Deciphering campaign financing in Karnataka

The State has come to exemplify the post-liberalisation ‘crorepati-sation’ of Indian politics

Updated - April 14, 2023 12:23 pm IST

Published - April 14, 2023 12:16 am IST

‘The evolution of Karnataka politics over the decades demonstrates how representation, participation and accountability are inherently contested concept’

‘The evolution of Karnataka politics over the decades demonstrates how representation, participation and accountability are inherently contested concept’ | Photo Credit: K. Pichumani

As Karnataka heads to the ticket distribution stage of its upcoming Assembly election (single phase on May 10), we are likely to revisit the murky tale of illicit campaign financing in politics. Karnataka has come to exemplify the post-liberalisation ‘crorepati-isation’ of Indian politics. In the last election, 97% of the elected State Members of the Legislative Assembly were crorepatis. According to a report by the election watchdog, the Association for Democratic Reforms, Karnataka legislators were also dubbed the highest earning Members of the Legislative Assembly in the country, based on average assets amounting to a staggering ₹34.59 crore.

The stranglehold that rich local elites have on grass-root politics has been widely characterised in media and policy advocacy circles as that representing the degradation of electoral democracy — one of a corrupt feudal raj that is helmed by businessmen-politicians. The centrality of ideas and programmes in party competition is often said to have been replaced by the dominance of wealth and local elite-controlled patronage machines. Specifically, the advocates of electoral reform paint the interlocking patronage machines (networks of power and wealth distribution that bind local political elites downwards to fixers/intermediaries and upwards to faction/state-level leaders) as pathological entrenchment that inevitably corrodes the three pillars of a functioning democracy.

These pillars of democracy are as follows: one, the concept of representation; since 99% of the electorate of any State is made up of non-crorepatis, the political class is deemed to be socio-economically alien to the electorate they are meant to represent. Two, the concept of participation; local elites are associated with elite capture or closing off of the political process to individuals outside of a narrow clique of businessmen politicians. And, three, the concept of accountability; local patronage machines are associated with corruption, rampant factionalism, fragmentation of state authority, and also the gradual dismantling of party organisation and related accountability mechanisms.

However, this gloomy portrayal of rising money-power leading to a deficit of grass-roots democracy not only constitutes a lopsided depiction of political reality but also exhibits a wilful blindness to the contradictions and trade-offs inherent in the process of democratisation. Indeed, the evolution of Karnataka politics over the decades demonstrates how representation, participation and accountability are inherently contested concepts, which might carry different meanings for different constituencies.

Questions of representation, participation

Political scientists Milan Vaishnav and Devesh Kapur trace the explosion of illicit campaign financing in Karnataka to the reign of Congress Chief Minister D. Devaraj Urs. A follower of Indira Gandhi’s pro-poor populist strategy, Devaraj Urs was a transformative pioneer of backward caste/class social engineering whose political legacy still informs State politics and has inspired the redistributive, pro-AHINDA politics (the desire for a coalition between backward castes, Dalits, tribals, and Muslims, who form over four-fifths of the population) of prospective Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

During the decades of Congress dominance, the powerful landed castes of Lingayats and Vokkaligas (along with a smattering of upper castes) controlled the political economy through a process of vertical electoral mobilisation, routed through a Congress organisation commanded by dominant castes and which only provided limited pathways for upward group mobility. Political scientist Mary E. Breeding has argued in her paper, “The Micro-politics of vote banks in Karnataka” (2011), that the big change in post-Urs Karnataka politics has been the transformation of patronage-based vote-banks from a hierarchical, opaque, and vertical form of mobilisation to a more de-centralised, responsive and horizontal form of mobilisation.

Similarly, according to James Manor, a long-term scholar of Karnataka politics, Devaraj Urs encouraged illicit campaign financing primarily as a means to undercut the traditional, dominant caste leadership of his political opponents (dominant caste rivals in his own Congress organisation, or the competitor Janata Dal which had also rooted itself among Vokkaligas and Lingayats). Instead, Urs strove to create a counter-elite of marginalised communities outside of traditional party structures, plugging them into the centre of high-rent patronage networks helmed by him.

These counter-elites brought forth substantive representation (relative bargaining power in terms of policy formulation/implementation) to marginalised communities which had long been straight-jacketed into descriptive and symbolic forms of representation. As the post-Green Revolution socialist turn of North Indian politics also attests, progressive politics of the marginalised is only made possible through a baseline amassing of economic capital by co-ethnic elites, often by underhanded means. Consider the case of B. Sriramulu, the tribal Valmiki Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator who presides over the Reddy brothers-supported political machine in Ballari (Bellary). The BJP was not only forced to rescind Mr. Sriramulu’s expulsion over corruption allegations but also had to acknowledge his personalistic ownership of the Valmiki vote-bank, as the community deserted the BJP all over northern Karnataka for Mr. Sriramulu’s fledgling breakaway party. The data from previous Lokniti post poll studies suggests that 33% of Karnataka voters vote primarily for local candidates, as opposed to say 15% in Uttar Pradesh.

Lastly, personalistic/factional coalitions in Karnataka have also encouraged pluralistic coalitions over the exclusive or polarising patterns of the BJP’s ideological mobilisation. The Lingayats, for example, the core base of the BJP, favour the party for patronage opportunities rather than ideological affinity. When B.S. Yediyurappa broke away from the party before 2013, much of the Lingayat power base (legislators, religious leaders, businessmen and roughly one-half of the former BJP Lingayat-voter base) joined the strongman’s breakaway unit. This might also explain the BJP central leadership’s contradictory strategy of placing Bommai on the throne (for fear of alienating volatile Lingayats) while also allowing ideologically extreme party/affiliate factions to undermine his leadership.

Issue of accountability

Now, to the point of accountability. Like the old Jewish conception of religious sin (rooted not in any independent moral standard) but in the breach of covenant between leader and the chosen community of followers, the political sin of corruption eludes any objective or independent measuring standard. The politicised sections of marginalised communities might see concessions/incentives for corporates as a form of corruption; the privileged classes might see the distribution of gifts and goods to the poor during elections as a form of corruption. There is considerable scholarly literature on election-eve spending as that rare period when political machines privilege the poor over the rich, and the portrayal of election-eve gifts as not constituting vote-buying bribes but signals to convey winnability and a tokenistic gesture of long-term patronage dispensing ability. The difference between corruption and good governance perhaps hinges on what constitutes the sacred political covenant and who is perceived to belong to the chosen community of followers.

Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist

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