warring Lingayat and Vokkaliga power blocs in the party, had to resign after he got entangled in a series of scandals. Hegde’s replacement S.R. Bommai, a Lingayat from North Karnataka, intensified the caste battles within the party, leading to the imposition of President’s rule in early 1989. The Janata Dal, as the Janata Party came to be known, lost badly in the election held the same year and the Congress came to power. In this political snakes and ladders, the fortunes of the Janata Dal soon reversed and it came back to power in the 1994 Assembly elections. The Chief Minister this time was H.D. Deve Gowda, the uncrowned leader of the Vokkaligas. However, 15 months later, he moved to the Centre to become the Prime Minister. J.H. Patel who replaced him as Chief Minister was a Lingayat. This way, both communities had their share of power during this term, but with the return of Mr. Gowda to the State after being unseated as Prime Minister in less than a year, it was a repetition of the same old story of caste-laced political dissidence. Mr. Patel stayed in power till the next elections but in the end the party split virtually on caste lines.

By 1999, Mr. Gowda led the Vokkaligas in the party to form the Janata Dal (Secular). The Lingayats under Mr. Patel grouped together as the JD(U) and aligned with the BJP.

Emergence of BJP

In this period of crisis and confusion, a number of leaders from both factions ended up in the BJP making it the second major player in Karnataka politics. Eventually, in the 2004 Assembly elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party. This was the virtual end of the centrist alternative that Karnataka had posed against the Congress since the early 1980s. State politics now began to take a rightist turn. Since then, the BJP has held power twice and is in its third stint now. First, it became a partner in a coalition with the JD(S) for 20 months during 2006-07. The second time, it formed the government on its own after winning the 2008 Assembly elections. It, however, lost to the Congress in 2013 and formed the government again in 2019 toppling a Congress-JD(S) coalition government, which came to power after the 2018 elections threw up a hung Assembly. The rightward shift of Karnataka politics is yet to secure itself firmly. From a distance, the southern gateway of the BJP looks strong. Scrutinised closely, however, its ramparts are just a patchwork. The BJP, despite forming the government twice on its own, is yet to develop strong roots on Karnataka soil, except the coastal belt and in some pockets of Bombay Karnataka.

On both occasions when it formed the government, the BJP was short of even a simple majority in the Assembly and it had to literally buy stability, through the now-infamous ‘Operation Kamala’. No doubt, the party has been able to weave together its own rainbow coalition of social groups in which the Dalits, the OBCs figure as much as the Brahmins, the Kodavas, the Lingayats and, of late, the Vokkaligas. However, none of these groups with the possible exception of the Brahmins and the Kodava, who in any case form a microscopic minority, seems to have pledged a lasting allegiance to the BJP’s rightist ideology.

The community support in each case is secured through a leader of the respective community and has thus been volatile. An example of this is when the Lingayats, on whose support the BJP counts on very heavily, did not back the party in the 2013 Assembly elections, without B.S. Yediyurappa, its Lingayat face.

The BJP lost heavily as Mr. Yediyurappa’s new outfit, KJP, split votes in a majority of the constituencies. Although the BJP swept the 2019 Lok Sabha elections by winning all but two of the 28 seats, it cannot be taken as a statement of the arrival of the party on any firmer footing because of the party’s apparent lack of cohesion.

State of flux

Karnataka politics seems to be in a state of flux at the moment. The social coalition that backed the Congress for long is withering. The BJP’s support base has spread wide but is still volatile.

It has been a virtual parade of parties moving in and out of power in the last seven Assembly elections as no party could win a successive second term since 1985. Whether it is on account of the growing maturity of the electorate or political parties stooping lower forever in their quest for power, is the moot question.

(A. Narayana is an associate professor with Azim Premji University. He is a policy researcher and a political commentator.)

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