Karnataka

Missing chemistry

Print edition : April 26, 2019

BJP national president Amit Shah with BJP State party president B.S. Yeddyurappa (second, left), Bangalore South candidate Tejasvi Surya (right) and Tejaswini Ananth Kumar (left) in a road show at Banashankari in Bengaluru on April 2. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy (right), Minister for Irrigation D.K. Shivakumar and the JD(S)-Congress candidate for Shimoga Madhu Bangarappa (left) at an election rally in Shivamogga on April 3. Photo: Handout E Mail

The logic of electoral arithmetic, which ought to have given the Congress-JD(S) combine a head start, is considerably weakened by the alliance’s failure to establish an ideological counter-narrative to the BJP.

Karnataka presents an electoral paradox of sorts in the run-up to the two-phased election on April 18 and 23 for 28 Lok Sabha seats. Although the electoral arithmetic seemed to overwhelmingly favour the ruling Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) combine, the BJP has found a window of opportunity. The absence of any noticeable ideological difference between the BJP on one hand and the Congress-JD(S) on the other is striking, considering that the alliance is supposedly locked in a do-or-die battle to defend the secular ethos. This is best illustrated by the allotment of seats to family and friends of top leaders. The lack of focus on issues that matter to voters—the agricultural crisis, which has been compounded by a severe drought in most parts of the State; unemployment; the workings of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS); the growing climate of intolerance—is a striking feature of the campaign in the State.

The polling being held in two phases for 14 seats each roughly mirrors the socio-economic divide in the State. In the first phase, elections will be held in the relatively more developed constituencies in the Old Mysuru region, coastal Karnataka and Bengaluru and in the second phase in the relatively backward districts of northern Karnataka. The Congress is contesting 20 seats and the JD(S) eight. The JD(S) is a regional party and its sway is limited to the Old Mysuru region, and especially to the Vokkaliga community, one of the two dominant caste groups in the State. The strength of the Congress-JD(S) combine will count in the first phase of polling. The assumption that electoral politics of a coalition rests on the simple arithmetic of adding the vote shares of the partners is being tested here. For much of its history since its formation in 1999, the JD(S) has been locked in a straight fight with the Congress in these constituencies. This explains why the seat allocation was not as smooth as one would have expected from a functioning alliance.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is only a marginal force in most parts of the region, except perhaps in Bengaluru. In 2014, the BJP won 17 seats, the Congress nine and the JD(S) two. While the BJP polled 43.37 per cent of the vote, the Congress secured 41.15 per cent and the JD(S) 11.07 per cent. If the Congress and the JD(S) had been allies in 2014, they would have won a combined total of 13 seats. However, an aggregate of the vote shares of the two parties in the Assembly elections held in 2018, which they fought separately, reveals that the combine would have secured four percentage points more than in 2014. This is not as trivial as it appears at first glance. Even if the alliance partners retain their individual vote shares of 2018, they are likely to win 21 seats, leaving the BJP with just seven, primarily in its strongholds of coastal Karnataka and the Bombay-Karnataka region.

What explains the disconnect between the expectation of electoral arithmetic, involving the free “transfer” of votes from one constituent to the other, and the ground reality? Politics, obviously.

Electoral coalitions are more than a maths test: they need a functional chemistry, camaraderie and alchemy on the ground, between not only the leaders but also party workers. Most importantly, the support bases of both parties need to be convinced that they stand to benefit from working together. After his exclusion from the JD(S) in 2005, Siddaramaiah nursed a social coalition of backward castes, Dalits and Muslims. So, when the gutsy Kuruba leader joined the Congress, he brought with him a social and political base that gave him leverage within the Congress. This coalition was pitted against Vokkaligas in the Cauvery belt in southern Karnataka. It appears that these social tensions have invaded the political space in which the two main parties are at different ends of the social spectrum. Naturally, this weakens the logic of electoral arithmetic. A Vokkaliga member of the Mysuru Zilla Panchayat belonging to the JD(S), who did not want to be named, said the JD(S)’ identity depended on its antipathy to the Congress. “How can we suddenly work together?” he asked.

In the eight constituencies in the Old Mysuru region (Bangalore North, Central and South, Bangalore Rural, Kolar, Tumkur, Chikkballapur and Mandya), one common feature of electioneering by all the major political parties was an utter lack of focus on the most important issues of the day—the agrarian crisis, lack of jobs, drought, collapse of the MGNREGS, shortage of drinking water and absence of health care and education facilities. For instance, none of the political parties have made non-payment of dues of sugarcane growers an electoral issue, although it has defied resolution in the last several years. The BJP appears to have bet heavily on the Narendra Modi card, hoping that it would work as it did last time.

The second feature of the campaign is the utter lack of ideological contestation. While the BJP is expected to articulate its Hindutva agenda, notwithstanding its desperate attempt to speak the language of development, the Congress-JD(S) combine seems to have given up all pretensions of engaging in an ideological struggle with the BJP. Instead of countering the BJP’s communal agenda and Modi’s track record of intolerance, the Congress appears to be shy of engaging its rival on issues such as strident Hindutva and the BJP’s use of jingoism for electoral mobilisation. A senior Congress leader told Frontline: “We want to target Hindu votes. Raising the communal card could alienate Hindus. We do not want to allow the BJP to hijack the Hindu vote.”

The BJP’s hopes of capitalising on the dichotomy between the Congress and the JD(S) have been negated by its prevarication in the choice of candidates. This was evident in the case of the nomination of 28-year-old Tejasvi Surya for the prestigious Bangalore South seat much against the wishes of State party leaders, who wanted to nominate Tejaswini Ananth Kumar, widow of Ananth Kumar, who was a Minister in the Modi Cabinet. The BJP faces a tough fight in Bangalore North where Union Minister Sadananda Gowda is facing the popular State Minister Krishna Byre Gowda. Bangalore Central will see a three-cornered fight, with actor Prakash Raj, who has been a strident critic of the BJP, contesting against the Congress’ Rizwan Arshad and the sitting BJP MP, P.C. Mohan. This is an example of the Congress not choosing a wider platform to engage the BJP, which could have been achieved by supporting Prakash Raj.

Cohesion or lack of it between coalition partners holds the key in many constituencies. Congress and JD(S) cadres have come to blows as their leaders tried to get them to campaign together. Frontline’s correspondent saw JD(S) functionaries, all of whom had created an identity for themselves by opposing the Congress, refusing to speak at public meetings organised by a Congress candidate. Former Chief Ministers M. Veerappa Moily said that this was bound to happen. “For over three decades the [Congress’] enemy was the JD(S) or factions of the Janata Parivar. So this was expected. We should have done something for better integration. The coordination should have been better, ” he said. Moily is seeking re-election from Chikkballapur. He defeated B.N. Bache Gowda by a narrow margin of 9,520 votes in 2014, and is facing a strong anti-incumbency wave as does the Congress’ K.H. Muniyappa in neighbouring Kolar.

Many Congress leaders, especially those who left the JD(S) to join the Congress along with Siddaramaiah, resent JD(S) supremo Deve Gowda and the fact that he is imposing dynastic politics on the coalition. His grandsons are contesting from Mandya and Hassan. Said a Congressman who played a key role in the formation of the Congress-JD(S) government after the May 2018 Assembly elections: “Many in the Congress are not happy with this obsession with one family. How far this will affect the transfer of Congress votes to the JD(S) is to be seen. But both parties have no choice but to help each other. That is the only way to stop Modi in Karnataka. If Modi returns to power, the Karnataka government will in all probability go. And the Congress will not care.”

Deve Gowda, who was elected from the Hassan Lok Sabha seat five times, has vacated the seat in favour of his grandson, Prajwal Revanna. The formal alliance of JD(S)-Congress is facing tough competition from the “informal alliance” between the BJP candidate and disgruntled Congress workers. Congress workers, who have fought against the JD(S) in the past four decades, are reluctant to campaign for the 28-year-old representative of the Gowda family. Even after repeated requests from the party leadership, a section of leaders is unwilling to campaign for the JD(S) candidate. The BJP has chosen A. Manju, a former Congressman who had challenged Deve Gowda earlier in Hassan, as its candidate. In the process, it has created dissension in its ranks. In Chitradurga, a seat reserved for the Scheduled Castes, the Congress has fielded sitting MP B.N. Chandrappa. Here the coalition appears to be working smoothly. The BJP’s choice of a Madiga candidate appears to have angered a section of its support base.

In Mandya, the Congress was unable to prevent Sumalatha, actor and wife of the late Congress leader and Union Minister M.H. Ambareesh, from contesting as an independent against the JD(S)’ Nikhil Kumaraswamy, actor and son of Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. Many Congressmen, including key Youth Congress office-bearers, have been openly campaigning for Sumalatha.

Frontline joined Sumalatha on her campaign trail in Nagamangala and Melukote taluks. Exhausted and sweating profusely, she reminded the restless crowds that the whole of India was watching Mandya. Sumalatha, who has the support of the BJP, told Frontline that her opponents had taken politics to a new low. “I have respect for Deve Gowda, but his children and some of the JD(S) functionaries have made the contest dirty. Revanna [Deve Gowda’s son and Minister in the Kumaraswamy Cabinet] asked as to how I could contest just months after my husband had died. L. Shivarame Gowda [the sitting MP for Mandya] made a disparaging remark that I am not from the Gowda community but a Naidu.”

Deve Gowda’s candidature was also shrouded in controversy. Insiders point out that he wanted to contest from northern Karnataka or Mysore constituency, but the Congress was not for it. After much vacillation, he chose Tumkur, a seat held by the Congress. The sitting Congress MP, S.P. Muddhehanume Gowda, withdrew his candidature after registering a loud protest.

In 2014, the BJP had fared well in the four constituencies in south-western and coastal Karnataka—Mysore-Kodagu, Dakshina Kannada, Udupi-Chikmagalur and Chamarajanagar—winning three seats.

Waiting to board a train to Mysuru at the Krantivira Sangolli Rayanna (formerly Bangalore City) railway station, Rukmini Venkatesh, a homemaker in her forties, said she was in favour of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister as there was no worthwhile candidate in the opposition parties, but she did not favour the BJP candidate for Mysore, Pratap Simha. “He is arrogant,” she said. This view of Simha is endorsed by many others in Mysuru. In a predominant Vokkaliga village near Kadakola, around 15 kilometres from Mysuru, Simha, wearing a saffron scarf with Modi’s image, listed the Prime Minister’s achievements through his campaign.

Mysore-Kodagu is a large constituency stretching from the princely city of Mysuru to the hill region of Kodagu. Simha was the first off the block here, using aggressive Hindutva to present himself as a Hindu leader, but it is his caste—he is a Vokkaliga—that not only gives him an edge but also works against him in this election.

Ideological vacuum

The irrelevance of ideology in this election is underpinned by the fact that Simha’s Congress rival, C.H. Vijayashankar, a senior Kuruba politician, was twice elected as MP on the BJP ticket. Vokkaligas are the largest caste group in the constituency followed by Dalits, Muslims, Kurubas, Nayakas (a Scheduled Caste) and Lingayats. Brahmins and Kodavas are found in significant numbers. With Muslims, Kurubas and Dalits aligned with the Congress, the key question in this constituency is whether Vokkaligas will stand by Simha considering that the JD(S) is fighting the election in coalition with the Congress. “If the Congress and the JD(S) work together on the ground, Simha will not stand a chance, but the coalition does not seem to be working on the ground,” said Prasanna Kumar, a senior Kannada journalist based in Mysuru.

Things are different in neighbouring Chamarajanagar (reserved) constituency. The incumbent MP, R. Dhruvanarayan, belongs to the Congress, and appears to have an undisputed edge here. His record as an MP, considering indices like attendance and spending of MPLADS (Members of Parliament Local Areas Development Scheme) funds, has been impressive as noted by the PRS Legislative Research. “He is easily accessible and has the image of being a simple man,” said a local journalist. All these factors seem to be working in his favour in what is known to be one of the most backward districts in the State. The irrelevance of ideology is evident here, as in this case of the BJP candidate V. Srinivas Prasad, a five-time MP—four as the Congress representative and once as a Janata Dal (United) member. At his home in Mysuru, Prasad reiterated that he had retired from “active” politics but was left with no choice but to contest because of “popular demand”.

Prasad is an unlikely BJP politician. There are no pictures of Modi or any Hindu religious iconography at his home in a quiet neighbourhood of Mysuru. Instead, there are a number of representations of the Buddha and pictures of B.R. Ambedkar. He is also unusually candid for a politician on the campaign trail. “I am an Ambedkarite and I don’t believe in Hindutva although I believe in the leadership of Modi. India needs a leader like him. Dalits don’t vote for the BJP, especially in Chamarajanagar, but they will vote for me,” he stated. Prod him further and the real reason for his reluctant candidature comes to the fore: “I want to humiliate Siddaramaiah.” Prasad and Siddaramaiah share a bitter relationship after the latter, when he was Chief Minister, removed him from his Cabinet.

While the BJP cannot ride the Hindutva tiger with much success in Chamarajanagar and Mysore-Kodagu (except in Kodagu where it has a deep base), it will certainly bank heavily on its Hindu vote bank in the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. The party’s well-oiled machinery in parts of the neighbouring district of Chikkamagaluru with which Udupi has been conjoined for the Udupi-Chikmagalur Lok Sabha seat gives it an advantage in the campaign phase.

Separated by the Western Ghats, the geography and social demography of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi are different from the plains of the Old Mysuru region. Mithun Rai, the young Congress candidate for the Dakshina Kannada constituency, appeared upbeat about his prospects of defeating the BJP in its bastion. “The BJP keeps saying that they are a party of Hindus. I am more Hindu than them. I have donated 160 cattle and 160 calves to the gaushala [cattle shelter]. I have walked to Sabarimala from Mangaluru. Can any BJP politician claim to have done so much as a Hindu?” he asks. He said that the BJP sought to “create communal disharmony”. “I want to bring more jobs to this district so that the idle fellows of the Bajrang Dal find something to do apart from moral policing.” Rai is careful to make the point that he is more “Hindu” than his BJP challenger, Nalin Kumar Kateel. Obviously missing in this story of electoral tussle between the two sides is any semblance of a bitter ideological divide. Both Rai and Kateel, a two-term MP, are Bunts, a dominant community in the region. Rai upstaged several senior members of the party to emerge as the Congress’ official candidate and there is some unease that all party leaders in the district are not backing him. But will his youthful “Hindu” image be enough to counter the dedicated cadre and micro-management of the BJP that is entrenched in the district? Rai’s door-to-door campaign had not started by the end of March while the BJP’s outreach was in full flow.

BJP’s electoral machinery

This system has paid rich dividends to the BJP in many parts of the country. Party chief Amit Shah’s credo of “booth jeeto/chunav jeeto” (win booth/win the election), which has helped the BJP establish itself electorally and had delivered results in coastal Karnataka, was explained by Captain Ganesh Karnik, former BJP Member of Legislative Council (MLC) and a member of the Election Management Committee of Dakshina Kannada constituency. According to him, a parliamentary constituency is divided into Assembly constituencies (225-250 polling booths or pbs). Each Assembly segment is divided into Mahashakti kendras (30-35 pbs) and subdivided into Shakti kendras (6-8 pbs). A booth-level committee of about 10 people is then put in charge of every booth.

“At this level, each booth has around 1,100-1,200 voters and the list has about 40 pages with 30 voters listed on each page. We have identified a panna pramukh for each page, who is one of the voters on this page. This person’s job is very small: all he has to do is to keep track of the voters on his page, who are around eight families, and ensure that they vote for the BJP. He ensures that the Central government schemes are reaching the voters, etc. and basically lobbies for the party,” stated Karnik, munching on a neer dosa, a local speciality.

This system has been put in place in neighbouring Udupi-Chikmagalur as well where it has produced spectacular results for the BJP. Here, former Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa’s protege, Shobha Karandlaje, a Vokkaliga and sitting BJP MP, is contesting against Pramod Madhwaraj of the Congress, belonging to the Mogaveera caste, who will be contesting on the JD(S) symbol as agreed upon by the coalition partners. This constituency’s demographics are similar to that of Dakshina Kannada, with a larger population of Vokkaligas in the higher reaches of Chikkamagaluru. Interestingly, both Karandlaje and Kateel, who are known for having used their communal posturing aggressively during the State Assembly election in 2018, have been seeking votes only in the name of Modi and have restrained from using any majoritarian rhetoric in their campaign so far.

Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s tallest leader in Karnataka and the man who contributed in no small measure to the party’s first full-term in office but also soiled its reputation by being involved in the iron ore mining scandal, remains its mascot. In March, Yeddyurappa, said the party would focus on three main issues: projecting the achievements of the Modi government, the failures of the JD(S)-Congress government, and recalling the BJP’s achievements in its previous tenure. In reality, the last issue seems to have been forgotten, probably because of the fear that people may not wish to be reminded of the large-scale irregularities of that time. Effectively, the BJP’s campaign appears to rest on recalling the Modi magic, his stature as a “strong” leader. Even in coastal Karnataka, a BJP stronghold, where religious polarisation has paid off dividends for the party, the communal rhetoric has been toned down with Modi being the sole calling card.

The BJP has renominated 16 sitting MPs. Evidently, it hopes to retain its support base among Lingayats, a group that Yeddyurappa belongs to. This social group, which punches far above its weight because of its social and economic power, is more relevant in central and northern Karnataka. In coastal Karnataka and other urban pockets of the State, the BJP will rely on its upper-caste vote base. The BJP is feeling smug that it has managed to attract two Congress leaders (A. Manju in Hassan and Umesh Jadhav in Gulbarga) to the party fold. They will now be contesting on the BJP ticket.

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