The Narendra Modi – Amit Shah duo have been more or less unstoppable in their quest to wrest the control of state legislatures and Congress has been unable to find any answers to stop this juggernaut. Now the elections to the Karnataka Assembly are due in April – May 2018 and BJP is on the cusp of realizing its dream of a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ by snatching the last major bastion of Congress (Punjab excluded for good measure) in the country.
Karnataka, as every state does, presents its own set of unique challenges for the Modi-Shah duo and the party under their leadership might well want to modify their strategies to align to this reality.
While what’s at stake at the central level has been discussed at great lengths, what’s at stake in Bengaluru and beyond also needs to be analyzed for a clear understanding of how Karnataka will vote in April.
Assembly elections of 2008
Karnataka had been plagued by instability after the 2004 elections (held simultaneously with the general elections) had thrown up a hung assembly. While Congress and JD(S) tried their luck for close to two years, this alliance fell apart. What transpired later was a weird power sharing formula between the JD(S) and the BJP in which the two parties would hold the CM post for 20 months each in the remaining assembly tenure of 40 months. While H D Kumaraswamy became the CM first, he refused to hand over power to B S Yeddyurappa at the end of 20 months. B S Yeddyurappa was a wronged man and the people sympathized with him. Later in 2008, when fresh polls were held, BJP won enough seats to form their own government. While B S Yeddyurappa started off well, he soon got embroiled in a few land denotification cases. With a politically appointed Governor, the Congress was able to see the back of B S Yeddyurappa. B S Yeddyurappa was arrested a week before his pet project Namma Metro was opened with much fanfare in Bengaluru. Within 5 years, BJP had had 3 Chief Ministers. The administrations of the other 2 Chief Ministers D V Sadananda Gowda and Jagadish Shettar were basically listless. 2 ministers Gali Janardhana Reddy and his brother Gali Somashekar Reddy, notoriously known as Bellary mining barons, were arrested on money laundering and tax evasion charges.
Assembly elections of 2013
Miffed at the lack of support from people in his own party, on the eve of the elections, B S Yeddyurappa, out on bail by then, floated his own party Karnataka Janata Party transforming the electoral battles into a personal revenge to defeat BJP candidates (and his erstwhile party members and leaders). Amidst all this, S Siddaramaiah, the leader of the Congress Legislative Party and the Leader of the Opposition in the Vidhan Sabha, was preparing the ground for an upsurge in Congress’s fortunes. He conducted a padayatra from Bangalore to Bellary during the height of the Reddy brothers investigations to snatch back Bellary from the BJP.
Amidst all this, B Sriramulu, a confidante of the Reddy brothers and a minister himself in the BSY cabinet, walked out of BJP and formed his own party – BSR Congress. The double whammy of 2 splits in the party in addition to constant changes at the helm and a resurgent opposition led to an embarrassing loss to the BJP. The party had managed to squander away all the gains of 2008 within a span of 5 years and had also ceded its strongholds to the Congress. Regions like Coastal Karnataka, Mumbai Karnataka and Hyderabad Karnataka, which used to send a sizeable number of BJP MLAs had abandoned the party for all its misdemeanors.
On the other hand, Congress romped back to power in 2013 mainly on a strong anti-incumbency wave against the BJP. Siddaramaiah had cobbled up a social alliance of minorities, backward classes and dalits to challenge the numerical might of the dominant Lingayats who were anyway split between the BJP and Yeddyurappa’s KJP. Siddaramaiah had the last laugh when the party achieved a simple majority in the polls. His immediate challengers to the CM post, were either busy elsewhere (like Mallikarjun Kharge, SM Krishna, etc) or had lost the election themselves (PCC Chief G Parameshwara). A relative new comer to the party had managed to trump the old timers and usurp the CM throne.
Siddaramaiah began his tenure with an abundance of socialistic schemes. To keep his core constituency intact, Siddaramaiah unleashed a host of socialistic schemes like Anna Bhagya (free distribution of rice for BPL families), Shaadi Bhagya (financial assistance for brides of the minority communities). During the second half of his tenure, he even started Indira Canteens (on the lines of Amma Canteens in Tamil Nadu) to feed the poor people all over Bangalore at throwaway prices.
For an outsider, Siddaramaiah looks like a darling of the socialites. His core constituency has remained loyal to him and he has been to his constituency. However, we have also heard of his desire to procure lavish materialistic objects. H D Kumaraswamy accused Siddaramaiah in 2015-16 of wearing a Hublot watch costing 70 lakhs. Siddaramaiah initially dismissed the charges claiming he didn’t know the value of the watch, then claimed that it was gifted to someone whose name he couldn’t recall, and later when the going got tough for him, he managed to escape the ire by surrendering the watch to the Vidhan Sabha speaker following which the issue died a natural death.
Personality contests aside, what has transpired in Karnataka in the midst of all these doesn’t give confidence to even the most ardent of Congress party supporters. The administration was pretty lackluster. Bad monsoons, never ending fights with Tamil Nadu regarding distribution of meager Cauvery water, administration paralysis, inefficient bureaucracy, suspicious deaths of Police and IPS officers and other such issues led to Siddaramaiah’s popularity among the masses nose-diving. In addition, he dropped 175 cases against Popular Front of India (PFI) activists who were earlier booked for rioting in different parts of the state.
Except for 2017, when Karnataka was blessed with abundant rain, farmer suicides in Karnataka were amongst the highest in the entire country from 2013 onwards. To claim that this government has failed to curb this monster called farmer suicides would be an understatement. It was only when other states in the country started waiving off farmer loans, did Siddaramaiah, under pressure from the opposition parties and farmer groups, waive off crop loans taken from cooperative banks.
In the latter part of his term, Siddaramaiah’s popularity grew within his party with no real challengers. As an example, He managed to electorally defeat an ex-minister, V Srinivas Prasad, who was dropped by him from the cabinet before quitting his MLA post and fighting again on a BJP ticket. To augment this consolidation, he had a relative luxury of no major interference from the party’s high command all through his reign of 5 years.
As Siddaramaiah grew stronger, the state’s law and order touched rock bottom. Political murders became the order of the day. About 20 activists belonging to BJP and RSS have been murdered in the past 3 years alone. While BJP accuses the PFI for this, the state government attributes these to petty law and order issues based on personal enmities.
Coastal Karnataka has started seeing communal tensions rise again following the killings, which to say the least, have been political in nature. The police force is finding it hard to control the situation from spiraling out of control.
In a bid to take the sting out of the opposition, Siddaramaiah has been resorting to divisive politics all through his reign. With the help of his Social Welfare minister, H Anjaneya, a specific caste census was conducted to recount and reanalyze the caste demographics in the state. However, it was conducted in such a shabby manner that the common man on the street felt that it was a botched up exercise. Be as it may, the numbers were ‘leaked’ and to no surprise, Siddaramaiah’s core constituency of Minorities, Backwards and Dalits were shown to be numerically larger than even the largest caste, Lingayats in the state. However, neither were the leaked figures acknowledged to be true nor were the real figures tabled in the state assembly. This epitomizes the typical Congress strategy of dividing the demographics on caste lines but then keeping all sections of the society interested. While Siddaramaiah’s vote bank will continue to believe that Siddaramaiah’s intention of a caste census was really to give them a better bargain, the Lingayats were promised a separate religion status based on a 4 decade old demand of a miniscule minority.
The issue of granting a separate religion status to Lingayats is taking lots of twists and turns as each day passes. The community itself is now split along the middle. 4 Congress MLAs are at the forefront of this issue and are seen as the major proponents of this argument of granting a separate religion. While BJP is pointing out that Congress is trying to break the Hindu community, Congress is pointing to an old recommendation by B S Yeddyurappa himself for a separate religion status for the Lingayats.
Karnataka doesn’t look at Delhi while voting for Bengaluru
It must be some sort of a curse on Karnataka that for the past 4 decades, it has not had the same party ruling at both the center and the state. This, many in Karnataka feel, has led to Karnataka losing out big time nationally on multiple issues. They feel, owing to the smart politics played by the regional parties, neighboring states end up arm-twisting the Center to get a favorable resolution to any problems leaving Karnataka to lick and nurse its wounds. Such a narrative has strong credence in the state with multiple issues like river water sharing, classical language status, etc. In any case, Kannadigas have made it a habit to vote for a different party at the state and if BJP will have to wrest the state from Congress, then BJP will have to make Kannadigas break their old habits and embrace the party. However, this is easier said than done for the BJP. Parties like Congress and JD(S) have created a strong narrative claiming that BJP as a central party doesn’t stand for the best interests of the state, language or the people.
So what’s exactly at stake for Karnataka, post elections?
If Congress wins, while Delhi might claim it to be a victory for Rahul Gandhi, it will most definitely be Siddaramaiah’s victory. Only two Chief Ministers D Devaraj Urs and Ramakrishna Hegde have ever been voted back to power in the history of the state. Siddaramaiah, if he manages the impossible, will surely leave behind a greater legacy than any of the Congress or Janata Parivar Chief Ministers.
If BJP wins, the national media will only sing praises of the Modi-Shah duo, but the party will realize that its state president B S Yeddyurappa would have done much of the groundwork for this victory. He remains the tallest leader and probably the only statewide mass leader in the state for the party. Any attempts to sideline him either immediately after the elections or a little later, will only antagonize him and the Lingayat community he brings along with him, further.
While JD(S) winning the elections on its own might is as probable as Afghanistan winning the ICC Cricket World Cup in the foreseeable future, it can still continue to remain relevant in case the elections throw up a hung assembly. H D Kumaraswamy will come back into the limelight and might even negotiate for the CM throne depending on how well its own performance is.
Sub plots galore!
A popular cine star Upendra has floated a party named Karnataka Pragnyavanta Janata Paksha (KPJP) offering clean and transparent politics. Most of his movies had this theme and he even called himself a Common Man instead of a Chief Minister in one of the movies. However, any such excitement is best kept under check. Regional parties have never made it big in Karnataka. Even B S Yeddyurappa could only muster 10% vote share and at best was able to prevent BJP from retaining power. Political analysts don’t see this pattern changing this time too.
The fate of 4 Congress Lingayat MLAs advocating a separate religion for Lingayats will be interesting to watch. With the community traditionally voting for the BJP, with B S Yeddyurappa, the tallest Lingayat leader in the state back with the BJP and with a direct threat to the community’s hold on power in the state, it needs to be seen how Lingayats vote for these 4 MLAs. In addition, as witnessed in Gujarat, one cannot rule out the possibility of other communities like the Vokkaligas voting for BJP resulting in a reverse consolidation of Hindu votes.
In case of a hung assembly with JD(S) and Congress stepping up to form an alliance government, one can be rest assured that Siddaramaiah and his minister D K Shivakumar will not figure in such an arrangement. Siddaramaiah had walked out of JD(S) alleging that he was sidelined by H D Devegowda to make his son H D Kumaraswamy the Chief Minister. The rest as they say is history. D K Shivakumar, the infamous minister whose house was raided while he was protecting the Congress MLAs from Gujarat MLAs in a Bengaluru resort, from ‘horse trading’ during the election of Ahmed Patel to Rajya Sabha has personal enmity with the father son duo having fought multiple elections against them.
Smriti Irani’s relentless campaigning and work in Amethi has definitely caused a headache for the Gandhi family about a safe seat to contest from in 2019. A decent performance by the Congress in the state coupled with a strong performance in its traditional stronghold districts like Chikkaballapur might give Rahul Gandhi a new lease of life. Just like his grandmother had a political rebirth by contesting from Chikkamagalur, just like his mother contested from Bellary, Rahul might be tempted to go back to the time tested formula of entering Lok Sabha from Karnataka during the 2019 elections.
As the campaigning gets shriller and louder and as the central leadership of both parties descends on Bengaluru for canvassing, one can be rest assured that the standards of debate will fall to abysmal levels. The war of words has already started between state level leaders and no day passes without name calling. Lutyens media will be quick to lap up whatever the likes of Ananth Kumar Hegde, a minister in the Modi government and Pratap Simha, a BJP MP, will say or mean during the numerous rallies that they will address. Congress will hope that such a costly mistake will help them just like how Mani Shankar Aiyar’s loose talk helped the BJP in Gujarat.
Red letter day
The day of the results has all the potential to be a red-letter day in the history of Indian politics. It needs to be seen if Kannadigas have the appetite to write history in ensuring Congress is routed from the state or will they prefer to retain Siddaramaiah and his party. However, more important than the national picture, the state has lost its importance and relevance as an economic powerhouse in the country and is now a poor mimic of other states in copying the various socialistic policies carried out elsewhere. The results will surely hold the answer to all these questions.