The verdict of the Legislative Assembly election in Karnataka is largely a mandate against the BJP’s politics of centralisation and communal polarisation and its model of exclusionary economic development. The Congress has registered a massive victory on the promise of delivering an inclusive model of politics and welfare-centric development. In the process, the Janata Dal (S), a centrist third player in the State’s politics and a fancied “kingmaker”, has suffered a huge loss, raising questions about its survival. The results will force all three parties to rethink their past and reposition for the future. This, while redefining politics in the State, will have far-reaching implications for Karnataka’s socio-economic and cultural life.
That the BJP’s hard-line Hindutva politics has no traction here beyond pockets of coastal Karnataka was proved once again in this election. However, since Hindutva is its core ideology and it has been able to attract around 36 per cent of the voters with this, the BJP is unlikely to give up on Hindutva. The character of the next generation of leaders in the State unit of the party is also more aligned with this strategy. While the senior lot, including B. S. Yediyurappa, were restrained in their words and actions when it came to communal politics, the younger leadership is not and has, in fact, grown in the party by being vocal about it.
The choice before the BJP will be whether to push the Hindutva agenda as hard as it has in the north or to deliver it in small doses. There party will face challenges in both. Firstly, a heavy push for the Hindutva agenda will not go well with its core social base, the Lingayats, who supported the BJP since 2004 not because of Hindutva but because they saw more political opportunities here than with the two other parties.
The Lingayats will be the first to feel uncomfortable if the BJP pushes its communal agenda too far. The Lingayat sect was founded by Saint Basaveshwara to counter the dominance of Brahminical Hinduism and the sect’s members still follow traditions unique to it and opposed to mainstream Hindu traditions.
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The BJP’s Hindutva agenda at its core seeks to homogenise religious practices, threatening the very identity of the sect. Already there are strong voices raised within the community, although they are dwindling and even those that exist do not come out openly against the powers that be. But there is underlying tension in the community about toeing the BJP’s communal line entirely.
The heads of a few Lingayat Mutts have openly challenged the Hindutva agenda. Their numbers may be small but it is these pontiffs who have been vocal at a time when religious figures in almost all other caste-based monasteries in Karnataka either support Hindutva politics directly or indirectly, or remain silent.
A long-term association with the Lingayats would thus be restrictive for the saffron party. It needs to build a broad coalition, both to come to power on its own and to remain true to its colours. The dilemma here, however, is that if the BJP reconfigures its support base to cater to the political ambitions of a wide spectrum of castes, the Lingayats will no longer feel a sense of ownership and will start shifting loyalty.
In the Vokkaliga heartland too, Hindutva politics is unlikely to go unchallenged. This is where the BJP has been trying hard to spread it, with little success so far. This time, the BJP invested heavily here, not so much with the hope of winning as to prepare the ground for the future. It improved its vote share from 18.85 per cent to 22.67 per cent. The party will intensify its efforts here but it is unlikely to be a smooth affair.
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The Vokkaligas are at the forefront of the Kannada movement and are sensitive to the BJP’s politics of stifling subnational sentiments. Celebrated Kannada poet Kuvempu, a Vokkaliga icon, inspired generations of youth to resist Brahminical Hinduism.
In the run-up to the election, the BJP tried to popularise two fictitious Vokkaliga warriors as having killed Tipu Sultan, the Muslim ruler of Mysore, in a bid to turn the Vokkaligas against the Muslims. This prompted a stern intervention by the head of a Vokkaliga Mutt, who asked BJP leaders to stop propagating fiction as history. The head of another Vokkaliga Mutt unequivocally criticised the Bommai government for scrapping reservation for Muslims in order to increase it for the Vokkaligas. “We do not need it [increase in reservation] if you are giving it to us by snatching it from someone else,” the seer said in a widely shared video clip.
Civil society resistance
The 2023 election also saw some kind of civil society resistance to the BJP’s communal politics. Bahutva Karnataka, Sahabalve, Jagruta Karnataka, and several other organisations actively galvanised voters against the BJP. The election also saw civil society organisations of various hues coming together under the banner of Eddelu Karnataka to spread awareness among people against divisive politics and the harm it had done to poet Kuvempu’s idea of “a peaceful garden of all communities”.
Such activism against communalism is unlikely to stop with the election results. As a representative of Eddelu Karnataka said, more than defeating the BJP electorally, it must be defeated ideologically. The electoral battle is over, and a cultural battle is to be fought now to revive the idea of Karnataka. The results have emboldened civil society and communal politics, irrespective of whether it is pursued vigorously or mildly, is going to face resistance and counter-mobilisation efforts.
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Apart from Eddelu Karnataka, many other movements, which have been dormant and scattered, came back to life in response to the rise of Hindutva. Several Dalit factions regrouped two months before the election to galvanise their voters. This worked to some extent in preventing the BJP from expanding its Dalit support base after making an election-eve announcement that increased the quantum of SC/ST reservation.
Dalit leaders saw the quota hike as an election ploy and highlighted the BJP’s traditional antagonism to reservation. The results show that in constituencies with a greater Dalit population, the BJP got 27 per cent of votes against the Congress’s 46 per cent. As for the farmers’ movement, it saw some re-activation on the question of the Centre’s farm laws, which have not been revoked in Karnataka. A member of the erstwhile Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (now Karnataka Sarvodaya Paksha) won from Melkote constituency in Mandya district. Overall, the pressure of popular movements on politics and governance is likely to gain strength.
“Another element in the BJP’s core agenda that is on a collision course is its attitude towards federalism. ”
Another element in the BJP’s core agenda that is on a collision course is its attitude towards federalism. The party’s centralising tendencies and its alleged step-motherly treatment of Karnataka in economic and cultural spheres may strengthen the clamour for fresh regional politics. The JD(S), which has been a third player in the State’s politics for over two decades now, is sometimes seen as a regional outfit, but it has failed to emerge as a strong voice of regional aspirations. It is neither organised around the question of language nor around a pan-Karnataka identity. This partly explains its continuously decreasing performance in elections.
In the absence of a strong rebuttal either from the JD(S) or the Congress to the BJP’s “double engine government” campaign, which is nothing but a veiled threat that the Union government will not extend financial cooperation to the State should it elect a different party to power, social media was rife with messages demanding a regional political party for Karnataka. The poor performance of the JD(S) will only strengthen this demand for a regional party, either by re-inventing the JD(S) or as a fresh initiative.
Irrespective of whether a regional formation is born or not, the BJP’s politics of centralisation will meet its greatest challenge here. That the idea of Modi virtually overshadowing the State leadership during the campaign did not go well with the electorate is evident from the results. In the 43 constituencies where Modi held rallies, the Congress won 22, two seats more than the BJP. The average voter turnout in these constituencies was 60.48 per cent against the State average of 72.85 per cent.
- The election verdict in Karnataka is largely a mandate against the BJP’s politics of centralisation and communal polarisation and its model of exclusionary economic development.
- Civil society organisations of various hues came together under the banner of Eddelu Karnataka to spread awareness among people against BJP’s divisive politics.
- The electoral battle is over, and a cultural battle is to be fought now to revive the idea of Karnataka.
The results are interpreted largely as a revolt of the poor against the policies of the State and the Centre, which caused economic hardship to the people. Therefore, a welfarist turn in the State’s development agenda is inevitable. The previous Congress government headed by Siddaramaiah was known for welfarism. With Siddaramaiah’s characteristic preoccupation with social justice, a slew of measures aimed at “helping sections of population which cannot help themselves” was launched, including free distribution of 10 kilogram of rice and a string of low-cost canteens, both of which were very popular among the masses.
The massive anti-incumbency seen across the State this time was partly because of the BJP government revoking some of these programmes that meant a lot to the poor. As the Congress began to promise more welfarism as part of electioneering, in the form of its five guarantees—200 units of free power, 10 kgs of free rice, Rs. 2,000 to female heads of the family, stipends for the unemployed, and free bus passes for women—the BJP initially ridiculed what it called the “freebie” culture. However, when pre-poll surveys started reporting the public anger over the cancellation of existing programmes and the popularity of the Congress promises, the BJP announced its own list of welfare measures, eventually leading to a political consensus on welfarism.
This will need massive resource allocation, for which the cooperation of the Centre is necessary. If the Modi government continues its policy of parsimony in the transfer of funds to States at a time when they need it most, it will set off a collision course in Karnataka’s relationship with the Union government.
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This, in turn, will fire the regional political imagination even more. The Centre’s cooperation apart, the State will be under pressure to device its own innovative forms of financing the measures. More welfare expenditure will inevitably have some adverse consequence on infrastructure development and other growth-oriented expenditure. This exposes the Congress to the threat of becoming more unpopular among the middle class, whose support for the party has been eroding for some time now.
The results have also put a question mark on the future of the three-party contest that Karnataka politics has seen since the early 1990s. The JD(S), which has been the crucial third player, especially in southern Karnataka, has suffered huge reversals in its traditional bastion with a drop of around 5 per cent votes. This does not necessarily mark the end of a centrist third alternative for at least two reasons. First, the JD(S) in its previous avatars has recovered from similar low points. This time the challenge will be different because the party also has to go through a leadership transition, as age catches up with the senior Gowda.
Although Kumaraswamy has emerged as a leader in his own right, the revival of the party will require a fresh branding of its leadership and politics. It has to also shake off its excessively family-centric image, which has not gone down well even with its core Vokkaliga voters.
Second, a third player in Karnataka politics does not necessarily depend on the revival of the JD(S). Subnational political sentiments are gaining ground because of the re-centralisation policy followed by the BJP. They promise to acquire some sort of political shape sooner rather than later.
A. Narayana teaches Public Policy and Governance at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.