Battleground Karnataka

In the fractious run-up to the Assembly elections, the first round may have gone to the Congress

Updated - January 24, 2018 08:38 am IST

Published - January 24, 2018 12:02 am IST


A favourable verdict in the elections to the State Assembly in Karnataka is important for both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for reasons more than one. For the Congress, which has not won any State election, barring Punjab, after 2014, a victory here would help it cash in on it elsewhere, boosting its campaigns in other States which go to the polls later in the year. More importantly, the party is now attempting to forge a distinct social support base across the country which involves overt recognition to religious belonging as a counterweight to the Hindutva agenda, reaching out to the farming community as a whole, and holding forth as the champion of the backward classes, the minorities and the poor. In other words, the Congress is increasingly veering round a package of values such as respect to religious commitment, social justice and equality, and human dignity as its mantras, without necessarily disowning secularism.

For the BJP, while winning the State may not be very crucial to its overall dominance at present, losing it may have ominous significance. Karnataka was the first State it came to power in in South India and its inability to repeat this performance may tell badly on its future in the South. Karnataka has a weighty presence in the Union ministry, which includes Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, a Rajya Sabha member elected from here, and the State’s religious pluralism has often played truant to the homogenising call of Hindutva.

There is also a third player: former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), with its base among the Vokkaligas, the dominant farming community in Southern Karnataka.

Significance of caste

Caste has always been an important factor in the political process of Karnataka since wider ideological struggles such as non-Brahmanism in the erstwhile Madras or Bombay provinces, or socialism in Kerala and the united Andhra Pradesh did not leave much of a trace here. Instead, Kannada, and the culture it embodied, became the rallying cry for the unification of Karnataka. However, alongside such a call for unity, it was the rivalry between dominant communities that played itself out in the electoral arena. In the 1970s, Devaraj Urs, the then Chief Minister, tried to reinforce the base of the Congress party among the Backward Classes, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and minorities through land reforms and an assertive reservation policy, and undercut the importance of the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas, the two dominant communities.

While the Vokkaligas found a strong foothold in the Janata Dal led by Mr. Deve Gowda, the success of the BJP in the State lay in attracting the Lingayats to its fold by the early 1990s. Meanwhile, in the 1980s, various Hindu sects and traditions prevalent in Karnataka were brought on a common platform by the rising tide of Hindutva, led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which had a powerful impact in the erstwhile Bombay-Karnataka region, in coastal Karnataka, and in urban centres such as Bengaluru. While this platform downplayed caste, and tended to other religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians, caste and sect remained important players in the electoral arena. This partly explains the troubled relation of B.S. Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat, with his own party, the BJP, whose State unit he currently heads. The motley medley of sects, urban middle classes, upper castes and the rural elite that have gathered under the umbrella of the BJP, with Hindutva as the cementing force, have made it a viable force to win elections, almost on its own in 2008. However, apart from charges of widespread corruption, the play of internal divisions within led to its downfall in 2013.

Under the Congress

Between 1999 and 2004, S.M. Krishna, as Congress Chief Minister, attempted to wean the Congress from its social justice platform to a strong development-centred agenda, with industry and service sector on the lead. But such a strategy did not succeed against the rising tide of Hindutva and the backlash from the State’s sprawling rural hinterland. In 2013, the Congress won the election under the leadership of Siddaramaiah by reconnecting itself to the backward castes, Dalits and the minorities, with a promise to heal the rural-urban divide. While the Siddaramaiah regime has done little to overhaul social relations in the State, unlike Devaraj Urs whose legacy it claims, it has introduced numerous schemes to alleviate distress, waived small farm loans, regularised squatter holdings on government lands, and conferred title deeds on the settlements of itinerant pastoral communities. It has also assiduously cultivated symbolisms, conferring public recognition on heroes and saints, and banning rituals that it has regarded as superstitious and inappropriate to human dignity. Token grants have generously been made available for such activities. Mr. Siddaramaiah has also succeeded in keeping the Dalit flock together, by balancing the representation of major Dalit castes, which, the BJP had succeeded earlier in splitting.

However, it is his intervention on four fronts that has been politically very savvy. He has: kept the volatile Kannada lobby in good humour, often through his own witticisms deeply rooted in the traditions of the region; utilised the addition of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region to Article 371 of the Constitution to ensure that the demand for a separate State does not resurface; taken the battle straight to the BJP camp by making Basava, founder of the Lingayat sect, the icon of Karnataka, covertly stoking the popular demand of the Lingayats to be recognised as a separate religion; and ensured that the fallout of riparian conflicts does not boomerang on the Congress by cultivating farmers’ leaders, including Mr. Deve Gowda. It is also important to point out that as an astute financial administrator, he has kept much of the corporate sector in good humour, in spite of the mounting problems of urban facilities/civic issues especially in Bengaluru.

Although the JD(S) won 40 Assembly seats and 20% of the vote share in 2013, it is no longer a fighting force in the State even though Mr. Deve Gowda has begun visiting temples and shrines. Mr. Siddaramaiah has made deep inroads into the voter base of this party, and a section of the Vokkaligas supporting the party are favourably disposed towards the BJP.

The strategy

So how have the main contenders in the electoral arena positioned themselves in the political scene? The BJP has clearly marked out Mr. Siddaramaiah, rather than the Congress, as its enemy number one. It has already charged him as being “anti-Hindu”, and will try to polarise the vote by appealing to a thick Hindu identity. Such an appeal is also necessary to keep the BJP’s flock together in a State with diverse religious forms such as Shaivism and linga worship traditions, Jainism and Buddhism, bhakti and devotional sects and rich folk-cults. In this context, the early induction of Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, into the electoral arena becomes understandable as he represents the renouncer traditions of Hinduism. Alongside, there will be the predictable attack on corruption in the State where Mr. Siddaramaiah has much to account for; a sharp focus on its “Vikas” mantra, promise of change in northern Karnataka under its charge, and a vow to remove all constraints in Bengaluru to claim its status as a megapolis. The BJP will also seek organisational consolidation by closely monitoring the voting process from booth level upwards. Given the internal fissures within the BJP in the State, much of the organisational work will be entrusted to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), even using its cadres from outside the State.

But the first round in the gladiatorial ring has already gone in favour of the Congress, particularly Mr. Siddaramaiah. He has already started asserting himself as a truer Hindu than the protagonists of Hindutva. Muslim and Dalit votes are likely to stay with the Congress as also those of a significant section of the backward castes, and the small Christian community. While there are divisions within the Congress, especially between Mr. Siddaramaiah and Dalit aspirants for chief ministership, they all know well, however, that they will be worse off if the baton passes on to the BJP.

Valerian Rodrigues is Ambedkar Chair, Ambedkar University Delhi

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