Forgotten lessons

Published : May 23, 2008 00:00 IST

AICC General Secretary Rahul Gandhi with Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president Mallikarjun Kharge (left) and senior party leader S.M. Krishna at a rally in Bangalore.-PTI AICC General Secretary Rahul Gandhi with Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president Mallikarjun Kharge (left) and senior party leader S.M. Krishna at a rally in Bangalore.

AICC General Secretary Rahul Gandhi with Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president Mallikarjun Kharge (left) and senior party leader S.M. Krishna at a rally in Bangalore.-PTI AICC General Secretary Rahul Gandhi with Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president Mallikarjun Kharge (left) and senior party leader S.M. Krishna at a rally in Bangalore.

THE northern Karnataka region comprising 12 districts and accounting for 95 of the 224 Assembly seats, has an important role in the electoral politics of Karnataka. It holds the key to power in Bangalore. The electoral trend since 1983, when the Congress lost its record of invincibility, has shown that whichever party gets the majority of the seats in the region rules the State.

The Assembly elections in May may not be any different but only this time Bangalore city has emerged as another factor to reckon with. The delimitation of the constituencies undertaken by the Election Commission has increased the number of constituencies in Bangalore city to 28 from 12, giving the State capitals voters a decisive say in government formation, and taking away part of the privilege enjoyed by North Karnataka.

North Karnataka originally consisted of eight districts and is made up of two subregions Bombay-Karnataka with four districts carved out of the erstwhile Bombay Province (the number increased to seven in 1996 after the reorganisation of districts) and Hyderabad-Karnataka with three (which subsequently rose to four) and the district of Bellary, which was transferred to Mysore State from the Madras Presidency.

The arid region accounts for the lions share of the Krishna valley and is waiting for deliverance from the drought conditions through the harnessing of the Krishna waters for irrigation.

Political pundits are puzzled as to what made this Congress-oriented region display reservations in extending support to the party on occasion. This region was steeped in Congress culture, and unlike southern Karnataka it had not been exposed to political movements of the non-Congress hue. The reasons for the development of this kind of political psyche appear to be based more on psychological or emotional grounds and have nothing to do with the neglect suffered by the region.

Northern Karnataka districts were in the forefront of the movement for primacy to Kannada in State schools in the 1980s. The insensitive handling of the first farmers rebellion and the language agitation, both of which happened during the regime of R. Gundu Rao (1980-83), drove the first wedge between the Congress and the people of the region.

This uneasiness in the relationship was compounded by the manner in which Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sacked Veerendra Patil even before he completed a year in office and replaced him with S. Bangarappa as Chief Minister in 1989. These were followed by other incidents that caused further alienation of the people from the party in power.

In 1996, Ramakrishna Hegde, another leader who the people of North Karnataka held dear to their hearts, was expelled from the Janata Dal, which he had helped found in Karnataka. This was widely seen at that time as orchestrated by H.D. Deve Gowda, following his winning of the vote of confidence in Parliament as Prime Minister in the United Front government.

Deve Gowdas perceived anti-North Karnataka sentiments, which became apparent when he made a vain bid to sabotage the proposal to make Hubli the headquarters of the South West Railway Zone, has made him and his outfit, the Janata Dal (Secular), unacceptable to the region. The alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal (United) of Ramakrishna Hegde in the parliamentary elections in 1996 and 1998 provided the latter with the kind of base in North Karnataka it had been looking for, and the party went on to consolidate it further.

The chasm between the region and the Congress widened when Chief Minister S.M. Krishna (1999-2004) reneged on the promise of removing the regional imbalance. Added to this was the Congress lack of political leadership in the region.

The new State of Karnataka was steered for the first 15 years by four Chief Ministers from the region S. Nijalingappa, B.D. Jatti, S.R. Kanthi and Veerendra Patil. This was because of the number of representatives it elects to the Assembly and the steadfast commitment of the region to the Congress policies and programmes.

For the first time in 1967, there was a strong indication that the Congress could not afford to take the electorates support for granted. However, while southern Karnataka showed more inclination towards non-Congress parties, two-thirds of the seats from the northern region went to the Congress. Despite the setbacks elsewhere in the State, the Congress was firmly in the saddle, winning 126 seats in the 217-member Assembly.

The 1972 Assembly elections, the first in Karnataka since the Congress split in 1969, brought a runaway victory for the party. It won 165 seats, of which 77 came from the northern region.

Karnataka remained immune to the Janata Party wave, which resulted in the election of the first non-Congress government, headed by Morarji Desai, at the Centre following the elections held at the end of the Emergency in 1977.

Both in the parliamentary and in the Assembly elections that followed in 1978, Karnataka voters once again reposed their faith in the Congress headed by Indira Gandhi by giving it 149 seats (of which 60-odd came from North Karnataka) against the Janata Parys 59.

But something happened during the five-year period between 1978 and 1983, which eroded the faith the people had placed in the Congress. This was the period when D. Devaraj Urs, who had led the party to victory after surviving a challenge to his leadership, continued as Chief Minister for the next two years, before falling out with Indira Gandhi, quitting the party and gradually facing political eclipse. The eight-year reign (1972 to 1980 barring a brief period of Presidents Rule) as Chief Minister by Urs is a record.

The rule of Gundu Rao, who succeeded Urs as Chief Minister, proved to be politically and socially eventful. A Statewide agitation demanding primacy to Kannada in primary schools rattled the Chief Minister, forcing him to accept the demand for implementation of the V.K. Gokak Committee report. In respect of the farmers uprising in Nargund and Navalgund in 1980 over the betterment levy on farmers in the Malaprabha Command area soon after the construction of the Malaprabha reservoir (the farmers claimed the river water did not flow into their fields), the administration showed lack of sensitivity. The police opened fire on the agitating farmers killing two of them even as the irate farmers went on the rampage, which resulted in the death of three policemen.

A mood of despondency enveloped the 1983 elections, which proved to be disastrous for the Congress.

The flamboyant Gundu Rao failed to retain his Kushalnagar Assembly seat in Kodagu district, and his party suffered the mortification of not being able to reach the victory post for the first time in its nearly fourdecade-old history in the new State of Karnataka. The Congress faced defeat in more than one out of every three constituencies. It won 82 seats against 95 won by Ramakrishna Hegdes Janata Party. Of the 96 seats in North Karnataka then, the Congress tally stood at 48.

For the first time, the party drew level and its failure to get a lead in the region proved crucial in keeping it out of reckoning.

The fluctuations in the political fortunes of the Congress and non-Congress parties in the next four elections depended partly on which way the voters of North Karnataka turned. Disgusted with the fratricidal quarrel between the factions of the Janata Dal, which had split, the regions electorate favoured the Congress, which was then led by Veerendra Patil. The Congress won 176 seats, bagging more than two-thirds of the 96 seats from the region. But the electorates honeymoon with the party was cut short by Rajiv Gandhis unceremonious sacking of Veerendra Patil.

The voters demonstrated their anger in the 1994 elections by rallying round the Janata Dal, which won 115 seats. The Congress fortunes touched a new low with only 34 seats, of which again 22 came from North Karnataka.

Under the leadership of Krishna, the Congress regained power in 1999 and tried to bridge the gap of credibility between the party and the people of North Karnataka. The regions electorate once again extended all-out support to the Congress, which won 60 of the 95 seats, a little less than half the total of 132 seats won by the party. But once again Krishna squandered the opportunity given to the party to remove the regional imbalance, which he had promised.

Disaster awaited the Congress in the 2004 elections. The party was pushed to the second slot with 65 seats, with the BJP emerging as the single largest party with 79 seats. Three-fourths of the 95 seats in North Karnataka went to non-Congress parties. Even today the Congress does not seem to realise where it went wrong in respect of North Karnataka.

T.V. Sivanandan in Gulbarga
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