While the major contenders on the political scene in Karnataka — the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S) — are yet to release their manifestos, the full-blast campaign that they have unleashed has made it amply clear that their priority does not lie in mounting a programme and seeking their mandate, and eventually accountability on that ground, but merely in winning the elections.
Sound bite games
They have a set of tactics up their sleeves to win, and have chosen to reinforce traditional modes of politicking, by employing new techniques and imagery of communication. Elections, far from being an occasion to reformulate and reorder common interests, have become in their hands an endorsement to govern yet for another term. They are turned into sophistries of managing castes and communities, sound bites, image-projection and communication skills, and garnering resources for the same. There are no differences between political parties with regard to these indicators, although their capacity to deploy them and tap resources hugely varies.
Apart from projecting their respective parties and leadership as being immensely upright, efficient, fair, development-prone and non-partisan, political parties have attempted to reach out to the symbolic wealth of communities and castes, promised bounties to agitating farmers, held discussions with key constituencies such as business leaders and the youth, organised mammoth public rallies, and conducted padayatras and road shows. The Siddaramaiah regime has resorted to extensive, and probably expensive, use of print and electronic media to advertise its achievements, the BJP and the JD(S) being a poor second and third in this regard so far. While the BJP is known for its astute use of media and image-crafting, it seems to have been busy so far in a reconnaissance exercise to tone up its party in the State, and its performance in this regard hitherto cannot hold a mirror up to what it would do in the next few days prior to voting scheduled on May 12.
One saw BJP president Amit Shah prostrating before the 110-year-old revered Shri Shivakumara Swamiji of Siddaganga Mutt in Tumkur. As for Congress president Rahul Gandhi, his body language expressed a degree of comfort while visiting the great Shankara Mutt at Sringeri, given the long association of the family with the advaita tradition of Shankaracharya, but he seemed ill at ease at several other shrines. While Swami Nirmalanandji of the Adichunchanagiri Mutt is known to be close to Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, and Mr. Shah, who was one of the first to call on him as part of his electoral rounds, Mr. Gandhi was not too far behind. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah also employed the long-term demand of the Veerashaiva Lingayats for a separate religious tag to win over a section by recommending this demand to the Centre through a Cabinet resolution. The BJP shouted hoarse, but everything seemed fair in the electoral war.
There was some tactical innovation too. Mr. Gandhi bonded with top State leaders of the Congress over pakodas and vadas at roadside tea stalls, and fish delicacies on the coast. There was widespread use of selfies including at Namma Metro. The BJP, attuned to sterner patriarchal ways, however, took the bait, by making its chief ministerial candidate live in slums for a day or two, travel short distances in an auto rickshaw and eat in Dalit households. H.D. Kumaraswamy, the JD(S) chief ministerial aspirant, responded to the plebian icing of his counterparts by projecting himself as ‘Kumaranna’, the protective big brother, and resorted to a highly personalised style of campaigning. Such rehearsed gestures are at variance with the everyday life of the top political leaders of this country. However, they have their value in connecting to people, but as independent variables have little to offer in reinforcing participation in the ongoing life of a democratic polity or enhancing the quality of the life of people.
The political rhetoric mounted by the Congress revolved around demonetisation, Goods and Services Tax, the Rafale deal, bank fraud, and the creeping authoritarianism of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo, vis-à-vis the performance of the Siddaramaiah regime. It also accused the JD(S) of being the BJP’s B-team. The BJP charged Mr. Siddaramaiah’s government with corruption, minority partisanship, insensitivity to farming distress, divisive approach with regard to the Lingayat legacy and donning the false mask of religiosity. Mr. Kumaraswamy tended to focus on the great record of his family in politics, promising a shift of policy to agrarian concerns. This political rhetoric, however, has made little headway in grappling with the great challenges that confront the State.
The real issues
If we employ public reasoning as a lens, regional disparity clearly emerges as the most stark issue. A vast region of the State comprising Bidar, Kalaburagi, Yadgir, Vijayapura, Bagalkot, Raichur, Koppal, Gadag and Ballari districts suffers from overdetermined deprivation. These districts were peripheral to colonial provinces or centres of princely states; are part of the rain-shadow belt; and register less than half of the average Human Development Index of Bengaluru and coastal Karnataka. With landless labourers forming an average 40% of rural households, many households have to opt for seasonal migration to neighbouring regions to survive. There is a higher concentration of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Muslims in this region. It is also caught in the vicious circle of patron-client relationships, under the tutelage of the ‘big’ man, the ‘dora’ or ‘sahukar’.
At the same time, this is also the cultural heartland of the State: great dynasties such as the Chalukyas, the Bahmanis, the Adil Shahis and the Vijayanagar empire flourished here; the Urdu language was nurtured and Sufism found a pervasive presence. It is in this region that the Kannada language and script came into their own; Basavanna’s Linga worship took root and Vachana literature flourished; and the great Dasa Sahitya and Carnatic music found an early home. The inclusion of much of this region under Article 371(J) has brought only a notional flow of resources to the region. It looks for a major initiative like what Sharad Pawar fashioned for Marathwada in the early 1990s.
A distinct cultural value of pluralism regulated the interaction of sects, cults, traditions and languages in the region forming Karnataka today. In fact, this pluralism was the encompassing bond when Islam and Christianity registered their presence in the region from diverse sites. This pluralism held on its own even when passions generated by Kannada linguistic identity threatened to displace it in the 1950s and 1960s. There is a widespread feeling today that this pluralism is under attack, through a vicious design of exclusion.
The rural-urban disconnect is far wider here compared to any other State in southern India with immense resources and opportunities concentrated in Bengaluru. While it denies the poor, the migrant and the refugee a decent living space in the city, it sucks resources from the hinterland to it in umpteen ways. While the capital itself needs to find its breathing space, no serious development can be envisaged without developing nodal centres of development all across the State and particularly in northern Karnataka.
The record of employment generation in Karnataka, although impressive compared to many other States, is far off the promise made by the Congress in 2013. The State holds immense possibilities of generating alternative modes of employment. This requires a different approach than crunching numbers that the bureaucracy is familiar with.
It was the right time for Mr. Siddaramaiah and the Congress to propose a substantive agenda to reinforce democracy and equality in the State. But the Congress, desperate to win the election, has chosen to ignore tomorrow for today. The BJP is driven by a single point agenda of proving its invincibility than reinforcing democracy. The JD(S) clearly lives in the past, and has little to offer by way of laying the long-term foundations of democracy and development in the State.
Valerian Rodrigues holds the Ambedkar Chair at Ambedkar University, Delhi