Karnataka: The southern outlier

Its unique politics have contributed to its non-typical Dravidian culture in which minorities, backward classes, and Dalits are equally significant.

Published : Jun 22, 2024 21:15 IST - 11 MINS READ

The Karnataka tableau at the full dress rehearsal of the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi on January 23, 2023.

The Karnataka tableau at the full dress rehearsal of the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi on January 23, 2023. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Karnataka has always been an outlier in national politics. In south India, it is the only State that does not have a strong regional party. The national parties, the Congress and the BJP, have ruled Karnataka alternatively for several decades.

In the tumultuous post-Emergency election in 1977, Indira Gandhi was defeated in her traditional seat of Rae Bareli by Raj Narain of the Janata Party. However, the southern States bucked the national anti-Indira trend, and the Congress won most of the Lok Sabha seats in south India. The then Congress Chief Minister of Karnataka, D. Devaraj Urs, invited Indira Gandhi to contest from the safe seat of Chikmagalur: it had 50 per cent women voters, 45 per cent people belonging to the backward class, and nearly 50 per cent people below the poverty line. Unsurprisingly, Indira Gandhi won by over 77,000 votes against Veerendra Patil of the Janata Party.

LISTEN: Karnataka’s unique politics, with no strong regional party, was born of numerous strands of people’s movements that have contributed to its non-typical Dravidian culture in which minorities, backward classes, and Dalits are equally significant.

Devaraj Urs is remembered as the architect of the coalition of Alpasankhyataru (minorities), Hindulidavaru (backward classes), Dalitaru (Scheduled Castes), better known by its Kannada acronym AHINDA, which continues to play an active part in the State’s politics. The present Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah, is considered to have inherited the AHINDA mantle and leadership.

Also Read | Lok Sabha results for Karnataka highlight the State’s complex caste dynamics

The only other major party in Karnataka is the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S). Originally a part of the Janata Party of the 1970s, it later fell into the hands of a feudal political family whose patriarch H.D. Deve Gowda served a short stint as Prime Minister in 1996, helming a coalition government. The JD(S) continues to have a presence in the State Assembly chiefly as a result of the Vokkaliga Gowda community, the local equivalent of the Jats of Haryana or Punjab. Deve Gowda’s son H.D. Kumaraswamy negotiated a deal with the BJP in 2006, bringing them into government for the first time. Now, the JD(S) is barely surviving, having lost support in most of its traditional strongholds in southern Karnataka and reduced to being a junior coalition partner of the BJP.

To understand the unique significance of Karnataka, we have to go back several decades to when it emerged as a separate State when linguistic States were being birthed in newly independent India. The kidney-shaped State has five distinct geopolitical regions, and if you were to divide it with an x- and y-axis, every quadrant has a different history.

A State that is the sum of many parts

The north-western region, formerly a part of the Bombay presidency, speaks a dialect—and has a culture—heavily influenced by Marathi. The north-eastern region joined India—and the State—much later, as it was a part of Hyderabad, the Nizam’s dominion, and has a large number of speakers of Dakkani Urdu. A part of south-eastern Karnataka, including part of the State capital, Bengaluru, was under the Madras presidency and is now divided between Andhra Pradesh (hence the influence of Telugu) and Karnataka. A sizeable area was also under the princely state of Mysore, a city even now considered the cultural capital of Karnataka.

Bengaluru is only 30 km from the Tamil Nadu border and has a large number of native Tamil speakers. A sizeable section of the population also speaks Thigala, a creole of sorts of Tamil and Kannada. These people are excellent horticulturists and were originally brought to Bangalore by Hyder Ali, the father of Tipu Sultan, when he decided to set up the iconic Lalbagh.

The south-western region is partly hilly, partly coastal, and culturally diverse. Languages such as Tulu, Konkani, and Beary are spoken on the coast, while Kodava and other indigenous languages are spoken in the hills, famous for their coffee plantations and forests. This area also has a large population of Christians and Muslims. The histories of the regions are diverse and it is wonderful that the State thrives as an administrative and cultural entity.

“Karnataka is home to many social reformers, beginning with the 12th-century poet Basavanna, whose vachanas (poems) are notable for their rejection of caste. ”

Karnataka was known as Mysore State until 1973. The region, however, had been historically known as Karnataka. Even the kingdom ruled by the Raya dynasty, of whom the most famous king is Krishnadevaraya, was known as Karnataka desha or Karu nadu. The name derives from the colour of the soil, which in large parts of the State is black, hence Kari+Nadu, but a more widely accepted theory is that it is Karu (elevated, big) + nadu, hence karnata. Three wars, later to be known as the Carnatic wars, were fought in this region in the 18th century between the British and the French.

In 1919, the then Maharajah of Mysore appointed the one-man Miller Committee to study the representation of communities in government and educational institutions. The report noted an over-representation of Brahmins and non-representation of other communities and recommended a proportional representation for all citizens in education and government jobs. Incidentally, while framing policies for proportionate representation at the national level, B.R. Ambedkar referenced the Miller report.

  • Karnataka stands out in South India for its lack of strong regional parties, with national parties (the Congress and the BJP) dominating its politics.
  • The State’s unique political landscape is shaped by its diverse linguistic, cultural, and geographical makeup, as well as influential social movements led by poet-philosophers, socialists, and Dalit activists.
  • Key voting blocs include the AHINDA coalition (minorities, backward classes, and Dalits), Lingayats, and Vokkaligas, with their shifting allegiances significantly impacting electoral outcomes.

A tradition of poet-philosophers influencing politics

Karnataka is home to many social reformers, beginning with the 12th-century poet Basavanna, whose vachanas (poems) are notable for their rejection of caste. Akka Mahadevi, the first and most radical woman writer in Kannada, composed stunning vachanas to her ishta devata (favourite God) Chennamallikarjuna, or Siva. Basavanna’s critique of social and religious conservatism faced severe repression, and his followers were persecuted by kings and priests. However, his work survives in the form of a Saivite religion whose practitioners are known as Lingayats. They are concentrated in parts of northern and western Karnataka, with some presence in the areas bordering Maharashtra. The Lingayats, drawn from all walks of life and castes, currently constitute a large and politically powerful section of society in Karnataka.

This tradition of poet-philosophers influencing political structures continues in Karnataka. Reviewing Another India: Events, Memories, People, a collection of writings by Chandan Gowda, the scholar Prashant Keshavmurthy writes that the book documents a State that owes its “cultural pluralism” to its “regional traditions of non-atheist socialism”. The opening essay in Gowda’s book, titled “People without a Stereotype”, reflects the absence of a single “cultural identity for Karnataka”.

Karnataka’s unique brand of socialism was forged in the 1950s by Shantaveri Gopala Gowda, an activist and politician who was deeply influenced by a sense of service to farmers and the poor. He mentored several socialists in Karnataka, including J.H. Patel, S. Bangarappa, S.M. Krishna, and Devaraj Urs, all of whom served as Chief Ministers of the State. Urs, in particular, was inspired by Gopala Gowda’s concern for farmers and the downtrodden and brought in reservation for the backward classes for the first time in Karnataka in the 1980s.

Gopala Gowda was also closely associated with the poet Gopalakrishna Adiga, who pioneered the Navya (modern) trend in Kannada literature; the novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy; the writer and journalist P. Lankesh; and the farmer leader M.D. Nanjundaswamy, all of whom had a powerful impact on Karnataka politics.

Ananthamurthy, writer and winner of the Jnanpith award, was a strong critic of the BJP and even contested the Lok Sabha election in 2004 on an anti-BJP plank. He was severely critical of the JD(S) when it entered into a coalition with the BJP. He received death threats after the BJP won the election in 2014. It was Ananthamurthy’s proposal to rename 10 cities with their original Kannada names that saw Bangalore changed to Bengaluru in 2005.

P. Lankesh, poet, writer, translator, journalist, and award-winning director, had an outsized secularising influence on Karnataka’s political, social, and cultural life. A Lohiaite socialist, his tabloid weekly, Lankesh Patrike, was instrumental in raising an entire generation of Kannada writers, thinkers, journalists, and activists.

Similarly, Nanjundaswamy, law professor, socialist, and close associate of Gopala Gowda and Ram Manohar Lohia, was one of India’s most influential anti-globalisation activists and the founder of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, one of the largest and most active farmers’ movements in the country.

K.V. Puttappa, popularly known as KuVemPu, was a writer, educationist, and poet who composed the State anthem. He is also the first Kannada writer to be conferred the Jnanpith award. He is famed for his tradition of scientific temper, rationality and critical thinking, and his criticism of Hindu ritualism and superstition.

Karnataka’s Dalit movement

But by far the most influential factor in Karnataka’s politics today is the Dalit movement, even though it is not the powerful force it was some decades ago. In 1973, Basavalingappa, a Minister and a Dalit, while speaking at a function in Mysuru, said: “There is a great deal of bhoosa [chaff] in Kannada literature.” He was referring to the absence of Dalit representation. The media reported this as an attack on “Kannada pride”. The resultant furore forced him to resign as Minister and prompted a huge casteist backlash against Dalit sensibilities.

In response, the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti, formed in 1974, undertook a series of protests against caste discrimination and atrocities. Dalit writers came together in a combination of literature and struggle, with songs, plays, and stories depicting their world. There was a rebellion against the “correct” academic world, giving rise to a new genre called “Bandaya Sahitya” (rebel literature), which used colloquial language and moved away from the lyricism of the mainstream writers.

Bhootaradhane (spirit worship), a practice native to Tulunadu in coastal Karnataka.

Bhootaradhane (spirit worship), a practice native to Tulunadu in coastal Karnataka. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The poems of Siddalingaiah, then a young student, became the anthems of the movement. Karnataka saw protests, rebel literature, and the mass mobilisation of Dalits coming together in several cultural and awareness-raising rallies. This was also a time of political ferment across the country. The ruling Congress was considered to be incapable of helping Dalits, who went on to support the Janata Party, which was in power between 1983 and 1989. At this time, Ramakrishna Hegde, as Chief Minister, drew several Dalit leaders into mainstream party politics; Siddalingaiah, too, accepted a Rajya Sabha seat in 1988. There was also some resentment against politicians elected from reserved constituencies who had failed to work for Dalit welfare.

In 1991, along with the new liberalisation policy, came uncertainty and economic compulsions that gradually eroded the unity of the Dalit movement. Speaking of this in 2019, Siddalingaiah said: “There are too many factions… it is no longer a pressure group that can make the establishment take note of it. It lacks mature leadership. I wish they would all come together and fight for a common cause. There is low ideological awareness. But that is the state of all progressive movements, be it the farmers, the Left, the labourers… all of them.” Siddalingaiah died in June 2021 of COVID complications, aged 67.

Thus, Karnataka’s politics is unique, born of numerous strands of people’s movements. Besides the State’s linguistic, cultural, and geological diversity, the metropolis of Bengaluru is a national and international melting pot. The city has newspapers in more languages—English, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, and Urdu—than any other comparable city in India. All this makes Karnataka a society and a polity that defies categorisation.

Also Read | How the BJP-JD(S) combine in Karnataka benefited from dominant caste consolidation

Dalits, at around 15 per cent, and Muslims, at around 14 per cent, are among the largest communities numerically, followed by the Vokkaligas (10 per cent) in the south and the Lingayats (10.9 per cent) in northern Karnataka. These figures come from a leaked caste census report, and have knocked the last two politically powerful groups off the first and second place in the population they were alleged to hold. The report is being hotly disputed by the Vokkaligas and Lingayats, who have supplied the most number of Chief Ministers in the State, with 8 Lingayat and 7 Vokkaliga among the 22 Chief Ministers so far, some more than once.

In 1990, Veerendra Patil, a Lingayat, was forced to resign by the Congress high command; subsequently, the community moved away from the Congress towards the BJP at a time when it was just expanding across the country. Thus the Lingayats were instrumental in the making of three BJP governments—one in coalition and two in majority—between 2008 and 2024. The JD(S) has been the party of the Vokkaligas. However, the Congress is known to have support among the AHINDA groups and also among some Lingayat and Vokkaliga groups. The third large group, the Kurubas (shepherds), are part of the AHINDA, and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, now in his second term, belongs to this group. D.K. Shivakumar, the strongman of the Congress, is a Vokkaliga, and his rise corresponds to the erosion of support for the JD(S).

Karnataka thus exhibits a non-typical Dravidian culture, at a crossroads with its uniqueness but also embracing diversity to a degree that detracts from a strong linguistic culture, the pro-Kannada stance of activists and politicians notwithstanding. This explains why it is the only State in south India to be ruled by national parties and why no strong regional party has risen, unlike its other Deccan neighbours. 

Cynthia Stephen is an independent journalist and social policy researcher who tracks developments related to marginalised sections and women.

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