Under-reading and over-reading the Karnataka vote

The vote in Karnataka is more than a State-specific story; it is one that foretells the future of democracy in India

May 20, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 06:34 pm IST

‘The talk of an electoral template from Karnataka is very much in order’

‘The talk of an electoral template from Karnataka is very much in order’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Over the last few days, there have been some very fine analyses of the Karnataka Assembly vote of 2023. We are told how different regions voted; how the AHINDA platform (Muslims, the backwards and Dalits) has re-emerged; how caste groups such as the Lingayats and Vokkalingas have consolidated; how anti-incumbency is a proud Karnataka State tradition; how the charge of 40% corruption sarkara stuck; how regional pride was stirred by the Nandini versus Amul milk controversy; how the BJP’s communal card had limited success; how farmer’s distress found a voice; how people vote differently in State and national elections; how the power of local Congress leaders and their welfarist manifesto resonated better with the voters than the double engine slogan of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supremo, and how the Bharat Jodo Yatra had a significant effect. These are all important insights. They help us to understand the distinctiveness of the Assembly elections in one Indian State — Karnataka.

A wider story

But, they tell only half the story. The commentaries are too State specific. They under-read the result as if it is only a Karnataka story. There is, however, another story that can also be drawn from the anecdotes recounted, the quantitative data of opinion surveys, the Election Commission of India percentages, field reports and the editorial commentaries.

This other story also needs to be simultaneously told. It contains lessons for our global and national discourses on democracy. The Karnataka vote is about democracy’s vulnerability. And about its resilience. At the risk of over-reading it, therefore, let me attempt this other telling.

Some of the analysts have described the Karnataka elections as a quarter-final for the general election in 2024, the semi-final being the next round of State elections to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. This is both right and wrong. It is right in a temporal sense since, in terms of the calendar, May 2023 comes before November 2023, and both precede 2024. In this sequence, the election was certainly a quarter-final, and 2024 will be the final. But it is also wrong in that it only looks at electoral politics and not at democratic politics. Democratic politics is more layered. Electoral politics is only a subset.

As our society responds to the inevitable dynamics of modernity in the long unceasing march of history, democratic politics in India also seeks to respond to this dynamics. Voters in democracies speak as citizens and not just as voters. Their vote is, therefore, a political aggregation of historical memories and social imaginaries. It is a consolidated outcome of many factors. This is the Karnataka story which must also be recovered. In this sense it is not a quarter-final but can, paradoxically enough, be labelled as a post-2024 election, one that foretells the future of democracy in India. The vote in Karnataka is thus an occasion for a wild democratic celebration. Let us look at the five futuristic messages.

The futuristic messages

Before I list them, however, let me briefly describe the unique political personality of Karnataka which has made these two stories of electoral politics and democratic politics so credible. Karnataka has much in common with the other States in India, such as unacceptable inequality, persistent poverty, farmer distress, climate stress, cultural diversity, a developing regional identity, marginal communities, wide-spread corruption and so on. The talk of an electoral template from Karnataka is, thus, very much in order.

But Karnataka also has significant distinct features that set it apart from most other States except perhaps those from South India and Maharashtra. These also drive politics. Succinctly put, Karnataka has the Lingayat maths, that offer spiritual discourses, but also the community education societies such as the Karnatak Lingayat Education Society that offers courses in law, commerce, medicine and engineering. It has shakas, madrasas, and evangelical movements, but also pubs, fusion restaurants, and unicorns. For every Koshy it has an MTR. It supports a large diaspora both internally, Biharis and Tamilians, and externally, Kannadigas in the United States, both of whom send images of what the future looks like. They have seen it and they want it. That is why Pramod Muthalik of the Sri Rama Sene, which is involved in incidents of intimidation on Valentine’s day, got a pitiable 4,508 votes. Hindutva in 2023 lost to modernity in Karnataka. That is what makes 2023 a post 2024 election. Now the five lessons.

One: There was a debate some months ago that India had morphed from being an electoral democracy to becoming an electoral autocracy. Democratic backsliding was taking place. The Karnataka elections of 2023 tell us that democracy is back, especially in its federal form. The last week, in fact, was a good week for democracy in India from the two outstanding judgments of the Supreme Court, where the power of the Delhi government was restored and where guardrails were set out for partisan Governors, to the Karnataka result. Both events showed that democracy is back. If only the other institutions stood their ground. Further, the vote percentages tell us that while there is a loyal vote for the BJP and the Congress there is, more importantly, a sizeable swing vote. It determines electoral outcomes. It seeks good governance. It has modernity aspirations.

Two: Civil society organisations (CSOs) are important for the health of a democracy. The Delhi diktats that have, over the years, tried to weaken and diminish civil society across India have, in 2023, naturally faced a hostile reaction in Karnataka. The work of organisations such as Eddelu Karnataka and Bahutva Karnataka, and many others, are witness to the fact that you cannot curtail the activity of CSOs and then expect them to be docile. They will bite back. They did so in Karnataka. CSOs are fundamental to the health of a democracy such as that of India. Do not mess with CSOs. We need them.

Three: Charisma has a short shelf-life. It soon gets routinised. Weber, the theorist, who put forward the idea of charismatic authority argued that it moves towards routinisation, either in a legal, rational or a traditional direction. Karnataka showed that it has moved. Charisma and money power did not sway people in Karnataka. Its ‘use-by’ date has passed.

Comment | The Karnataka election, the ideological contestations

Four: A competitive party system is the lifeblood of a successful democracy. So talk of a Congress-‘mukt’ Bharat has not helped since voters want a real choice among parties. The Karnataka elections have sent a warning to all parties that religion may be the opium of the people north of the Vindhyas, but here in the South, it is good governance. Karnataka has restored the power of a vibrant and competitive party system.

Accommodation over disharmony

Five: Social and cultural accommodation, through a philosophy of peaceful co-habitation, are more rewarding than communal disharmony. The strategy of divide and rule had little traction in Karnataka. Such philosophising may have come from the vachanas of Basavanna, or from Nehruvian secularism, but Karnataka has shown it is to be a part of the new democracy for India. Democracy is back as is secularism and scientific temper. I may be over-reading the election results but the great U.R. Ananthamurthy, I think, saw the trend very early. This, in a sense, was his election. The election of 2024 will, hence, have to catch up with Karnataka 2023.

Peter Ronald deSouza is an independent scholar. He was Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, 2007-2013. The views expressed are personal

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