On shaky ground

Print edition : May 16, 2014

At a polling station in Bangalore on April 17. Photo: Shailendra Bhojak /PTI

IT was hardly a coincidence that the highest voter turnout (77.18 per cent) in the elections to the 28 Lok Sabha seats, which were held on April 17, was in the Hindutva heartland of Dakshina Kannada. The figure is a strong indication, if ever one was needed, of the highly polarised nature of the election campaign that took place in the majority of the constituencies, from coast to hinterland, in Karnataka. Unlike what the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would have liked the electorate to believe, there was no indication of any “Modi wave”. But there certainly was a Modi factor playing out in varying degrees in many constituencies in the coastal, Hyderabad-Karnataka, Bombay-Karnataka, central and urban regions of the State. Narendra Modi, the party’s prime ministerial nominee, was clearly pitted against the Congress led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

Given the sharp polarisation, the minorities (mainly Muslims and to a lesser degree Christians), with no other political alternative in sight, have apparently voted for the Congress. But whether the might of the minority can tilt the balance in favour of the Congress will depend on both the degree of polarisation and the percentage of minority population in a particular constituency. The average population of Muslim voters in a constituency in Karnataka is roughly 12.24 per cent. But in Dakshina Kannada it is 22 per cent, Bidar 19 per cent, Dharwad 18 per cent, Haveri 15 per cent, Mysore 14 per cent and Bangalore Central 16 per cent.

Qazi Arshad Ali, a former legislator who has been studying the voting pattern of the minority community, said: “Compared to the previous three elections in Karnataka [the 2008 and 2013 Assembly elections and the 2009 Lok Sabha elections], approximately 5 per cent more Muslims have voted for the Congress [this time]. This is because of the anti-Modi sentiment and the positive effect of Siddaramaiah.” This additional 5 per cent could very well mean the difference between victory and defeat for a number of Congress candidates. In 2009, although the Congress won six seats and the BJP 19, the difference in vote share between the two parties was just 3.98 percentage points. The Congress has also benefited from the fact that the regional party, the Janata Dal (Secular), which in the past was favoured by the minorities, is facing a shortage of men, material and money. (Incidentally, the Congress wrested two seats from the Janata Dal (Secular) and one from the BJP in the byelections held in 2012 and 2013, taking its tally to nine.)

According to political pundits and pollsters, the presence of a Modi wave will give the BJP 18 to 21 seats, but an absence of it is likely to see the BJP (which has lost some of its support in the Hyderabad-Karnataka and Mumbai-Karnataka areas) win between nine and 13 seats, with the Congress netting 10 to 14 constituencies, and the Janata Dal (Secular) picking up at best one or two seats. Hazarding a guess as to how the results will pan out could be a tricky exercise, more so in Karnataka since the State has on numerous occasions voted against the national trend (as was the case in 1977, 1999, 2004 and 2009).

On the ground, the ineffectiveness of the Janata Dal (Secular) resulted in the Congress and the BJP facing direct contests in 20 constituencies. In Shimoga, the contest was mainly between the Janata Dal (Secular) and the BJP; in Mandya, Hassan and Kolar, it was a straight fight between the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress. Tumkur, Bidar, Chitradurga and Chikkaballapur witnessed tight triangular contests.

The Congress came to power in Karnataka after defeating the BJP in the May 2013 Assembly elections. The BJP won only 40 seats and polled 19.89 per cent of the votes. But the saffron party’s fortunes revived on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections with the return of its former Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa and former Minister B. Sriramulu, both of whom had quit the BJP and formed separate parties. This and the Modi factor were not good news for the Congress.

But the ruling party was able to stop the Modi thrust thanks to AHINDA, a federation of minorities, backward classes, and Dalits launched in July 2006 and assiduously cultivated by Siddaramaiah. Muslims and Dalits have been the traditional vote banks of the Congress. Siddaramaiah, who belongs to the Kuruba community, has been able to gather the support of the backward classes too. Kurubas are the third largest caste group in Karnataka after Lingayats and Vokkaligas. Apart from the Modi and AHINDA factors, the fate of most of the candidates this time largely depended on their caste identity. The rise of the BJP in Karnataka can be attributed to the decline of the Congress and the limited and topsy-turvy fortunes of the various avatars of the Janata Parivar. The Congress, which had over 40 per cent of the vote share in both parliamentary and Assembly elections right up to the 1990s, has been picking up only around 35 per cent of the votes. The BJP, on the other hand, has steadily increased its presence in respect of both seats and votes. In the 1985 Assembly elections, it won two seats and polled 3.88 per cent of the votes; in 1989, four seats and 4.14 per cent of the votes; in 1994, 40 seats and 16.99 per cent of the votes; in 1999, 44 seats and 20.69 per cent of the votes; in 2004, 79 seats and 28.33 per cent of the votes; and in 2008, 110 seats and 33.86 per cent of the votes.

The Lok Sabha elections have been no different: six seats and 24.85 per cent of the votes in 1996; 13 seats and 26.95 per cent of the votes in 1998; seven seats and 27.19 per cent of the votes in 1999; 18 seats and 34.77 per cent of the votes in 2004; and 19 seats and 41.63 per cent of the votes in 2009. Traditional Congress supporters, such as the upper castes and upper classes have switched to the BJP. Lingayats (the largest community by way of numbers in the State) also seem to prefer the saffron outfit.

More than anything else, it is the Hindutva agenda that has led to the growth of the BJP in the State. The two regions where the BJP has been able to sell its ideology are coastal Karnataka and Malnad. According to well-documented reports, the Sangh Parivar has been working in these regions for over 50 years. It has successfully cultivated a social base for its Hindutva ideology, cutting across party and caste lines. This has resulted in the polarisation of Hindu votes and an assured vote bank for the BJP.

The two regions consisting of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada districts have undergone a major economic and cultural transformation since the 1970s, when after land reforms, the Gulf boom and the expansion of banking gave the masses money and empowerment. In this changed economic scenario, two backward caste groups, Billavas and Mogaveeras, and the relatively dominant Bunt community competed with the newly affluent Beary Muslims. The region had already been home to a significant number of Muslims and a historically dominant Catholic Christian community. Matters got worse after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the area came increasingly under the influence of the Sangh Parivar, with Muslims being cast as the “other”. Swords were drawn between the Hindu and Muslim groups, as was witnessed by this correspondent during the Suratkal riots of 1998. Incidentally, the first local body captured by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the predecessor of the BJP) in Karnataka was the Udupi municipality, a seat it has retained continuously for 40 years.

The electoral battle itself, barring a handful of constituencies where the Janata Dal (Secular) had a strong presence or where the BJP had little or no influence, hinged primarily on “those supporting Modi” versus “those against him”. While the Congress candidates hoped to consolidate and benefit from the anti-Modi votes, BJP hopefuls, including five-time MP and former Union Minister H.N. Ananth Kumar (who was in a hard-fought battle with information technology entrepreneur and former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, Nandan Nilekani, in Bangalore South), sought votes not because of the work the BJP had done or would do, or in the name of the party but rather shamefacedly in the name of Modi. The party had no qualms about confessing that its campaign “was all about Modi”.

According to BJP leader and former Minister S. Suresh Kumar, it was Siddaramaiah and the Congress who made Modi the primary focus of the campaign. Said Suresh Kumar: “Siddaramaiah used every occasion to question and condemn Modi and the so-called threat that he would pose to the minority communities. Through Modi, we highlighted the corruption in the Congress government at the Centre and the lack of good governance.” Although Suresh Kumar disagreed that Hindutva had been an issue during the campaign, he confessed that there had been a polarisation of the electorate. “It was a positive polarisation for us.”

The going was tough for Siddaramaiah, who arguably was the only star campaigner for the Congress. Forced, in the absence of any substantial impact from visits made by the party’s national leaders, including Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, or from Central government programmes, the Chief Minister used every platform to lambast Modi and to project himself as the saviour of the backward classes. Still very much in his honeymoon period, Siddaramaiah wooed the electorate with his flagship Anna Bhagya (providing 30 kilograms of rice to below poverty line families at Re.1 a kg) and Ksheera Bhagya (free milk to children studying in government schools) programmes. Unfortunately, the Congress, busy as it was fighting the Modi effect, was not able to highlight sufficiently its people-oriented and social justice programmes. Moreover, the poor perception about the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre affected the State Congress’ campaign.


With no real issues to highlight, the BJP through Modi, who made four campaign trips and addressed over a dozen rallies in the State, attempted to make the “Gujarat model of governance/development” its plank. This hardly cut any ice with the electorate. Sensing the overwhelming desire among the urban and semi-urban electorate for a change at the Centre, the BJP also highlighted the corruption scandals that rocked the UPA government. The BJP holds the convoluted view that the corruption scandals that surfaced during Yeddyurappa’s rule (2008-2011) had ceased to be an electoral issue as the voters had punished the party by rejecting it in the Assembly elections.

Some prominent local issues pertaining to a few districts that came up during the campaign include support price for sugarcane (Karnataka crushes around 37 million tonnes of cane annually), with farmers and mill owners (many of them politicians) continuing to haggle over it; regularisation of bagar hukum land (approximately 12.4 lakh hectares is occupied by farmers and pastoral communities who have no documents to show proof of ownership and so face eviction); confusion over whether the government would ban the production of arecanut (2.15 lakh hectares are under areca cultivation in the State); fast-tracking of rail and road infrastructure projects; and the controversial Yettinhole water project, which envisages diverting 24 thousand million cubic (tmc) feet of water from the tributaries of the Nethravati to water-starved areas, some even 200 kilometres away.

Senior Congress leader R.V. Deshpande disagreed with the idea of a Modi wave and did not think that the poor image of UPA-II upset the Congress’ prospects. Deshpande, whose son Prashant Deshpande fought a close battle with the BJP’s Ananth Hegde for the Uttara Kannada seat, said: “Modi’s Gujarat model is flawed and he has not proved his mettle. Just because some corporates put up projects there, can you call it progress or shining Gujarat? Highlighting the Congress’ achievements and social justice programmes both at the Centre and in Karnataka was our plank.”

Encouragingly, Dakshina Kannada was not alone in recording a good voter turnout. Karnataka’s 46.2 million voters (including the 2.5 million new voters who registered after the May 2013 elections) turned out in substantial numbers. The State witnessed a turnout of 67.28 per cent, an increase of 8.47 percentage points over the previous Lok Sabha elections. Thirteen constituencies recorded turnouts in excess of 70 per cent, with Kolar and Chikkaballapur, besides Dakshina Kannada, seeing more than three-quarters of the voters casting their ballot. And though Bangalore’s three seats continued to disappoint pollsters, the average turnout at 55.95 per cent was still a good 10 percentage points above the 2009 figures. The high-profile Bangalore South seat recorded the State’s lowest turnout at 55.69 per cent, followed by Bangalore Central at 55.70 per cent.

For the three political parties fighting the elections, the importance of doing well in Karnataka cannot be overstated. While the Janata Dal (Secular), which has been out of power since 2007, was fighting to retain its shrinking political space and its influence among Vokkaligas and minorities, the BJP hoped that the elections would see a revival of its political fortunes. For the Congress, it was important to win as many seats as possible in Karnataka as the party is faced with uncertainty in Kerala (where opinion polls have given the Left Democratic Front a clear edge), a sure decimation in Andhra Pradesh and zero returns from Tamil Nadu. A low seat tally may also pose a danger to Siddaramaiah. Several Congress leaders see him as an outsider who joined the Congress only in 2006. (He was with the Janata Dal (Secular) previously.) He has also been accused of overplaying the AHINDA and Kuruba cards, much to the chagrin of the socially and politically dominant Vokkaliga and Lingayat communities.

The April 17 elections were the first test of Siddaramaiah’s influence. The first indication of his future in the party will be known on May 16.

Ravi Sharma

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