AS Karnataka prepares to vote for the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections on April 20 and 26, certain features of Elections 2004 have become clear. The first is that there is a major vote of discontent against the ruling Congress that is waiting to be cast in all regions of the State, both for the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections. The ruling party, for all its claims of good governance, and the largesse promised in its election manifesto, is likely to suffer a major reversal of its 1999 performance. The Janata Dal (Secular), which was trounced in the last elections (winning only 10 seats in the Assembly and none in the Lok Sabha elections) has emerged as a major contender against the Congress(I) in southern Karnataka, while the coastal areas and the north have seen a consolidation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party's sudden ascendancy in the electoral firmament appears to be less on the strength of its own influence and more owing to its alliance partner, the Janata Dal (United), which has considerable influence in northern Karnataka, particularly in the Bombay Karnataka belt.
Of the elections, the more cynical would like to say that money and liquor and caste loyalties are the three factors that come into play in the last week of the campaign and decisively influence the way people vote. If there is any element of truth in this, then it is surely because of the inability of the major parties to address the real problems and concerns of voters in the five years between elections, a fact borne out by the fact that the State has voted differently in consecutive elections for the last two decades.
This year too the average rural citizen is likely to caste a negative vote - as a punishment against the non-performance of the government/elected incumbent rather than reward for good governance. Northern Karnataka, which comprises the two geographical areas of Hyderabad Karnataka and Bombay Karnataka, accounts for 88 Assembly and 11 Lok Sabha seats. In the 1999 elections, the Congress did very well in this region getting 63.3 and 68.3 per cent of the vote in the Lok Sabha elections, and 42.8 and 40.8 per cent of the vote in the Assembly elections.
Today there is perceptible disenchantment with the Congress rule in these regions. The BJP-J.D.(U) alliance is poised to make gains in the Bombay Karnataka region at the expense of the ruling party. The main issues are the general backwardness and neglect of the area, and more specifically, the problems posed by the shortage of electricity, water (both for drinking and irrigation), and the failure of the crop insurance scheme.
Dharwad city, for example, gets water only once in 15 days. Gadag has not received drinking water since February 5. "We get power for only four hours a day and even that is not regular. The only thing that is regular is the bill we get every month," said Mamma Sahib of Inam Hongal village, Belgaum taluk. "Krishna has been very bad for farmers. He is only concerned with making a Singapore out of Bangalore. He has forgotten Belgaum," added Manju Koppal, also from the same village. Anger over the shortage of power is widespread in the northern districts. "We have been conducting struggles for regular power supply for the last three years," said Ramesh Gadadannavar, the joint secretary of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS). He is campaigning in the Mudhol reserved constituency in Bagalkot district for Ambanna Tukaram Harijan, a KRRS candidate. In most of the Bombay Karnataka districts, non-payment of crop insurance despite the failure of the major crops in the last two years is yet another issue that has created much resentment against the government. "I paid the insurance premium by selling the pots and pans in my home," said Imansahib Rehman Nagavala of Harlapur village, Mundargi Assembly constituency in Koppal Lok Sabha constituency. He says that the insurance money of Rs.3,000 a hectare for his two-hectare plot has not been paid to him for the last two years.
IN the districts comprising the Old Mysore region in southern Karnataka, it is the J.D.(S) that is likely to gain at the expense of the Congress. The campaign here is marked by the absence of national issues. The BJP has made the Vajpayee factor and the programmes of the National Democratic Alliance government its plank. The party has been successful in making a brand out of Vajpayee and a person now known in the remotest of villages. The controversy over Sonia's Gandhi's foreign origin is very well known. In a typical village in northern Karnataka, for example, this is an issue that can provoke a lively debate, with the weight of opinion against penalising a person for his or her origin, so long as he or she is a citizen of the country. BJP leaders have stressed the political stability of the NDA coalition, the Prime Minister's Golden Quadrilateral programme, development and good governance, while criticising the Karnataka government for mishandling the drought situation, poor governance, failure to catch the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, and the continuation of the single lottery system. The Congress has highlighted its mid-day meal programme, which has benefited over 50 lakh school children, infrastructure development and encouragement to the information technology sector. The J.D.(S) has criticised both the Congress and the BJP for bad policies, the neglect of farmers and the failure to fulfil election promises.
Former Prime Minister and J.D.(S) leader H.D. Deve Gowda, who is contesting from Hassan and Kanakapura Lok Sabha constituencies, has promised a waiver on the interest component on farm loans, a re-introduction of the `green card scheme', which will enable voters to get rice at Rs.3.50 a kg and uninterrupted power supply to pump-sets. He has also promised a ban on online lotteries. But promises and manifestos are hardly taken seriously by a majority of the electorate. Said M.C. Nanaiah, a senior J.D. leader and former Minister: "All manifestos are bogus documents. Not even 25 per cent of the promises have ever been kept by any of the parties."
According to many political observers, Hindutva has been imported into the rural areas by the front organisations of the Sangh Parivar, especially in the districts of Dakshina Kannada, Uttar Kannada, Udupi and Kodagu. Full-time Sangh workers have been indoctrinating the people with the cultural aspects of Hindutva. Said Nanaiah: "If only Deve Gowda had compromised, we would never have allowed the BJP to shine in Karnataka. It was the ego clash between (Ramkrishna) Hegde and Deve Gowda that allowed the BJP to grow."
Local issues in districts such as Hassan, Chikamagalur, Kodagu and Shimoga pertain to the low prices that coffee and areca are currently fetching. There is anger that the State and Union governments have not done enough to complete the gauge conversion of the Mangalore-Sakleshpurra railway line, which when completed would allow the movement of goods such as iron ore, coffee, cardamom, garments, tyres and horticulture products from the hinterland to the Mangalore port. These districts, and Uttar Kannada, also have problems relating to encroachment of forest lands by tribal people and even wealthy planters. Around 40,000 tribal people from the Kudremukh Reserved Forest are to be resettled. They accuse all political parties of not paying attention to their problems.
In the coastal districts, fishermen who constitute a fair share of the electorate have reason to cheer as candidates are all ears to their woes. Representatives of the fishing community in Mangalore, Malpe and Bhatkal told Frontline that they want sections of the coastline to be declared as a "fish-famine zone", a uniform off-season ban, waiver of loans, a ban on foreigner trawlers, implementation of the Murari Committee report, Central subsidy on diesel (in addition to the State subsidy), better export facilities for fish products, better cold storage facilities and a separate Central Ministry for fisheries. Candidates are naturally promising all this.
For the Congress to do well it has to gain support not only from its traditional support base - the minorities, Dalits, Other Backward Classes and Muslims - but also from dominant communities such as Lingayats and Vokkaligas. This is unlikely to happen in 2004. But the BJP still needs a wave to unseat the Congress. For only a substantial swing against the Congress in favour of the BJP will allow the latter to come to power in Karnataka.