Why the K’taka polls are crucial for BJP, Congress
The BJP is using more aggressive Hindutva. The Congress is hoping for a rare win and creating a coalition last attempted in the 70s
Any ruling party in Karnataka can expect to struggle to win re-election. No government has achieved that since 1985. The state’s voters are demanding, sophisticated, and impatient. Yet, the task for the principal challenger, the Congress, is also not straightforward. Both sides face challenges.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power after inducing lawmakers from other parties to first resign, and then defect to it. That set up an inevitable factional fight for election tickets between long-term loyalists and newcomers. Two other things made the conflict worse. The BJP’s national leaders chose to promote younger people and sideline some formidable veterans who reacted, sometimes aggressively. And those same national leaders strongly promoted hardline Hindutva.
That is a departure from BJP traditions in Karnataka, and it triggered resistance from some of the old guards in the state. Former chief minister (CM) BS Yediyurappa, who built and dominated the BJP in the state until recently, has openly opposed that trend. It also runs counter to CM Basavaraj Bommai’s approach during a long political career. And it has unleashed conflict between their reassurances to Muslims that they will be protected, and the new drive for communal polarisation.
The campaign also saw the BJP focusing on the caste calculus, highlighting its efforts, just before the elections were announced, to tweak the reservation matrix and sub-dividing the Scheduled Caste bracket. But the robust promotion of Hindutva remains visible in the campaign, as exemplified by Yogi Adityanath’s tour of the state, and echoes of his message by hard-liners within the state BJP. In the past, communal polarisation has found little traction in Karnataka outside of a few pockets. By promoting it, the BJP’s national leaders are taking an audacious, but perhaps unwise, gamble.
The BJP government also stands accused of serious corruption and, in the words of one of its leaders caught on tape, serious ineffectiveness. Since even some previous governments with positive records tasted defeat, this might be expected to hurt the party this time.
The BJP can take some encouragement from some findings in a recent, reliable pre-poll survey by CSDS-Lokniti. It found that voters were reasonably satisfied with key state government programmes to provide benefits. But the survey also contained grim news: 49% of the “rich” and 52% of the “middle class” disapprove of the government. Those groups have been core supporters of the BJP, and these surprisingly high negative numbers suggest that the party may be in trouble. That same survey also found that the issues that most concerned rural voters were unemployment and poverty. This could also be bad news for the BJP since state elections in Karnataka are always won (and lost) in rural constituencies in the maidan (plains) areas of northern and central Karnataka.
The Congress, the BJP’s main rival, also faces internal conflicts. Former CM Siddaramaiah’s Ahinda (a coalition of minorities, backwards, Dalits) theme reaches out to disadvantaged groups while DK Shivakumar appeals to his fellow Vokkaligas, a traditionally dominant landed caste. This presents a contradiction, but the party has attempted to reconcile this by replicating the strategy adopted five decades ago by another former CM, the late D Devaraj Urs. In 1972, he broke the dominance of the Lingayats and Vokkaligas in state politics since Independence by mobilising support from newly awakened disadvantaged groups who outnumbered the landed castes. He changed the rules of Karnataka politics. Since then, parties in Karnataka can only hope to gain and retain power by appealing to a broad diversity of social groups. Urs insisted to this author in 1979 that his pro-poor policies attracted support from poorer members of the landed castes — and his successes in elections suggested that he was right. A recent poll conducted by Kannada outlet Eedina found that many poorer members of all social groups, again including some from the landed castes, may be leaning towards Siddaramaiah’s strategy.
Some senior Congress leaders have expressed worries that their campaign got off to a slow, late start. But they are hopeful that their recent improvement in ground-level operation, and tactics — partly based on their successful effort in the recent Himachal Pradesh elections — will bring them a majority or something close to it.
Both the Congress and the BJP hope to win seats from the Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S) in its stronghold in southern districts — old Mysuru. The BJP has traditionally struggled in that region, but the Congress hopes that Shivakumar’s appeal among the Vokkaligas — the main base of the JD(S) — and Siddaramaiah’s popularity among Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in those districts will produce gains, though, in the past, this hasn’t worked well.
The JD(S) has suffered some recent defeats in special elections there, and several of its leaders have defected in frustration with the stranglehold of HD Deve Gowda’s family over the party. But the former prime minister (PM) remains an appealing leader who has often been underestimated by commentators. And the JD(S) has adroitly advocated some new policies to benefit farmers. So, it may still win enough seats to undermine the two main parties’ drives for majorities.
The Dalit vote in the state has long been split fairly evenly between a ritually left-hand group which backs the BJP and a right-hand group that mainly supports the Congress. It would be surprising if this changed much, even though the new Congress national president, Mallikarjun Kharge, is a Dalit from Karnataka. He is stubbornly regarded by left-hand Dalits as a leader of the right-hand group. His main contribution may be to prevent national Congress leaders from inserting incompetent supervisors over the state campaign — something that has damaged the party before.
In the final weeks of the campaign, PM Narendra Modi has embarked on an extensive campaign blitz, and his skills and the vast edge in campaign funds that the BJP enjoys may produce gains for the BJP, as it has done in a string of other states. But Karnataka’s voters have a history, from 1985 onward, of focusing on state rather than national leaders. And in roughly 70% of the state elections in Karnataka and elsewhere since 1980, the parties with the most money to spend have actually lost. So, it remains to be seen if this factor proves decisive. For now, the political winds offer mixed signals rife with many unknowns. We must wait for the voters to have their say.
James Manor is a professor in the School of Advanced Study, University of LondonThe views expressed are personal