Making sense of Karnataka’s politics

Castes and communities are the key players, where gain to one’s community becomes an overriding consideration

July 17, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 10:53 am IST

A distinct genre of political theatrics in which elected representatives play ‘hide and seek’ in plush resorts to escape poaching by their very own and rival party leaders is currently playing out in Karnataka. While the dramatis personae, the layout of the plot, the resources deployed, and the message conveyed are distinct this round, this mode of doing politics is not new to the State.


In fact, following the State elections last year, leaders of the ruling coalition enacted a similar play almost 14 months ago by shepherding the elected representatives of their respective parties to safe havens; this was done ostensibly to stop them from being poached by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which laid claim to power as the largest party in the House and needed a few more legislators to secure a majority.

The bare sketch

Such mimetic displays have not been rare in the past either. They make room for extended invention of sub-plots and even erasure of a few, often delving deep into the rich folklore Karnataka is known for. Analogical practices are there in other States too, although Karnataka can claim a certain expertise in this regard by now. While such theatrics may have tactical political purpose at times, the question to be asked is the purpose for which such a political tactic is employed; the bearing it has on electoral representation, and the affront such political means offer to nurture a democratic culture.


In Karnataka, there is a coalition government of the Indian National Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S). The Chief Minister, H.D. Kumaraswamy, is from the JD(S) that has 37 members, while its majority partner, the Congress, has 78 members in the 224-member House. While there are two independents, the BJP, which is in the opposition, has 105 members. From the beginning, the relationship between the coalition partners has been very uneasy, with the media constantly abuzz with rumours of a breakdown. On its part, the BJP has made umpteen attempts to wean away a few members from the coalition, widely termed ‘Operation Kamala (lotus)’. After the Lok Sabha election, and the BJP’s resounding victory where it got 25 Lok Sabha seats out of 28, the rumblings within the coalition have become louder; moving to the greener side, i.e. the BJP, has become more tempting for the fence-sitters.

A few days ago, there was drama when 16 members of the Assembly, three from the JD(S) and 13 of the Congress, most of them sheltered in a luxury hotel in Mumbai, announced that they had resigned from the Assembly. Two independents, who were made ministers earlier in order to retain them within the coalition fold, resigned from the cabinet and extended support to the BJP. The Speaker of the House, however, faulted the procedure adopted by 10 legislators to tender their resignations, dragging in the Supreme Court to decide its rectitude. While receiving these resignations afresh, following the court’s directive, the Speaker stood his ground on ascertaining their constitutional and legal validity.


In Parliament, the Opposition accused the ruling BJP of employing unfair means to bring down an elected government. With the Karnataka government having decided to convene the Budget session, the coalition partners issued a whip to its members to attend, holding out the threat of disqualification for non-compliance. The Supreme Court was made to step in in order to decide the relative status of resignation and disqualification of elected members and their precedence, given their widely different political implications. On the floor of the Assembly, the Chief Minister announced that he would move a trust motion on his government, which has made the issue of status and precedence crucial to the ambitions and designs of the rebels, and also placing them in a quandary. The unfolding of these events has been laced with several subplots: lavish living, private jet-hops, invocation of divine help, political “attempts” to cajole the rebels to return to the party-fold, and a roughing up of party colleagues, and each party moving its Assembly members to well-secured and lavish resorts.

Disaffection within coalition

While the coalition government and the parties supporting them have targeted the BJP for attempting to pull down the government, the first group is primarily responsible for allowing disaffection within its fold to spread for three reasons.

First, for reasons known to itself, the Congress did not include the most important leaders from Northern Karnataka in the ministry for months; a small coterie of Vokkaliga leaders in the coalition from the erstwhile Mysore region have attempted to direct the course of political developments. The Lingayat-dominated northern region, already smarting under years of neglect and drought, has consolidated itself as a bloc to resist the encroaching dominance of its traditional rival, and has gravitated wholesale towards the BJP which has been nursing it for years. Second, the JD(S) with the Chief Minister at the helm and with the support of a section of the State Congress leadership, has systematically attempted to undercut the lucrative wheeler-dealer network that the Siddaramaiah government of the Congress (2013-18) had built — it involves mining, land, construction and transport — and which directed those resources to its henchmen. It led to interference in departments and transfer of employees which the ministers concerned regarded as their fiefdoms. It made Mr. Siddaramaiah, the pre-eminent leader of the Congress in the State, to blow hot and cold occasionally against the coalition.

Third, the Congress and JD(S) are traditional political rivals in the southern region of the State and over the years, a significant section of the Vokkaligas, the pronounced social base of the JD(S), have been attracted to the Hindutva agenda. The inability of the coalition to forge an overlapping voting base is what has led to its overwhelming defeat in the very region of its strength.

The data is telling. In the Assembly elections of April 2018, the BJP, the Congress and the JD(S) secured 36.34%, 38.14% and 18.3% of the voteshare respectively, while in the Lok Sabha elections, it was 51.4%, 31.88% and 9.67%, respectively. The disaffection has led a large number of Congressmen to question the utility of the coalition on grounds of sectarian loyalties, personal interests, and future electoral prospects; some of them with large interests at stake have decided to jump ship. The hand of the BJP has always been there with the bait and offering promises.

The disaffection mentioned above have little to do with representational logic, i.e., upholding the interests of one’s constituency, striving to further the interests of the political community of the State, or even the objectives of one’s own party. Due to a number of historical reasons, castes and communities are key players on the political scene in Karnataka. Hindutva has been attempting to fill this vacuum in recent years but has a very tentative hold still.

Personal gain, sectarianism

Even today, the elected representatives primarily consider themselves as members of castes and communities, and in the distribution of public resources, the gain to one’s community becomes an overriding consideration. Therefore, elected representatives form a clique with a powerful leader with access to public resources, and strive to tilt the scales in their favour. Being elected as a member of the Legislature is often perceived as an entry point to seek other goodies such as a ministerial berth through which the member can channelise public resources for personal gain and to extend patronage. In the context of the weakening party leadership of coalition partners, since a representative may have to largely fend for himself or herself, the temptation to accumulate as much as possible during one’s stint is seen as a mark of political common sense.

It is time Karnataka politics discovers not merely its egalitarian and pluralistic traditions and sets out to reconstruct its political architecture to reflect them. A public culture imbued by such a perspective may not eliminate all differences but there would be some yardsticks to hold elected representatives to accountability. But for the time being, it seems a mirage.

Valerian Rodrigues taught Political Science at Mangalore University and Jawaharlal Nehru University


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