Ground regained

Print edition : June 07, 2019

BJP supporters celebrating outside the party office in Bengaluru on May 23. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

BJP Karnataka president B.S. Yeddyurappa (right) and party leader R. Ashoka addressing the press at the party office in Bengaluru on May 23. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

Independent candidate Sumalatha Ambareesh after winning the Mandya seat by defeating the JD(S) candidate, Nikhil Kumaraswamy, son of Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. Photo: PTI

H.D. Deve Gowda, defeated in Tumkur. Photo: V. RAJU

Prajwal Revanna of the JD(S) wins in Hassan. Photo: Prakash Hassan

M. Veerappa Moily, defeated in Chikkballapur. Photo: V. Raju

M. Mallikarjun Kharge lost the Gulbarga seat. Photo: PTI

The BJP’s massive win destroys the Congress-JD(S)’ “Karnataka model” of political alternative and poses a threat to the very survival of the coalition government in the State.

The results of the election to the 28 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka were among the first to stream in as counting of votes commenced on the morning of May 23. What followed was a breathtaking sweep by the BJP, one that was not visualised by even its most ardent fans, let alone the Janata Dal(Secular)-Congress combine which has been ruling the State since 2018. The alliance which was considered “formidable” until the other day has been decimated by the Hindutva hurricane. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 25 of the 28 seats and can legitimately claim one more, Mandya, where the independent candidate Sumalatha Ambareesh was supported by it. The Congress and the JD(S) won a seat each, both in the southern part of the State. The much-celebrated “Karnataka model”, which was supposed to serve as a template for anti-BJP alliances, is now a wreck. The very survival of the coalition government in the State now hangs in the balance as the combination of the burden of its own internal contradictions and the BJP’s efforts to woo away legislators gathers momentum.

Stalwarts from both the Congress and the JD(S) were felled by the electoral storm. The JD(S) patriarch and former Prime Minister, H.D. Deve Gowda, who vacated his Hassan constituency in favour of his grandson Prajwal Revanna (this was the lone seat that the JD(S) won) was defeated in Tumkur, albeit by a relatively narrow margin. M. Mallikarjun Kharge, the senior Congress leader who in his five-decade-long political career had won the State Assembly election nine consecutive times and the Lok Sabha election twice (2009 and 2014), was defeated by Umesh G. Yadav of the BJP in Gulbarga. Former Union Minister K.H. Muniyappa and former Chief Minister M. Veerappa Moily also succumbed in Kolar and Chikkballapur respectively. Two members of the State Cabinet, pushed to fight the Lok Sabha election, were also defeated. Among the many firsts achieved in this election is the stunning debut of Sumalatha, a Kannada actor and the widow of three-time Congress MP Ambareesh. The State Congress leadership, which is normally accessible, was so dumbstruck that it went into a stupor. Moily, when asked to comment on the defeat, said: “I don’t know why we lost; don’t ask me anything.”

Spectacular swing

The BJP’s win has been spectacular in terms of not only the number of seats but also its high vote share. Significantly, barring in five seats, two of which it lost, it polled more than 50 per cent of the votes. This is reflected in the fact that it polled 51.38 per cent of the total votes cast; add two percentage points that accrue to it by virtue of Sumalatha’s win, and its vote share amounts to almost 54 per cent. In electoral terms, a vote share of this magnitude has been unprecedented for any non-Congress party in Karnataka. The Congress managed such a spectacular win in 1984, in the election held following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

As the accompanying table shows, the BJP’s vote share in 2019 increased by more than 10 per cent (including Sumalatha’s share) when compared to its 2014 performance when it won 17 seats. But even more strikingly, its vote share in 2019 is more than 17 percentage points higher than its share in last year’s Assembly election. The challenge to the BJP rested on an arithmetic foundation. The logic that the combined vote shares of the Congress and the JD(S) would be enough to quell the BJP’s quest for power appeared to provide it the veneer of a “formidable” force. Empirically, it appealed to rationality that the combined vote share of 52 per cent garnered by the two parties in 2014 or 56 per cent achieved in the last Assembly election would be enough to arrest the BJP. But, as the results have demonstrated, the underlying politics, not mere arithmetic, determines elections. The combine’s vote share in 2019 is 11 per cent lower than the notional aggregate share of 2014 and 15 per cent lower than the two parties’ share in the Assembly election.

The most significant aspect of the election results is that they have defied the conventional psephologist’s wisdom that political allies usually retain their vote share when they enter into an alliance. In fact, experts such as Prannoy Roy have argued that when separate parties join they usually gather a vote share that is more than the sum of the parts, what he calls a “bump” effect. Clearly, that line of reasoning has been demolished not only in Karnataka but throughout India. Stressing the point that the vote shares of allies did not add up—in Karnataka and elsewhere in India—is only stating a truism. This is based on a purely arithmetic, and often cynical, understanding of electoral politics that is devoid of the underlying politics that determine electoral outcomes.

So, the question that shouts out loud is, why did the alliance that appeared formidable and was supposed to serve as a “model” for the rest of the country fall so flat? For one, even in the run-up to the election, it was clear that the alliance that was stitched together at the leadership level was fraying at the local level. For instance, soon after polling, a Congress supporter in Kittur in Belagavi district told Frontline: “We did not transfer our vote to the JD(S) nominee. We voted for the BJP, as we did not know who the JD(S) candidate was.’’ Across the State, dissension was out in the open between the two allies. In contrast, the entire BJP campaign was focussed on projecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his muscular nationalism. 

A. Narayana, who teaches at Azim Premji University, pointed out that both the allies had failed to convince their cadres of the need for working together. As a result, party leaders were tied to the constituencies where their respective party’s candidate was contesting, instead of moving around to ensure the electoral success of the alliance as a whole, he added.

A unipolar illusion

But even more critically, the utter failure of the Congress-JD(S) combine to serve as an alternative to the BJP appears to have convinced voters that Modi was their man for the occasion. One of the most striking aspects of the campaign, on both sides, was the complete absence of the articulation of what the electorate considered as the most weighty problems afflicting the State. Prof. M.S. Sriram of Indian Institute of Management Bangalore pointed out that the onus was invariably on the opposition to raise issues that affected the livelihoods of large sections of the people. After all, the ruling party was unlikely to address these issues, especially if these problems had aggravated, he pointed out. Severe water scarcity, compounded by successive droughts in large parts of the State, hardly figured in the campaign. The failure on the jobs front, the crisis caused by demonetisation and the collapse of small businesses following the implementation of the goods and services tax regime hardly figured as a cohesive plot around which the opposition mounted an attack on the BJP for its failings. Sriram pointed out that the opposition failed to “weave a narrative around the poor”. “A scheme like the Congress’ NYAY, for example, remained limited to the media and chat houses and did not get down to the campaign rallies,” said Sriram. Given that the alliance was fighting against an ideologically cohesive opponent who also operated a well-oiled electoral machine was all the more important for the alliance to place itself diametrically opposite in order to stand out as a clear alternative. Gimmicks such as the visit of Congress president Rahul Gandhi to Hindu temples and other tokens of appeasement of majoritarian sentiments ensured that the Congress did not stand out as an alternative but as a softer version of the real thing, that is Hindutva. In hindsight, it appears that what was expected of the combine in Karnataka was a tad too much.

Narayana pointed out that the Congress-JD(S), especially Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy, failed to articulate a strong “regionalist narrative” as in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to counter the nationalistic rhetoric of the BJP. “Immediately after the formation of the coalition government, a strong message was sent to the Lingayats that this is a Vokkaliga government and that they could not expect adequate representation in it,” he commented. The visible Congress Ministers were all Vokkaligas while Lingayat leaders were marginalised. “This ensured the consolidation of Lingayats who voted for the BJP en masse,’’ Narayana pointed out.

Muzaffar Assadi, political scientist, Special Officer of Raichur University, and a veteran analyst of many elections in the State, was candid: “We completely missed the undercurrent in these elections.” He told Frontline that the BJP appeared to have garnered a large section of the new voters from across the board, irrespective of caste affiliations. On the basis of an interaction with voters after polling—made possible by the long gap between polling and actual counting of votes—he said even Muslims in Bijapur, Koppal and other constituencies had voted for the BJP. He said the BJP’s “super efficient” booth management systems made it possible for it to gather data booth-wise in order to identify localities that voted for or against the party. “This obviously instils fear in the minds of voters from the minority community,” Assadi said. But even more glaringly, Muslim voters have been discouraged by the JD(S)’ ambivalent conduct with respect to the minority community. The fact that the coalition government had done nothing for them (no new schemes, for instance), unlike the earlier Siddaramaiah-led Congress government, also angered the minorities, Assadi added. He believes that the recent outburst of Congress leader Roshan Baig against the Congress leadership for ignoring the minorities “has a germ of truth” in it. Assadi pointed out that the inadequate representation for Muslims in the Congress’ contestants list irked the community, which “increasingly resents being treated as a pocket borough of the Congress”.

Caste still matters

The BJP’s spectacular sweep has prompted some pundits to argue that the party has successfully transcended caste as a factor in electoral politics. Assadi begs to differ. He pointed out that the BJP, which had started out as a Brahmin-Baniya party, used Hindutva as a tool to widen its appeal. “It is now a multi-caste party, but it would be a mistake to term it a casteless party,” he stressed.

Caste compositions determined the results in several constituencies and the BJP cleverly played on this, said Dalit ideologue Vaijanath Suryavanshi. There are 101 sub-caste groups in the list of Scheduled Castes in Karnataka. In constituencies reserved for S.Cs, Savarna voters outnumber Dalits three to one. “In such seats, upper-caste voters prefer ‘touchable’ S.Cs over ‘untouchables’,” said Suryavanshi. For instance, in Gulbarga constituency, the BJP fielded Umesh G. Jadhav, a Banjara “touchable” S.C., against Mallikarjun Kharge, who belongs to the Holeya, or “untouchable” S.C. “The BJP’s poll strategy and campaign is woven around caste, however strongly it may deny that its campaign is removed from caste,’’ he said.

The political analyst Sandeep Shastry believes that while the BJP retained its hold among Lingayats, it also managed to split the Vokkaliga vote that was hitherto considered to be solely behind the JD(S). Assadi believes that the Congress is “in a deep existential crisis”. He described it as a regional party with a national character. The writing on the wall was also ominous for the JD(S) as it was in danger of imploding, Assadi said.

The immediate concern for the combine is existential. Three factors will determine whether it will survive: the infighting within the Congress, the tensions between the two parties and, most importantly, the threat of poaching by the BJP. Former BJP Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar said: “We are claimants to form the government; after all, we are the single largest party.” A resurgent BJP will bide its time, waiting for the coalition’s internal contradictions to cause an implosion but will be ready to go for the kill if that does not happen soon enough. For now, the BJP has managed to conjure an illusion of a unipolar polity in which only it matters.