Existential crisis

Print edition : June 21, 2019

Former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah (centre), Congress general secretary K.C. Venugopal (left) and Deputy Chief Minister G. Parameshwara at the Karnataka Congress Legislature Party meeting in Bengaluru on May 29. Photo: PTI

JD(S) supremo and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda (extreme left) , State party president Vishwanath and Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy (right) during a meeting of the JD(S) Legislature Party in Bengaluru on May 24. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders during the Vijay Sankalp rally in Chitradurga on April 9. Photo: Sudhakara Jain

JD(S) and Congress workers clashing near a stone quarry unit at Sheelanere in K.R. Pet taluk of Mandya district on December 14, 2018. The JD (S) workers were resisting the visit of a Congress team led by former legislator K.B. Chandrashekar to inspect alleged illegalities at the quarry, owned by a JD (S) leader. Photo: THE HINDU

Successive electoral setbacks of the Congress in Karnataka, where it is a junior partner in the coalition government with the JD(S), show that the party is facing an identity crisis.

AS the Lok Sabha election results started streaming in, Yogendra Yadav, psephologist-turned political activist, tweeted that the “Congress must die”. “The Congress is redundant for [actually an obstacle to] defending the idea of India,” he elaborated later. His original tweet and the subsequent clarification invited a few dissenting voices. To some he appeared to echo the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election slogan of “Congress-mukt Bharat” (Congress-free India). To others he represented the anti-Congressism of erstwhile socialists. To still others he seemed to represent the voice of millions of voters who had overwhelmingly rejected the Congress. It would seem that the truth for the party would lie somewhere between a “terminal stage” crisis and an “existential” one that arises from the fact that the Congress is in power in just a few States. The party has been almost wiped out in 22 States. The fact that the Congress has suffered severe losses even in States such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where it won the Assembly elections in 2018 does not augur well for it. The severe blow the party has suffered in Karnataka, where it is a junior partner in the coalition government, highlights the crisis in the party.

In effect, the Congress has been reduced to a regional party, possibly with a national character. The election results have demolished the myth that the BJP is a north Indian Baniya party. Of the 30 seats that it won in the southern States, 25 came from Karnataka.

Nobody expected the BJP to mop up a share of more than half the popular vote. It is true that the party’s vote share has been increasing consistently ever since its mobilisation began in the 1990s for the Ayodhya Ram mandir. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won 17 of the 28 seats in Karnataka with a vote share of 43 per cent. In 2009, it won 19 seats and secured 41.63 per cent of the votes. Karnataka had been a Congress pocket borough right from the first general election held in 1951 until the Lok Sabha election in 1991. In fact, when the Congress under Indira Gandhi was trounced nationwide in the post-Emergency election held in 1977, Karnataka remained steadfast with the Congress. The party won 26 seats in the State. It was in the 1990s that the BJP appeared on the political scene in the State. It won four seats in 1991. Since 1996, the Congress has been consistently losing ground in the State. Barring 1999, the party’s tally of Lok Sabha seats has never touched the double digits.

The 2019 election has destroyed several myths. The first one is that the BJP’s strength is confined to the Bombay-Karnataka region and the coastal belt of the State. The election results have shown that the support for the party cuts across not only regional boundaries but also communities. Second, by winning seats in Muslim-dominated areas, the party has proved that its presence is not being treated with disdain and that it is not an “untouchable” to a section of minorities. The third myth that youths will make electoral choices on the basis of caste and communities has also has been proved wrong. Going beyond their caste and religious identities, large sections of new voters appear to have favoured Prime Minister Narendra Modi more than the BJP. Fourth, the myth that the BJP would not be able to divide the larger social coalition of MOD (Muslims, Other Backward Classes and Dalits), which has always favoured the Congress, has been broken. At least a section of the MOD appears to have supported the BJP this time. Finally, the BJP’s victory in Vokkaliga-dominated areas shows that it has managed to divide the votes of the dominant caste in Karnataka, which has traditionally aligned itself with the Janata Dal (Secular).

One argument often made is that the BJP has given up the baggage of caste in its politics. This is not true in the context of Karnataka. In fact, in Karnataka the BJP is increasingly becoming a multi-caste party as it is working out a formula to construct a larger social coalition of castes. In the past couple of years, it has successfully experimented with this formula. In northern Karnataka, the BJP created a notional social coalition called LIBRA, that is, Lingayats and Brahmins. This helped the party electorally in the Lingayat-dominated areas. In fact, Lingayats had traditionally supported the Congress. They began to drift towards the Janata Party in the 1980s, initially owing to the influence of Ramakrishna Hegde, a Brahmin Chief Minister. Two issues in Karnataka’s history have driven the Lingayat community towards the BJP. One, the unceremonious sacking of Veerendra Patil, a prominent Lingayat leader who led the Congress to a massive victory in the 1989 Assembly election, from the Chief Minister’s post by the party leadership in October 1990, and the decision of the Congress government in March 2018 to grant recognition to Lingayats as a religious minority under Section 2(d) of the Karnataka State Minorities Act. Modi harped on this issue during the campaign, and the net result is the complete shift of Lingayat votes to the BJP. Apart from the Bombay -Karnataka region comprising the constituencies of Belgaum, Chikkodi, Dharwad, Haveri, Bagalkot and Bijapur, where Lingayats are predominant, the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, another Lingayat-dominated region, also voted overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP. The BJP won all the five seats (Bidar, Gulbarga (S.C.), Raichur (S.T.), Bellary (S.T.) and Koppal) in this region. The defeat of the Lingayat candidates fielded by the Congress and the JD(S) combine proves the obvious.

In the coastal belt constituencies, the BJP worked out another successful social coalition, often called BOBs for Bunts, OBCs/Billavas and Brahmins. There is a history behind the stitching together of the coalition. Bunts, being the dominant caste in the region, have always been the repository of the Hindutva ideology. Bunts suffered a loss of identity as a result of land reforms in the 1970s. The BJP used ritual folk festivals in the form of nagamandala, naga puje, kambla, nema and kola in honour of local deities to help the community regain its identity. Interlinked to this story is the story of the OBCs. They were the ones who benefited from the land reforms, which provided them a sense of social identity. However, this did not eventually give them the required economic space, which the BJP exploited fully. This part of social coalition was strengthened in this election, with the BJP’s Bunt and Brahmin candidates winning in the coastal constituencies of Udupi-Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada.

A section of Muslims and Dalits had their own reasons to favour the BJP. It appears that the Muslim community’s sense of insecurity has resulted in their drifting away from their traditional ally, the Congress. So, it is not that the Modi magic has worked. On the contrary, the Muslim community’s growing perception of betrayal and marginalisation, accentuated during the period of the Congress-JD(S) coalition government, appears to have caused this shift in allegiance. The sense of betrayal was buttressed by the absence of any schemes for minorities in the first budget of the coalition government, inadequate representation of the community in different power structures, at the issuance of the Congress ticket to only one Muslim candidate despite the community’s predominant presence in four constituencies (Bidar, Bangalore Central, Dharwad and Dakshina Kannada). The JD(S) did not nominate any Muslim candidate. The denial of the ticket added to the sense of alienation in the community. In fact, a trust deficit between the JD(S) and Muslims had been growing since the last Assembly election. Although the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate and although its policy on triple talaq had no takers in Karnataka, schemes such as Ujwala and Swacch Bharat attracted Muslim voters, especially women voters. In the Muslim community, support to the BJP came from the Salafis, the reformed branch of revivalist Muslims, in the coastal belt and from backward caste Muslims, including a section of Muslim women, in northern Karnataka.

Dalits had their own reasons to shift their allegiance to the BJP. The BJP had already roped in Madigas (“left-hand” Dalits) in the last Assembly election. This time, the party focussed on “right-hand” Dalits, or Holeyas. The Congress’ denial of the chief ministership to Dalit leaders; the unceremonious removal of Dalits from the Congress-JD(S) Ministry and from the Congress; and the non-release of the caste census findings, among other issues, encouraged Dalits to favour the BJP. The social coalition created by the BJP looks like LIBRA+BO/Billava/Bs+left (Madigas) Dalits and part right Dalits (Holeyas)+part Muslims. This is where a grand coalition of castes worked in favour of the BJP.

Modi coined the term to denote the corrupt alliance of parties. Incidentally, in Karnataka the ghathbandan is called “Maitri”, that is, a friendly alliance of the Congress and the JD(S). However, another factor that contributed to the rout of the Congress and the JD(S) in the Lok Sabha election is the way the coalition government was hurriedly formed in Karnataka immediately after the Assembly results in 2018. In a sudden turn of events, two bitter political enemies, who had overlapping social bases, entered into a post-election alliance to checkmate the BJP from coming to power in spite of the fact that it was the single largest party but short of a majority. For the convenience of governance and to iron out the differences, the Congress-JD(S) combine formed a co-ordination committee and devised a common minimum programme and a formula of sharing power in the ratio of 3:2. This formula was extended to the Lok Sabha election but did not work to its advantage.

In the midst of severe mistrust, the coalition partners faced four kinds of fears: fear of the other (BJP), fear of the insider (dissident groups), fear of one-upmanship and fear of the unknown (Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy’s temple visits are the best evidence). The BJP made three attempts to poach legislators and topple the government, but in vain.

The rise of the BJP

Karnataka was a Congress bastion until the 1980s. The party system in Karnataka is often referred to as “a three-party system”. Karnataka’s political history shows that barring the JD(S) no other regional party has survived, including the erstwhile Praja Socialist Party, the Kannada Desha and the Kranti Ranga. The JD(S)’ roots lies in the anti-Congressism of the Janata Party. The Janata Party did not hesitate to take outside support from the Jana Sangh to form the government under Ramakrishna Hegde. This was the beginning of an “unwritten coalition” of ideological opposites. Soon the Janata Party split, with the former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda forming the Janata Dal (Secular) in 1999. The next decade witnessed two trends emerging: national politics being continuously dominated by the Congress and regional parties emerging as a counter-force at the State level. The 1990s and 2000s was a decade of the BJP’s ascendancy both at the national and at the State level. In Karnataka, the party got its first breakthrough in coalition politics in 2004. The BJP had emerged as the single largest party, but the JD(S), which had won 58 seats aligned with the Congress (with 65 seats) to form a coalition government, acting as a junior partner of the Congress. In 2006, the JD(S) withdrew support to the Dharam Singh government and forged a coalition with the BJP, this time as the senior partner and formed the government.

Ideological incompatibility resulted in the coalition breaking within two years. The Assembly election held in 2008 gave a clear mandate to the BJP. In 2013, Karnataka reverted to the “continuity” pattern of the Congress coming back to power with a thumping majority. However, in the Lok Sabha election in 2014, the BJP won the highest number of seats—17 of the 28 seats in the State. This trend continued in the Assembly election in 2018. The BJP won the highest number of seats but fell short of the numbers to form the government. The Congress was quick to seize the opportunity and went in for a coalition, with the JD(S) as the senior partner despite the fact that it had won a larger number of seats than the JD(S). In fact, the Congress’ existential crisis began after the last Assembly election.

In the Lok Sabha election, the coalition partners faced three major problems. One, how to cement an alliance at the grass-roots level when both parties were at loggerheads with each other for many years. The problem lies in the fact that both the Congress and the JD(S) had overlapping social bases. The JD(S)’ social base, despite its best efforts, largely remained with the Vokkaligas of the old Mysuru region, who constitute the primary contradiction of the OBC and Dalit vote base of the Congress. Apparently, this is a triangular contradiction. It is quite obvious, given the primacy of contradictions, that Dalits will not be a part of the JD(S), Muslims have a trust deficit with the JD(S), and OBCs have long-standing disputes with the JD(S)/Vokkaligas. Traditionally, the Congress’ social base revolved around MOD, or what is called the AHINDA social coalition—Muslims, OBCs and Dalits. There were times when Vokkaligas were with the Congress, too. Co-opting Vokkaligas in the present context was a difficult proposition. That is why the political coalition failed to earn the required dividend for the alliance partners. But strangely, Vokkaligas voted as a strong homogeneous group; this is apparent in the way they voted in favour of Vokkaliga candidates irrespective of the party that nominated them. The JD(S) failed to hold on to its social base. The victory of the BJP’s Vokkaliga candidates (in Bangalore Central, Chikkballapur and Mysore-Kodagu) is testimony to the heterogeneous voting pattern of the Vokkaligas.

Another issue was the difficulty in containing the growing and open opposition to the JD(S)’ decision to field candidates belonging to Deve Gowda’s family. This was more apparent in Mandya, Hassan and Tumkur, where Nikhil Kumaraswamy (H.D. Kumaraswamy’s son), Prajwal Revanna (H.D. Revanna’s son) and Deve Gowda contested respectively. Mandya in the Old Mysuru region, which is known to be a Vokkaliga stronghold, witnessed a bitter fight. In fact, the Mandya election was projected as a battle between “swabhimana” (self-respect) and dynastic politics. Ambareesh, Kannada film actor-turned politician, had contested and won from this constituency three times earlier. In 2014, C.S. Puttaraju of the JD(S) won the seat, and in the byelection held in November 2018 after he vacated the seat, the JD(S) won the seat. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, despite strong opposition, the JD(S) ticket was given to the political novice and film actor Nikhil Kumaraswamy. He was seen as a “parachute” candidate and a rank “outsider”. Similar acrimony was witnessed in another constituency in the Old Mysuru region, Hassan, where Prajwal, another grandson of Deve Gowda, was given the ticket.

Will the 2019 electoral outcome see the end of the politics of the Vokkaligas and Deve Gowda together? Deve Gowda is seen as a Vokkaliga patriarch who provided the required space for Vokkaligas in Karnataka, and he is fondly called “Appaji”. His reach is beyond Karnataka, a stature which no other Karnataka leader has attained. It is presumed that the Vokkaligas’ glorious period in State politics would end if Deve Gowda chooses to retire from politics following his defeat in Tumkur. It is in this respect that the JD(S) and the Vokkaliga community are facing an “existential crisis” in politics and have reached the terminal stage as a political force.

The various narratives

Lastly, how to contain the narrative of the BJP? In fact, the BJP’s narrative, for that matter Modi’s narrative, in Karnataka centred around six issues: national security, military/Balakot air raid, Congress-mukt Bharat, nationalism, nayi Bharat and terrorism. On the contrary, the Congress’ narrative centred around such issues as “chowkidar chor hai”, crony capitalism, NYAY, and rural India, which had limited appeal. Paradoxically, the JD(s) had no narrative to offer. It is true that Modi used local icons such as Madakeri Nayaka (the 18th century ruler of Chitradurga) and Onake Obavva (the woman who killed Hyder Ali’s men who tried to enter the Chitradurga fort through a small opening, with her wooden hand pounder, or onake), local history (the Lingayat movement in northern Karnataka) and false narratives to woo voters. The Congress did not use such icons or local history. Naturally, of the two narratives, the BJP had the upper hand, as it sold the idea of a modern India, as against the Nehurivan idea of bygone India, in a glittering, well-packaged manner. In the final analysis, the Congress narrative was seen as haphazard, non-focussed, conventional, outdated and abstract.

The net result was that the Congress won only one seat in the State. With the BJP’s sweep of the election, politics in Karnataka has changed forever, with the grand old party reaching the “terminal stage” and facing a deep “existential crisis”.

However, at the all-India level in general and in Karnataka, in particular, the Congress will exist, and survive as a political force. Its death will be a death blow to Indian democracy and the idea of India. The idea of India is deeply rooted in the syncretic culture, the nationalist movement, the Gandhi-Ambedkar dialogue, the Nehruvian idea of modern India, and the postcolonial transformation through four revolutions—the making of the Indian Constitution, land reforms, decentralisation and reservation.

The Congress played a dominant role in shaping the idea of India until recently. But, it is carrying the baggage of defaulted history and a wounded democracy. In the midst of shrinking democratic spaces, its presence is now essential and cannot be negated.

However, in order to resurrect and transform itself into a political and cultural movement, the Congress needs new faces, new ideas, new strategies, new thinking and new social bases.

Muzaffar Assadi, Professor of Political Science, is Special Officer, Raichur University.