A bridge too far

Print edition : May 10, 2019

A section of the crowd attending Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign rally at Chikkodi on April 18. Photo: P.K. Badiger

Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy (centre) Congress candidate Vinay Kulkarni (fifth left), former Minister Basavaraj Horatti, Congress MLA Prasad Abbayya and other leaders at a Congress-JD(S) joint election campaign in Hubballi on April 19. Photo: THE HINDU

Union Defence Minister Nirmala Seetharaman with B.Y. Raghavendra (right), the BJP candidate for Shimoga constituency, in Shimoga on April 15. Photo: VAIDYA

Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress candidate for Gulbarga, addressing a rally in Sedam town in Kalaburagi district on April 19. Photo: ARUN KULKARNI

The BJP is banking on caste and community factors in a campaign devoid of livelihood issues, but the combined strength of the Congress and the JD(S) may wreck its chances.

A palpable disconnect between voters and vote-seekers was the abiding feature of the Lok Sabha election in Karnataka as campaigning meandered towards a tortuous climax. It was evident that neither of the two major contenders—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) combine—articulated any of the major issues that the common man considered important or worthy of a political contestation. Neither the issue of jobs nor issues such as farm distress, acute water scarcity facing many parts of the State appeared worthy of political articulation, although Frontline correspondents, who travelled across the State, discovered these issues to be the prime cause of concern among voters.

It was in keeping with this disconnect between the substantive issues on peoples’ minds and the rhetoric of the campaigning politicians that Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on April 18—even as the first phase of polling for 14 southern Karnataka seats were on—of the military strike on Pakistan, churlishly alleging that Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy probably had a voter base in Balakot (the area in Pakistan where the Indian Air Force air raid took place) rather than in Bagalkot, the parliamentary constituency in northern Karnataka.

As the mercury shot up it became evident that the political campaign was as barren as the landscape.

If one draws an imaginary line that slopes gently from east to west across the middle of Karnataka, it would demarcate the two phases of polling in the State; the area south of the line voted on April 18, while north of it voted on April 23. Phase I covered the old Mysuru region and parts of coastal Karnataka.

The 14 constituencies in phase II have a more diverse geographical, socio-economic, cultural and linguistic make-up. The latter is generally more backward both in terms of the social composition (for instance, a higher proportion of the population in this region is from the backward castes, Dalits and the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.)) and economic development. Vast areas here are dry, often perennially, which demand the support of state-led programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in order to compensate for the backwardness of agriculture in these parts. Most constituencies, barring Shimoga and Davangere, are part of the Hyderabad-Karnataka region comprising Bidar, Raichur, Koppal, Gulbarga and Bellary and the Bombay-Karnataka region comprising Chikkodi, Bijapur, Bagalkot, Belgaum, Dharwad, Uttara Kannada and Haveri.

Most of the 13 districts in northern Karnataka, which is the second largest arid region in the country after Rajasthan, are facing a severe drought this year, too, with the result that migration of farm labour and farmer suicides show no signs of abating. Drinking water scarcity has hit cities and villages. There are no signs of small businesses having recovered from the double blow of demonetisation and goods and services tax (GST). Not surprisingly, young graduates, among them engineers, are on the hunt for jobs, any job at all. Women workers at an MGNREGS site in Bambarga gram panchayat in Belagavi district complained that their wages had not been paid for months and that they did not get the mandated 100 days of work despite repeated requests. But they do not expect this to be an election issue. Farmers who have been fighting for speedier approval for the Mahadayi river basin irrigation projects such as Kalasa and Bandori are disappointed.

“The BJP was our earliest and strongest supporter when it was in the opposition. But now, the support is not forthcoming. What is more, we are forced to fight against the BJP now,’’ said Sidagouda Motagi, a farmers’ leader who has been involved in the Mahadayi agitation for over a decade. Three-time BJP Lok Sabha member Suresh Angadi is seeking re-election from Belgaum. He is contesting against the Congress’ physician-turned-educationist V.S. Sadhunavar. But the campaign seems to be utterly devoid of the issues that people consider as the most vital livelihood issues.

In Gulbarga, former Union Minister Mallikarjun Kharge, a nine-time Congress MLA and sitting MP, is pitted against Umesh Jadhav, a former Congressman. The BJP’s choice of a “right-handed” Dalit, against Kharge, supposedly a “left-handed” Dalit, is based on the untested theorisation that such differences matter in the reserved constituency. The “left-handed” Dalits, according to this formulation, are worse off than the “right-handed” ones, although Kharge insists that this does not matter. He bets on the development mantra. His supporters refer to his track record of initiating various works, including railway projects in the area, as evidence of his commitment to the development of the constituency.

In Bidar, which is one of the poorest districts in the country and which trails national indices of well-being on nearly every score, the BJP’s incumbent MP, Bhagwant Khuba, who is a civil engineer, claims a “wave” will return him to office. His detractors point to his unkept promises, made five years ago, but he remains smug. The Congress-JD(S) nominee for Bidar is the pradesh Congress committee working president and MLA Eshwar Khandre, who is banking on the popularity of his father, Bheemanna Khandre, and his own work as a Minister in the past.

Lingayat factor

The tussle over whether Lingayats constitute a separate religious denomination, a major issue during the State Assembly elections last year, has dissipated now. “It is like hot coal. No one wants to hold it in their hands,’’ said a Congress nominee from one of the seats. After all, what difference would it make to the life of an average Lingayat if his belief becomes a separate religion? These are all academic issues that should be restricted to universities,’’ said the elder Khandre.

In Chikkodi constituency, the veteran Congressman Prakash Hukkeri, who has lost only one of the eight elections he has fought until now, is seeking re-election. He was the lone Congress MP to be elected from the Bombay-Karnataka region in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Many people, even those on the other side of the political spectrum, consider Hukkeri amiable and approachable. Pitted against him is Anna Saheb Jolle, a career cooperator, who is backed by the Sahakara Bharati, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. The BJP chose Jolle, although its former MP, Ramesh Katti, lost to Hukkeri in 2014 by a slender margin of 3,003 votes.

On April 12, Modi campaigned in Gangavathi in Koppal district to reach out to voters in the contiguous constituencies of Bellary, Raichur and Koppal in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region. Ballari, Raichur and Koppal districts have a high concentration of people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the S.Ts, the combined share of their population accounting for between 35 and 45 per cent in each district. Significantly, Bellary and Raichur are the only two S.T. constituencies in the State. The fight in these constituencies is mainly between the Congress and the BJP as the JD(S) has a negligible presence here.

Interestingly, in his speech Modi referred to only three State BJP leaders by name— former Chief Ministers B.S. Yeddyurappa and Jagadish Shettar (both Lingayats) and B. Sriramulu (a Nayaka, which is an S.T.). In his speech, Modi also paid homage to the influential Lingayat monastery, the Sri Gavisiddeswara Math, located in Koppal. This selection was not random as it mirrored the choice of BJP candidates in the three seats: Karadi Sanganna, a Lingayat, is contesting from Koppal, while Amresh Nayak and Devendrappa (both Nayakas) are contesting from Raichur and Bellary respectively. The emphasis on caste was obviously a calculated move.

It may be recalled that in December 2016, a communal riot was engineered in Gangavathi on the occasion of Hanuman Jayanthi. Although Modi did not raise the issue, Hindutva’s social media handlers have attacked the ruling coalition in the State for providing resources to conduct the Tipu Jayanthi function but not to celebrate the glory of Hampi, the seat of the Vijayanagar empire. Fittingly, the local BJP leadership presented Modi with a Hanuman memento.

But V.S. Ugrappa of the Congress is on a strong wicket. He defeated the BJP’s J. Shanta in the byelection held in 2018 by a massive margin of 2.5 lakh votes. B. Sriramulu of the BJP, who was elected in 2014, vacated the seat to contest the Assembly elections. Interestingly, for the first time in 15 years, the mining barons, or Ballari brothers—Gali Janardhana Reddy, Gali Somasekhara Reddy and Gali Karunakara Reddy—are not contesting the election.

The BJP may have a better chance to win in Raichur as the sitting Congress MP won the previous election by a thin margin of 1,499 votes. The BJP hopes to win in Koppal where its sitting MP, Karadi Sanganna, is seen as an accessible representative. Neither the issue of large-scale migration nor the poor implementation of the MGNREGS, which could have stemmed it, have found traction in the political campaigns.

Mahadayi, a non-issue

In the three constituencies of Dharwad, Haveri and Uttara Kannada, which were the fulcrum of the agitation seeking independent religion status by Lingayats, and violent protests for a larger share of the Mahadayi (called Mandovi in Goa) river water, there is now an eerie silence on both issues now.

In August 2018, the Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal awarded Karnataka 13.4 tmc, or thousand million cubic feet (5.4 tmc ft for consumptive use and 8.02 tmc ft for power generation), and Goa was allowed 24 tmc for municipal, industrial and irrigation purposes. The Karnataka government has appealed against this ruling. The dispute centres around Goa’s objection to the diversion of the river water through projects in Karnataka to the Malaprabha river basin. The dispute, which had been festering since 1980, escalated in 2002 when Karnataka drew up plans for using the Mahadayi water for drinking purposes in northern Karnataka. Although the National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee approved the plan, Goa opposed it, arguing that there was not enough water in the river to justify its diversion and that it was not without adverse ecological consequences. While in the opposition in the State, the BJP raised the issue. Farmers’ organisations allege that the party was now silent on the issue because it runs the government in Goa.

The Mahadayi issue has always been tricky for the BJP. With all attention focussed on Modi, it has fallen by the wayside. The Congress is also not raising it now, after having filed an appeal against the award of the Mahadayi.

Although several farmers’ organisations came together to raise the issue during the election campaign, it does not seem to have made much impact. This suits the BJP because the sitting MPs of Dharwad, Belgaum and Bagalkot belong to the BJP. As such the BJP would prefer the issue to remain buried because it is in no position to offer a solution.

“Their main focus is to use the issue to gain political mileage. None of them is really concerned about farmers,” said Viresh Sobaradmath, State president of the Raitha Sena.

In Dharwad, where the BJP has fielded a Brahmin against the Congress’ Lingayat candidate, the party wants to stay off the Lingayat issue for electoral purposes. In both Haveri and Uttara Kannada, while the BJP is harping on the Modi factor, the Congress is focussing on the performance of the coalition government as well as that of the previous Siddaramaiah-led Congress government. Despite having a strong network in Uttara Kannada district, the Congress has allotted the seat to the JD(S). It is interesting to note that the Congress candidate, Anand Vasant Asnotikar, is contesting on the JD(S) ticket. He is pitted against the Union Minister and BJP’s chief rabble-rouser, Anantkumar Hegde, who has won the seat five times.

Interestingly, and indicative of the ideological vacuum, Asnotikar has, within a short time of little over a decade, shifted allegiance between the three main political parties in the State. In 2008, he crossed over from the Congress to the BJP under the spell of Yeddyurappa’s “Operation Kamala”, which drew MLAs from the opposition. Since then he has shifted back to the Congress and is now contesting on the JD(S) ticket.

For over a decade, Shimoga constituency has been the BJP bastion from where its best known face, Yeddyurappa, had been elected. B.Y. Raghavendra, Yeddyurappa’s son and the sitting MP, is pitted against the JD(S)’ Madhu Bangarappa. The BJP may appear to have an edge, but the combined strength of the Congress-JD(S) alliance may have some surprise in store.

The neighbouring parliamentary constituency of Davangere, once a Congress bastion, may be an easier battle for the BJP. The Congress’ dilly-dallying in choosing its candidate appears to have left its cadre confused. While the BJP has played it safe by betting on a Lingayat, a powerful and numerically large community, the Congress has chosen a candidate from the Kuruba community, a backward but numerically strong community in the constituency. The BJP candidate, G.M. Siddeshwar, who is a prominent arecanut businessman, insisted that the “Modi wave” would see him through.

Ramesh Badiger (22) is an obvious Modi admirer. When his smartphone glows, the Prime Minister’s face appears on the screen. He abandoned studies after three unsuccessful attempts to clear Class 12 and now works at a grocery store in Vijayapura city, earning Rs.6,500 a month. Questions about jobless growth or about the palpable rural distress around him have no impact on his opinion of Modi. He considers Modi the “Hindus’ only saviour”. But his father, Sharanappa Badiger, is a staunch supporter of Siddaramaiah. The reason: he benefited significantly from the farm loan waiver provided by the previous government. Unemployment is a significant issue by most accounts, especially among youths, but they do not even expect governments to do anything about the problem.

In this low-expectation trap, the appeal of a Balakot air strike appears to invite praise of “strong action,” whatever that may mean. Indeed, two-time MP and Union Minister Ramesh Jigajinagi, who is the BJP’s candidate, has been urging the people to vote “by looking at Modi and not the BJP candidate”.

The BJP, obviously worried by the strength of numbers that the Congress-JD(S) alliance poses, has termed it an apavitra maitri (unholy alliance). But there is no doubt that it has tilted the scales even in northern Karnataka where the JD(S) was seen as a marginal player, except in a few pockets.

Consider this: In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won 11 of the 14 seats in northern Karnataka, leaving three to the Congress. But in the 2018 byelection to three parliamentary constituencies (Mandya, Shimoga and Bellary), the Congress wrested the Bellary seat from the BJP. The Congress thus increased its tally in the region to four.

However, things can change quite sharply if the 2018 State Assembly elections is taken as the benchmark. The combined vote share of the Congress and the JD(S), which had contested the Assembly elections separately, was higher than the BJP’s in 10 (Gulbarga, Bidar, Raichur, Bellary, Bijapur, Belgaum, Chikkodi, Davangere, Uttara Kannada and Koppal) of the 14 seats. However, the margin varied from less than 1 per cent in Chikkodi to 24 per cent in Bijapur.

Only in Dharwad, Haveri and Bagalkot was the BJP’s votes more than that of the two parties. Shimoga was the lone outlier. Here, although the Congress and the JD(S) got a combined vote share of 47.12 per cent, compared with the BJP’s 44.05 per cent, the BJP managed to win seven of the eight Assembly segments. This suggests that Shimoga may present a more difficult fight than the BJP expects.

In five constituencies, the Congress-JD(S)’ combined vote share was at least 10 percentage points more than that of the BJP. In Bellary, it was eight percentage points more, in Davangere the lead was less than four percentage points and in Uttara Kannada it was three percentage points more.

While there has been much attention on the lack of “chemistry” between the Congress and the JD(S), and the media has focussed on the open discord between the alliance partners and their ineffective choice of candidates, these are still in the realm of speculation. Given that electoral swings of 4 to 5 per cent are a rarity, the vote shares of the 2018 Assembly elections show that this election is a bridge too far for the BJP.