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Political Line | Contours of the Karnataka combat

This is the latest edition of the Political Line newsletter curated by Varghese K. George

April 09, 2023 11:14 am | Updated April 10, 2023 07:52 am IST

(The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week by Varghese K. George, senior editor at The Hindu. You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox every Friday.)

The BJP wants to dismantle the old format of political negotiations in the State; dominant communities resist the attempt

The only southern State where the BJP has ever been in power, Karnataka, is going to the polls. Voting will be on May 10 and the results are to be announced on May 13. A loss in Karnataka will be big for the BJP; a win will be big for the Congress. Our editorial captures the contours of the combat here.

Karnataka is a major growth centre of India and home to several of its major companies.

There are 10 broad points that would be helpful in understanding the dynamics of Karnataka politics.

The first is, in the words of a key political actor in the State, three Cs – candidate, cash and caste – determine outcome. They are interlinked, but the essence of three Cs is that a candidate must have the capacity to stir up his own caste, and additional votes, a process that is mediated through cash in a significant manner. “Communities mobilise around their own candidates, whichever party they belong to,” the leader says. So, getting the combination of three Cs correct in the largest number of constituencies is at the core of election strategy for all parties in the State. This also means that religion is less a factor, in Karnataka, relatively.

Second, though there are three main parties at play – the Congress, the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S) – contests in individual constituencies will be largely bipolar. Of the three, the Congress has a presence across all regions, and each Assembly segment. The JD(S) strength is concentrated in the Old Mysuru region, where the Vokkaliga community is dominant. The BJP strength is concentrated in the Mumbai-Karnataka region where the Lingayat community holds sway, pockets in the coastal region and urban centres, particularly the Bengaluru region. The party is weak in the Old Mysore region. In most seats, it would be a direct contest between the Congress and either the BJP or the JD(S). BJP is keen to make it triangular in constituencies particularly in Old Mysore it is trying hard to break into Vokkaliga votes.

Watch |Talking Politics with Nistula Hebbar | Karnataka elections | Why is there a scramble for Lingayat vote in Karnataka? 

Third, the two dominant caste groups in the State, the Vokkaligas and Lingayats, are facing the risk of submergence in the totalising Hindutva identity that the BJP is aggressively pursuing. These communities are powerful. For the Lingayats, the BJP has been the convenient vehicle, and for the Vokkaligas, both the JD(S) and the Congress have been useful. Powerful segments in both communities want to keep their autonomy and avoid the risk of being subsumed by a metanarrative. Lingayats could do that in the BJP, and the Vokkaligas could do so in the Congress and the JD(S). The BJP wants to change that.

The fourth point to note is the BJP’s attempt to bypass chieftains of these two castes and draft the communities directly into the national Hindutva project. The party removed B.S. Yediyurappa as CM in July 2021 and replaced him with Basavaraj Bommai. BSY, as a Lingayat strongman, could dictate terms in the party while Mr. Bommai draws his legitimacy from the central leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Both belong to the Lingayat community, but Mr. Bommai does not command the same weight as BSY. The BJP is trying the same approach with the Vokkaligas too – by stirring Hindutva feelings among them. One instrument of its campaign is questioning the place of Tipu Sultan in the historical awareness of the Mysuru region. The BJP’s ideological affiliates have created a new narrative around Tipu Sultan, whom Hindus of all castes in the region generally considered a hero. A campaign in recent years has made him into a controversial figure.

The fifth point is about how these community leaders are pushing back. The BJP-affiliated propagandists have conjured up two characters, Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, as Vokkaliga warriors who killed Tipu Sultan! Though it is a complete fiction, these two characters now occupy the hazy junction of history, myth and fiction that fuels Hindutva everywhere in the country. But sections of the Vokkaliga community are aggrieved and consider this an insult to them. They feel offended by the BJP.

Panchamasali Lingayat community members at Belagavi.

Panchamasali Lingayat community members at Belagavi. | Photo Credit: PTI

Lingayats have not taken the sidelining of Mr. Yediyurappa lightly at all. The BJP central leadership is trying hard to keep him in good humour. Mr. Modi lavished praise on him, speaking at an event to mark his 80th birthday in Shivamogga on February 27.

But the crowd erupted for Mr. Yediyurappa and stayed still for CM Bommai. The BJP and the Congress are both reaching out to the community.

The sixth point is the BJP’s attempt to expand its support base beyond the Lingayats and emerge as a pan-Hindu party. I mentioned the attempt to reach out to Vokkaligas but the success on that count might be limited. The BJP wants to expand its base among all castes in order to reduce its dependence on Lingayats. And it is trying to rejig the caste quota in the State to push this objective. The attempt in its proposed redistribution of quotas is to create a Hindu bloc that is antagonistic to the Muslims.

The recasting of the caste configuration that the BJP hoped could create a Hindu-Muslim fault line has resulted in some unintended consequences. Several communities are unhappy with it, and might turn against the BJP.

The key to all this is an aggressive communal pitch, which grew strident in the last couple of years, and that is the seventh point to note.

There is a notion that voters of Karnataka may not reward open communalism like their counterparts in Gujarat do, for instance. That will be tested this year. The BJP and affiliates made coastal Karnataka into a laboratory of Hindutva with mixed results in the past. The party is trying to make it a State-wide force through this year’s election.

Congress hopes to make corruption a campaign issue, while the BJP hopes it won’t stick – that is the eighth point. Through last year, the Congress had tried to put CM Bommai in the dock by running some creative campaigns – for instance, the ‘PayCM’ theme.

A police person removes posters with QR code and the phrase ‘PayCM’ written above targetting Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, in Bengaluru.

A police person removes posters with QR code and the phrase ‘PayCM’ written above targetting Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: -

The BJP tried to portray that as an attack on a Lingayat.

All said, corruption is not a political issue in isolation. Corruption becomes an election issue in combination with other ones, though at times it might appear to be the central issue. Congress hopes that price rise might do that trick for it campaign. The Congress has promised a slew of schemes help people tide over the distress. 

The ninth point is the leadership tussle in the Congress between two claimants – D.K. Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga and a man for all seasons, and Siddaramaiah, a champion of backward caste politics. Not only do they have widely divergent personas, they also represent two models of mobilisation and political messaging. 

Tenth and finally, Karnataka is among the few States where mainstream parties continue to address Muslim voters. The Congress in Gujarat, for instance, keeps aloof from the community in fear of a Hindu backlash; in Uttar Pradesh, even the Samajwadi Party is trying to keep a distance. But Karnataka is different. Both Mr. Shivakumar and Mr. Siddaramaiah speak out strongly for Muslims. So do JD(S) leaders.

Federalism Tract: Notes on Indian Diversity

An Amul advertisement announcing its entry into the Karnataka market.

An Amul advertisement announcing its entry into the Karnataka market.

Milking a controversy

Gujarat based Amul’s entry into the Karnataka market is turning out controversial. Regional politicians consider this an attempt to destroy the milk cooperative sector in the State. The former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy termed Amul’s move “a ploy to kill brand Nandini” and argued that it would lead to unhealthy competition and destroy the cooperative systems.

Highs Highness, the Governor

Tamil Nadu Governor R N Ravi’s claim that the Governor can kill any law passed by the Assembly has set off yet another controversy. Chief Minister M K Stalin has taken umbrage at the claim.

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