Karnataka paradox

Print edition : June 08, 2018

Siddaramaiah presiding over the launch of the government’s Anna Bhagya scheme in May 2015. It is paradoxical that this scheme failed to translate into votes. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

The elections results showed that populism need not necessarily produce political gain while competitive communalism need not interfere with the economic processes at play.

ONE of the most perplexing questions that haunts Kannadigas today is: How did the Siddaramaiah government, reputed to be progressive with a socialist orientation and a non-communal reputation, lose so heavily in the Assembly elections of 2018? The most ironic outcome of the elections is the defeat of the popular Chief Minister in his home constituency, Chamundeshwari, by a huge margin of 36,024 votes, and his scraping through in another constituency, Badami, by a slender margin of 1,649 votes. What really went wrong? Does it mark the beginning of the end of the Congress or a “Congress- mukt” Karnataka as the Bharatiya Janata Party would like to believe?

Karnataka now appears to be entering a phase of “discontinuity”, one in which a ruling party does not return to power for the second term on its own strength. The only instance in which it did so was in 1977 when Devaraj Urs rode back to power.

Meanwhile, political Karnataka appears to abound in paradoxes—deepening capitalism thrives in the midst of rampant communalism, the realignment of castes proceeds without any apparent conflict, and corruption and development go hand in hand. As if these were not enough, the results of the elections added two more paradoxes: that populism need not necessarily produce political gain, and that competitive communalism need not necessarily interfere with the economic processes at play. Moreover, the anxieties of dominant castes appear to be not so much about community identity as about reclaiming lost political power.

The election campaign saw a vitriolic cocktail of mudslinging, accusations and counter-accusations, lies, distortion of history and the summoning of well-known Kannada writers by the political parties, particularly the BJP. But there was one undercurrent, which became prominent as the election campaign unfolded—the unfolding of two models of political economy.

One model—let us call this the “India model”—is represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was opposed by the second model—let us term this the “subaltern model”—represented by Siddaramaiah. This is why the high-voltage electoral battle was billed as a battle between Modi and Siddaramaiah. Modi’s model was constructed through a narrative that is blatantly in favour of a crony capitalist India, and it emphasised “skilling” India and taking the country on the superfast lane through “smart” cities and bullet trains. In contrast, the subaltern model represented rural populations, with an emphasis on livelihoods hit by poverty, hunger and backwardness. The latter understood political economy of development from the perspective of the poor, the socio-economically backward and the marginalised. To address the issues of hunger and poverty, this model adopted several populist measures such as Anna Bhagya, Krishi Bhagya, Arogya Bhagya and Indira Canteen. Significantly, many of these schemes were introduced early on by the Siddaramaiah administration, which meant that they enjoyed credibility and were not perceived to be electoral gimmicks. Moreover, the schemes did not suffer any serious dislocations, nor did they raise serious charges of exclusion of the targeted population.

Politically, the subaltern model was an extension of the socialist ideas of Ram Manohar Lohia, Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi, and Siddaramaiah’s own personal experience. In fact, the subaltern model overlapped with the Karnataka model of development, making it difficult to demarcate boundaries. The general consensus—despite criticism that many would term as unwarranted—is that the Anna Bhagya scheme, the lynchpin of the Siddaramaiah government’s social welfare focus, was effectively introduced. It is paradoxical that this model failed to translate into votes, unlike in the case of Tamil Nadu, where such populist schemes brought in political dividends. The election result clearly shows that the India model has triumphed over the subaltern model. It is not the defeat of Siddaramaiah alone, but also that of the idea of subaltern development.

Caste realignments

This election also witnessed a realignment of caste groups. Karnataka has traditionally been known for the domineering presence of two castes, Vokkaligas and Lingayats. Vokkaligas are largely concentrated in the Old Mysuru region and Lingayats in north Karnataka, which covers Hyderabad-Karnatak and Bombay Presidency areas. Earlier, after leaving the Janata Dal, Siddaramaiah had floated the idea of Ahinda, an acronym for Minorities, Backward Classes and Dalits. The same idea was floated by Devaraj Urs in the 1970s. H.D. Deve Gowda formulated the social coalition of MOVD—Muslims, Other Backward Classes, Vokkaligas and Dalits—in the late 1990s. Riding on Lingayat support, Ramakrishna Hegde, the then Chief Minister, cemented the LIBRA alliance of Lingayats and Brahmins. Although he was Brahmin, Hegde was largely accepted by Lingayats.

Lingayats moved away from the Congress when Veerendra Patil was unceremoniously dismissed from the post of Chief Minister in 1990. This social coalition was further strengthened during the Yeddyurappa period (2008-11), which brought the BJP to power. This time, the LIBRA coalition continued but with a difference: in the coastal belt, the BJP cemented the social coalition of 3Bs—Billavas (Backward Class), Bunts and Brahmins—and added the Scheduled Tribes of central and east Karnataka to form a larger social coalition for political gain. In effect, the coalition morphed into LIBRA+3Bs+STs+Holeya Dalits. In effect, the BJP managed to transcend its image as being an upper-caste/baniya party. However, Lingayats had two additional reasons to support the BJP. One, they were aiming to reclaim political power—after Jagadish Shettar no Lingayat had become Chief Minister. Secondly, Siddaramaiah’s desire to award minority status to Lingayats was seen as an attempt to divide the community. This strategy backfired and caused Lingayats to reconsolidate around the BJP.

Vokkaligas, another dominant caste, had their own grouse. Loss and recovery of political power made it all the more important for Vokkaligas to consolidate around the Janata Dal (Secular), which is known to be a peasant party but is also the party of Vokkaligas. This time the JD (S) tried to reach out to two communities but succeeded only partially. It aligned with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and with Asaduddin Owaisi of Hyderabad. However, the JD(S) remained a party of the Old Mysuru region, which is apparent in the results.

Dalit fragmentation, Muslim trust

This time Siddaramaiah tried to go beyond Ahinda, his existing social support base; the Bhagya schemes were part of this agenda. As a result, in the middle of his tenure, Ahinda became Ahinda Plus, the latter constituting potential beneficiaries of the Bhagya schemes. Paradoxically, instead of coalescing into a cohesive group, Ahinda fragmented. Except for the Kurubas and Muslims, the core supporters, the other groups had their reservations against Siddaramaiah. This is apparent in the case of Dalits. In the final analysis, this election became a battleground for the two dominant castes to reclaim and recover the loss of political power, while Ahinda became a fragmented social coalition.

Dalits and the Scheduled Tribes had multiple reasons to withdraw support to Siddaramaiah. During this process of withdrawal, Ahinda became a fragmented notional political entity. In the run-up to the Assembly election, several issues went against the Congress—the non-implementation of internal reservation as recommended by the Justice Sadashiva Commission; the reluctance to appoint a Dalit leader as Chief Minister or Deputy Chief Minister; the withholding of the caste report of the Backward Class Commission which would have made Dalits numerically a majority social category; and finally the entry of the BSP as a junior partner of the JD(S). Dalits in Karnataka are not a homogeneous lot. There are not fewer than 100 sub-caste groups. They are divided into Left (Holeya) and Right (Madiga). However, what changed the course of Dalit politics is the appointment of the Justice Sadashiva Commission to look into the issue of internal reservation. While Madigas demanded the implementation of internal reservation, they also perceived a systematic attempt to marginalise them by Holeyas as well as the ruling dispensation, which made them shift their political loyalties from the Congress to the BJP. Siddaramaiah was accused of duplicity, of going slow on the internal reservation issue but not on the issue of minority status to Lingayats. The Justice Sadashiva Commission report created a deep rift between the two Dalit groups, marking a point of no return.

The demand for appointing a Dalit to the post of Deputy Chief Minister came up immediately after the Congress came to power. The Congress was reluctant to make such an appointment, although it had occasionally supported such a demand. This was seen more as duplicity and ambiguity than real concern. In fact, in Siddaramaiah’s constituency, it was rumoured that in the event of his defeat, a Dalit would be made Chief Minister. This well-orchestrated rumour was instrumental in the huge margin of defeat.Vokkaliga ire only added to it.

One more issue that had an effect on electoral politics is related to the caste census. Even though the findings have not been made public, it is obvious that Dalits would have been declared a numerical majority, pushing even Lingayats and Vokkaligas to the fourth or fifth place. The Dalit population figure would have increased to 19 per cent, compared with Muslims, who form 16 per cent. Knowing only too well that the release of the caste census during the run-up to the election would open a Pandora’s box, as it would change the social and political equations in favour of Dalits and Muslims, the Congress government kept the report in cold storage. When the BSP aligned with the JD(S) as a junior partner, it was assumed that the alliance would not cut into the Congress vote, nor bring in any political dividends to the JD(S) since BSP had no social or political base in Karnataka. These assumptions have been proved wrong with the BSP winning one seat.

However, Muslims had no grouse against Siddaramaiah. His populist schemes such as Shaadi Bhagya, his position on beef-eating and communalism, the establishment of a large number of Maulana residential schools, the grant of scholarships to minority students and so on had made Muslims happy. More significantly, the absence of major communal riots during Siddaramaiah’s tenure was perceived by Muslims as a major achievement. For Muslims, more than food or social security, sheer physical security in a time of nationwide communal tension was a major reason for staying with Siddaramaiah. Despite various populist programmes, it is evident that the Congress was unable to fill the deficit of representation of Muslims in the different structures of power. While this does not mean the end of Muslim support for the Congress, the Muslim vote certainly cannot be construed as a vote for the Congress; it was, in fact, a vote for Siddaramaiah. Rahul Gandhi’s soft Hindutva position and the argument of “correcting the historical mistake of appeasement” did not go down well with Muslims. In effect, while the Congress suffered from a growing trust deficit, there appears to have been complete trust in Siddaramaiah. In this sense, Siddaramaiah is a clear winner, unlike the Congress.

The election witnessed an unsuccessful attempt to communalise Karnataka. Unlike Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat, where communalism has become an everyday concern, Karnataka is characterised by a long tradition of syncretic culture, tolerant society and the absence of clear-cut identity markers. In fact, until the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992, Karnataka had hardly witnessed any major communal riots. In the recent past, Karnataka has been marked as the State that witnessed the second highest number of communal conflicts. Incidentally, most of the conflicts are confined to coastal Karnataka and the Malnad region. Coastal Karnataka is now known as a “Hindutva laboratory”, where every secular space, including lamp posts, trees, schools, restaurants, rickshaws, civil society organisations and social movements, has been appropriated to keep the communal cauldron boiling.

Competitive communalism

In fact, coastal Karnataka has become the site of the competitive communalism of Muslims and Hindus. Hindu communalism, represented by a large number of fringe groups, harped on the issues of Tipu Jayanti, love jehad, conversion and the stoppage of Anna Bhagya scheme to a school run by hardcore Hindutva activists as examples of minority/Muslim appeasement. The killing of 23 Hindu activists (of whom one was found to be alive!) were listed as an example of Hindu insecurity. The discourse of “insecurity”, “appeasement”, “marginality” and so on was played repeatedly to wrest the coastal belt from the Congress. Unlike the last Assembly election, this time the BJP swept the coastal belt and the Malnad region. Muslim communalism, while using the same narratives, added a few of its own. This kind of competitive communalism in the coastal belt in the final analysis created two clear-cut boundaries: undifferentiated Muslims and undifferentiated Hindus. As a consequence, Muslims aligned with the Congress, while Hindus supposedly identified with the BJP—a classic case of polarisation.

But the same division of communities did not occur in other regions, despite the fact that Hindutva used Hindu icons such as Shivaji. It even used symbols of history such as Madikeri Nayaka and Onake Obavva predominantly in Scheduled Tribes areas. Political lies, including references to religious and cultural icons, became part of the larger agenda to polarise. Lies about General Thimmayya and Bhagat Singh, references to Mante Swamy, Basavanna, Kuvempu, Dendre and so on, were used to appeal to communities. The net result was that the BJP was able to garner votes but Karnataka still remained free of clear-cut communal polarisation.

All these do not mean the end of Congressism. The Congress is still a popular party whose percentage of vote share is much higher than the BJP’s. However, the result of Karnataka has far-reaching consequences for national politics. The Congress has to consider aligning with either smaller parties or regional parties in order to contain the expansion of the BJP’s social base as it affects the very social base of the Congress. Secondly, the results have given the BJP more confidence to conquer south India and to complete its project. The Karnataka election has added a new vocabulary and a new narrative as well as a new discourse to Indian politics. Indian polity will not be the same anymore.

Prof Muzaffar Assadi, formerly Professor of Political Science at the University of Mysore, is currently posted as Special Officer of the proposed Raichur University in Karnataka.