Battle for Karnataka: State Elections 2018
With the 2019 Lok Sabha elections only a year away, the BJP electoral blitzkrieg descended down on Karnataka—the Congress’ southern bastion, and the so-called gateway to southern India. Out of the 224 constituencies, 222 saw polling on the 12th of May, 2018. The Indian National Congress presently holds the majority in the state, with 120 seats won in 2013, with BJP and JDS having 40 seats each.
The BJP has repeatedly shown its efficiency in winning elections, working like a well-oiled machine under Amit Shah, aided by the droves of on-ground manpower. Though they managed to retain Gujarat, losing out on seats in the home state of Narendra Modi, which is also his flagship model of development, was a wake-up call for the centre’s ruling party. With constant accusations of polarising the electorate on the basis of religion and the recent national outrage against the lynching, hate crimes, and rapes in the name of nationalist Hindutva, BJP has entered the arena worse for wear.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that BJP fielded no Muslim candidates, which is the largest religious minority in the state—comprising of 13 percent of the population according to the 2011 census. In at least 20 constituencies, the Muslim community plays a strong role in deciding the winner, with both INC and JDS vying for them. Amidst fears of a split between the two parties, INC and JDS have gone on the offensive against each other. But the JDS faces an issue of losing the trust of the voters, having been continuously called out for furthering the BJP agenda in the state.
JDS even teamed up with AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi—who even campaigned on their behalf. However, the proposed seat sharing proposal fell through. But the AIMIM’s radical methods are all but a mirror image of the RSS’ ways and so the INC has become the de facto choice for the Muslims who are opposing the BJP government in Karnataka, thanks to the BJP’s tendency to make the minorities feel unsafe in the states they govern
One of the major reasons for Siddaramaiah’s victory in 2013 was the revival of the AHINDA strategy. AHINDA stands for Alpasankhyataru (Minorities), Hindulidavaru (Backward Classes) and Dalitaru (Dalits). In Karnataka, the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas community make up the majority of the state’s vote bank. AHINDA was an attempt to consolidate the votes of the other communities to create a third large vote bank against these two.
The Vokkaligas are a dominant peasant caste comprising 12% percent of Karnataka’s population, and 53 current MLAs, making it an influential one. They are the largest support system of the JD(S) — the party leader and former prime minister Deve Gowda hailing from the Vokkaligas. JD(S) leader and Deve Gowda’s son HD Kumaraswamy now rides the Vokkaliga wave.
The JD(S) has also formed an uneasy alliance with Mayawati’s BSP in the hope of getting the incremental Dalit community vote. Dalits comprise 18 percent of the state’s vote share and as per the agreement, JD(S) will contest 184 seats and BSP will contest 20. The alliance may backfire due to the ancient frosty relationship between the historically oppressive Vokkaligas and the Dalits who have primarily been labourers on the fields of the Vokkaligas. This could push some Dalit vote towards the INC, but Mayawati loyalists are determined to support the BJP in its cause.
The Vokkaligas are one of the major voting blocs, and in a polarised electorate, their vote can make or break the INC’s campaign. Historically, the INC gives JD(S) a tough run for the Vokkaliga dominant seats, but this year may turn out different.
Another major group, the Lingayats have traditionally been BJP loyalists, moving from Congress in the early 90s. They constitute 17% of the state’s population and influence the outcome in 90-100 constituencies. In 2013, after the split from BJP, ex-CM BS Yeddyurappa and his party, the Karnataka Janata Paksha split the Lingayat vote share, giving INC an upper hand. But with Yeddyurappa not only back in BJP but their Chief Ministerial candidate as well, the Lingayat vote is a must win for the INC. To tackle this, CM Siddramaiah accorded religious minority status to the Lingayats—in a controversial move that has been heavily debated despite being recommended by the State Minority Commision.
Congress has said publicly that they don’t expect the move to pay any dividends in terms of vote share, which seems likely since the inherent BJP loyalists would rather not vote than give a vote to the INC. A similar situation played out in Gujarat, where the Patels given minority status by the BJP, decided to vote for the NOTA option than choose between BJP and Congress.
Karnataka has seen constant political swing since its inception in the 70s and has never seen the ruling party get re-elected for a second term in a row. With incumbency being such an issue, the PM himself has been campaigning heavily—holding 21 rallies in 15 days. The BJP juggernaut brought in ministers from all over the nation in an attempt to attract voters and consolidate the biggest of three Congress-ruled territories left before 2019. With an agenda of anti-corruption and minorities, Narendra Modi was the face of BJP in Karnataka, keeping CM candidate Yeddyurappa to the sidelines. Ironically enough, it was Yeddyurappa who was jailed on corruption charges in 2011 when he stepped down from his office.
For the INC, as seen during the Gujarat elections, the weight lies solely on Rahul Gandhi, who spent close to 25 days on the road this time. Luckily in Karnataka, the popularity of CM Siddaramaiah has trumped every other factor, with his approval ratings the highest in years. It isn’t surprising since he is also the first CM of Karnataka to finish a full term in four decades.
He has successfully built a narrative which formed the base of the majority of his campaigning.”The Karnataka model of development” as Siddaramaiah likes to call it, focused highly on ‘Inclusion, Innovation and Enterprise.’ A universal healthcare scheme, regulation of private hospitals, and the AHINDA strategy were among the few welfare schemes implemented during the last term, which led to Karnataka outscoring most of the BJP ruled states on social development indices. The state even brags of the highest investments in the country, overtaking Gujarat.
In a state like Karnataka, where vote bank politics is predominantly the way to victory, Siddaramaiah’s populist policies and development should help tackle the Hindutva agenda of the BJP, which weakens as it comes lower south due to lack of Hindi speaking voters. The language itself has been very controversial for Karnataka when protests broke out last year on the “imposition of Hindi” as activists blackened the Hindi signs at various metro stations. This goes against the BJP’s ”Hindi-Hindu-Hindutva” movement and is the biggest hurdle for BJP in the south. Karnataka has seen a constant influx of people from across the nation due to the software industry, which has lead to a gradual decrease in Kannada usage across the state. If Karnataka, where language chauvinism is the least aggressive among the southern states can make BJP stumble, then the BJP will need to rethink their agenda for 2019.
The election had no pan-Karnataka issue. Anti-incumbency against the ruling INC is not a widespread issue. In fact, the moods and issues were different in different regions. The state is sharply divided along the lines of caste and religion, and the elections would prove to be a true test of both Siddarahaiah’s policies of inclusion and Narendra Modi’s pull in southern India. For JD(S), the stakes are higher because, in the off chance that a party wins the majority, the party’s existence may be in question.
It remains to be seen if the voters decide to open up Karnataka to the Hindu nationalism and let BJP bring about fundamental changes to their lifestyle or stick to the more comfortable present status quo. Opinion and Exit polls tend to vary largely these days, but a hung assembly is the most likely outcome, with the INC winning the highest number. This would mean JD(S) will play the kingmaker and decide the outcome of not only Karnataka, and most importantly, set the stage for 2019.
Featured Image: Indian Express