Decoding the battle for Bengaluru seats - Hindustan Times
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Decoding the battle for Bengaluru seats

Apr 25, 2024 10:36 PM IST

Election outcomes in the city have been shaped by IT industry-inspired middle class and landed interests. Politicians who find a common ground are successful

Having never lost a Lok Sabha seat in Bengaluru city in this century, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must feel quite confident of its performance in the city’s three constituencies — Bangalore North, Bangalore Central, and Bangalore South. Even when they were mauled in the assembly elections a year ago, they retained much of their support in the city. Yet, the more seasoned politicians in the party will know that the game is never over until the landed interests have made their play.

People visit Vidhana Soudha during sunset, in Bengaluru on April 21, 2024. (Photo by Idrees MOHAMMED / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
People visit Vidhana Soudha during sunset, in Bengaluru on April 21, 2024. (Photo by Idrees MOHAMMED / AFP)(AFP)

There was a time when the politics of these constituencies was genteel with TR Shamanna, who won Bangalore South in 1980, being associated with the concerns of bicycle owners. That was also the point when the politics of the city began to change dramatically. To help the public sector outsource some of its products to small-scale industry, the city set up the largest industrial estates in Asia. Though the development of ancillaries did not quite work out, the combination of infrastructure and low-cost informal labour was tapped by global garment brands to ensure Bengaluru became the fastest-growing city in Asia in the 1970s.

As the city spread out horizontally absorbing neighbouring villages, it converted agricultural land into prime real estate. The Congress governments of the time used the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) to acquire land and then sell sites. Not entirely surprisingly, the BDA became the cash cow of Bengaluru’s politics. Those who lost land, particularly small landowners, watched as land prices boomed to many times the compensation they received.

The Congress under Devaraj Urs managed to turn this disgruntlement into an army of support for Garibi Hatao. Politicians who could merge the rhetoric of Garibi Hatao with informal land arrangements with larger farmers built a substantial political base. Congress leader CK Jaffer Sharief won seven times in Bangalore North. He lost the support of most Muslims after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, but he continued to win with the support of Vokkaliga landowners.

As the differences between real estate prices and compensation grew to astronomical levels the BDA-led arrangement came under considerable strain. In his short term as chief minister, before an even shorter term as Prime Minister, Deve Gowda dismantled the BDA arrangement by legislating to allow farmers to become real estate developers. With urban planning being put on the back burner, the city’s infrastructure collapsed, but the former farmers transformed into a powerful political lobby.

It was against this backdrop of a collapsing infrastructure that the information technology boom occurred. As companies mobilised manpower in the city to cater to a global software services market, they needed to present world-class infrastructure to their customers in the developed world. They sought an infrastructure that would ensure visitors to the city could move from a world-class airport on world-class expressways to world-class IT campuses. This infrastructure bypassed much of the crisis of everyday life in Bengaluru.

The dualism that came to characterise Bengaluru was soon formalised with task forces being set up to conceptualise Bengaluru on the lines that developed markets would like, while leaving housing and the related infrastructure in the hands of farmers-turned-real estate developers. The combination of a collapsing city with a booming image worked in the five years between elections, but at election time, common ground had to be found between the IT industry-inspired middle class and landed interests. Politicians who could find this common ground were electorally successful while others were not.

Finding candidates who could balance these interests has not always been easy. The record of the Congress has not been great, especially in parliamentary elections. The party leant heavily on the side of the middle class when it put up Nandan Nilekani in 2014. The landed interests told them what they thought of that decision by ensuring he lost by a margin of around 2.28 lakh votes, six times the margin by which the Congress lost the previous election. The BJP has done better. Rumour has it that Anant Kumar with his middle-class support could gain the endorsement of landed interests through a series of informal arrangements, ensuring he won six times in a row. The party’s candidates in Bangalore North were less successful, but the BJP made up by changing them frequently.

As the BJP tries to maintain its electoral record in 2024, it needs to come to terms with the fact that the battlelines may have shifted. In Bangalore South, its candidate Tejaswi Surya has during his first term come to be associated much more with the middle class rather than the interests of those connected with land. This will be reflected in his electoral performance as the Congress has put up former Member of Legislative Assembly Sowmya Reddy, who belongs to a lineage that has effectively represented landed interests in the city. In Bangalore North, the BJP has put up Union minister Shobha Karandlaje who was moved from her original constituency due to opposition from the party cadre. She faces an unknown factor in Rajeev Gowda, a former Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament who is making his debut in electoral politics. He would hope that having been a Wharton-educated professor at IIM Bangalore, he will appeal to the IT-inspired middle class, even as his coming from a landed political family should help appeal to landed interests. In Bangalore Central, the BJP has sought to shift the focus away from both major interest groups. In response to the Congress putting up its only Muslim candidate in the state, the BJP has, perhaps predictably, sought to turn a local skirmish about the volume of music played in a roadside shop into an attack on the playing of the Hanuman Chalisa.

As Bengaluru votes on Friday, April 26, it will contribute in some way to deciding whether the BJP gets a third term at the Centre, but also provide an indicator of the current balance in the city between its landed interests and the interests of its IT-inspired middle class.

Narendar Pani is JRD Tata Chair visiting professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. The views expressed are personal

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