No holds barred

The Congress, the BJP and the JD(S) have begun a vicious campaign for the May 12 elections to the 224-member Karnataka Assembly. If Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has changed the political fault lines with his move to give separate religion status to the Lingayat community, the BJP aims to dent his minority-backward classes-Dalit vote bank.

Published : Apr 11, 2018 12:30 IST

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and other leaders during the Jan Sampark Yatra in Shivamogga on April 3.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and other leaders during the Jan Sampark Yatra in Shivamogga on April 3.

WITH elections to the 224-member Legislative Assembly slated for May 12, Karnataka has plunged into hectic political activity with the three main protagonists, the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal (Secular), resorting to vicious mudslinging against one another.

In an election that is yet to see a context or issue crystallise into a plank on which the parties can build their campaigns, personal attacks and innuendo are ruling the roost, with the Congress and the BJP leading the way. Given the significance of the Karnataka elections as a dress rehearsal for both the national parties for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, electioneering is turning out to be a bitter affair. The Siddaramaiah-led Congress government’s decision to give a separate religious identity and minority status (with all the trappings of reservation, especially in education, that go with it) to Lingayats, distinct from the monolithic Hindu fold and delinked from the Veerashaiva faith, has ensured that the atmosphere is a heady cocktail of godmen, religion and politics.

The importance of doing well in Karnataka, a State that has been consistently voting against the national trend, is not lost on anyone, especially the Congress, which is pulling out all stops in a bid to retain power. If that is to happen, Siddaramaiah will have to buck the trend, since no incumbent government has come back to power in the State since 1985. Of course, the Congress will be less concerned with the fact that the BJP won 17 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the State in 2014 when Narendra Modi led the party’s campaign. Senior Congressman and former Chief Minister M. Veerappa Moily stressed the need to win in the State by saying that it would be a “morale booster, the injection and fuel for the Congress to win in 2019”.

In the last Assembly elections, held in May 2013, the Congress won 122 seats and polled 36.59 per cent of the votes; the JD(S) won 40 seats and 20.19 per cent of the votes; and the BJP 40 seats and 19.89 per cent of the votes. The Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) and the Badavara Shramikara Raithara Congress, two political parties formed by breakaway BJP leaders, won six (9.79 per cent of the votes) and four seats (2.89 per cent of the votes) respectively. The Congress’ increased tally over its 2008 results (when it won 80 seats and sat in the opposition) came about with a marginal 1.83 per cent increase in its vote share. This was possible because the BJP, thanks to blatant corruption, an overtly aggressive Hindutva ideology, factionalism, nepotism in the administration, official high-handedness and moral policing, was comprehensively and convincingly rejected by the voter. Its vote share declined by a whopping 13.9 percentage points from its 2008 share of 33.86 percentage points.

The decline was partly because of the split in the party with the KJP playing the spoiler. Even the combined BJP-KJP vote share was 4.1 percentage points lower than the BJP’s 2008 vote share and almost 7 percentage points lower than the Congress’ vote share of 36.59 per cent. The electoral defeat derailed the BJP’s grand plans to use Karnataka—which was seen as the Gujarat of the south and a possible laboratory for Hindutva policies—as its political gateway to conquering the south.

Until a few months ago, the political battle lines in the State, where caste more than religion has always been, and still is, the overriding factor (religious polarisation has only been effective in the coastal areas), were drawn along the time-tested fault lines. But the BJP will perhaps depend on stretching the communal fabric to its last thread by whipping up the Hindutva sentiment, project Prime Minister Modi as the party’s mascot and hope to continue reaping the votes of the politically dominant Lingayat community, which has been supporting the BJP since the 1994 elections. The JD(S), mockingly called the “father-and-sons party”, will draw support mostly from rural areas and from the Vokkaliga community, while the Congress will bank on its traditional vote bank—minorities, Dalits and backward classes—and Siddaramaiah’s own Kuruba caste, the third largest homogeneous group in Karnataka after Lingayats and Vokkaligas. Siddaramaiah, a wily politician and a relatively new entrant to the Congress, had just prior to joining the party (in 2006) spearheaded a social combination called AHINDA ( alpasankhyak , or minorities, induliga , or OBC, and Dalits), similar to the KHAM (Kshatriya, Adivasi, Muslim) alliance forged by Madhavsinh Solanki in Gujarat in the 1980s . According to Siddaramaiah, the AHINDA social engineering movement was meant to prevent youths from the backward classes and Dalit communities from joining the Hindutva brigade. During his term as Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah, besides his many effective welfare/economic programmes (termed political populism by his opponents), has been able to offer sops to each of the wheels in the AHINDA bandwagon.

But Siddaramaiah’s defining moment was on March 19 when he decided to accept the Justice H.N. Nagamohan Das Committee’s recommendation to grant religious minority status to Lingayats and Veerashaiva-Lingayats, those who follow some of the teachings of Basaveshwara, or Basavanna, the 12th century philosopher-social reformer, but also practise Hindu rituals, under Section 2(d) of the Karnataka State Minorities Commission Act, and forward the recommendation to the Union government, seeking notification under Section 2(c) of the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992. Lingayats have a strong political, economic and social presence in the State, especially in northern Karnataka, and constitute around 14 per cent of the State’s population and are predominant in close to 100 of the 224 Assembly seats. There have been nine Chief Ministers from the community, which has traditionally supported the party that had the tallest Lingayat leader. While in the initial years it was the Congress that benefited, thanks to leaders such as Basappa Danappa Jatti, S. Nijalingappa, S.R. Bommai, S.R. Kanthi, Veerendra Patil (all former Chief Ministers of Karnataka), the unceremonious ouster of Veerendra Patil in 1989 from the Congress saw Lingayats shift their loyalty to B.S. Yeddyurappa and by extension the BJP starting from the mid 1990s, consolidating themselves into the saffron party’s bulwark while it made electoral inroads into the State.

Both Lingayats and Veerashaivas have for decades been classified together under the Other Backward Classes category, with the term Lingayat being used synonymously for both sects in all administrative matters. Much to the chagrin of Veerashaivas, Lingayats demanded last July that they be considered the “true followers” of Basavanna, arguing that Veerashaivas were just another Hindu Saivite sect.

Siddaramaiah’s move recommending a separate religious tag for Lingayats has set the cat among the pigeons. The BJP has been put on the back foot with the threat of losing its biggest support base becoming a stark reality. Whether the Centre will ratify the decision or not, the move is expected to give the Congress rich electoral dividends. Although there have always been doctrinal and cultural differences between Veerashaivas and Lingayats, they have never looked so visibly divided before.

Naturally, State BJP leaders disagree. Said K.S. Eshwarappa: “Lingayats and Veerashaivas are with the BJP. Siddaramaiah’s decision to recommend minority status to Lingayats is a non-election issue.” Senior BJP leader and former Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar said: “Siddaramaiah’s decision to recommend minority status is purely electoral politics. It has been done with mala fide intentions, to divide the Lingayat and Veerashaiva communities. The decision has resulted in the pontiffs of both sects coming onto the streets and fighting. Both communities have seen this and will punish the Congress for attempting to divide them.”

It is a risk Siddaramaiah and the Congress run. Seers such as Veerasomeshwara Swami, seer of the Rambhapuri Peetha, one of the pancha peethas (major Veerashaiva mutts), have already spoken out against Siddaramaiah’s decision, warning the Congress government of a “holy war against those trying to divide the community”.

Notwithstanding denials by State leaders, BJP bigwigs have scurried to counter the Chief Minister’s move. BJP president Amit Shah visited important Lingayat mutts such the Siddaganga mutt in Tumakuru, the Bekkina Kalmata mutt in Shivamogga, and the Tharalabalu mutt at Sirigere, to seek the “blessings” of the respective pontiffs.

The voting preference of Lingayats, if at all they vote as a block, could dictate who rules Karnataka. It is for this reason that the BJP is unable to even think of an alternative to, leave alone do away with, its most valuable asset, and also, arguably, its biggest liability—former Chief Minister and Lingayat leader, Yeddyurappa. If the BJP rode to power in Karnataka in 2008 on the veteran leader’s shoulders, it was his decision to form his own ragtag outfit, after he was allegedly involved in illegal mining and land deals and was jettisoned by the BJP, that led to the BJP’s defeat in 2013. Yeddyurappa, the Lingayat icon who returned to the BJP in 2014, is seen as indispensable if the BJP is to recapture power in Karnataka. But his presence could force the BJP to temper its allegations of the Siddaramaiah regime being corrupt. The BJP’s chief ministerial nominee after all was thrown out of the party on corruption charges. During a campaign rally, Amit Shah, in a Freudian slip, referred to the Yeddyurappa regime as corrupt.

Even as the Centre grapples with the issue of approval of minority status to Lingayats, Siddaramaiah, a regional satrap in a national party, has stoked regional sentiments by unveiling a new flag for Karnataka. If the flag is approved by the Centre, Karnataka will be only the second State after Jammu and Kashmir to have its own flag. The flag is symbolic of Siddaramaiah’s ability to counter the BJP’s aggressive nationalism with a matching Kannadiga subnationalism, thanks to his attempt at social engineering.

All the three major contestants are yet to officially come out with their first list of candidates. High-level committees have been constituted to decide the candidates’ list. While the Congress is expected to announce a list of 100 candidates made up mostly of those who lost by narrow margins in 2013, the BJP, according to Eshwarappa, is zeroing in on candidates “who have a good rapport with the party cadre and the public and have the best chance of winning”. But like most leaders, he admits that caste is the overriding factor in finalising a candidate. Caste, money and muscle, in that order, still determine the success or failure of a candidate. The BJP, which has in recent years faced factionalism among its ranks, has decided that its top leaders from outside the State (in consultation with leaders such as Yeddyurappa) will have the final say. The party is hoping to pit Modi against Siddaramaiah and counter AHINDA with Hindutva.

Although campaigning has started, it has, according to veteran JD(S) leader P.G.R. Sindhia, been “subjective rather than objective, focussed on personalities, with neither of the parties really discussing issues or offering alternative thinking and models of development”.

Rahul Gandhi’s missives

Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who has made five trips to Karnataka in March/April touring Hyderabad-Karnataka, Bombay-Karnataka, the coastal and Malnad regions, and southern Karnataka as part of his “Jana Ashirvada” rallies galvanising support for the re-election of the Siddaramaiah government, hopped from temple to dargah and church to religious mutt, accusing the BJP of spreading violence and hatred, neglecting the welfare of farmers, forming governments and winning elections using money, and creating conflicts and dividing the country for the sake of power. In dozens of speeches attacking Modi (who was mockingly addressed as the person with a “56-inch chest” and the “Big Boss who likes to spy on Indians), the Congress president chided Modi for the Punjab National Bank scam, faux pas in foreign policy, the Jammu and Kashmir situation, failure in job creation, being accompanied by someone (Yeddyurappa) who has spent time in jail, and helping his (Modi’s) industrial friends during the demonetisation drive. Rahul Gandhi has not spared the JD(S) either. Speaking in the old Mysuru region, where the JD(S) has a significant presence, drawing most of its strength from the dominant Vokkaliga community, the Congress president asked the party to come clean on its support to the BJP and on whether it was the “BJP’s B team or not”.

Irked by Rahul Gandhi’s remark that JD(S) stands for “Janata Dal Sangh Parivar”, a livid H.D. Deve Gowda, the party’s chief and former Prime Minister, told Frontline that it was unbecoming of a person who wants to become the future Prime Minister of the country “to stoop so low and blindly read chits that are placed before him”.

He said: “I am not going to be scratching my head about what my opponents or the media are saying. The people have realised that more damage cannot be done to the JD(S). The Siddaramaiah government has been the most corrupt and nepotistic that I have seen in my 56-year political career.”

His son and heir apparent and State JD(S) president, H.D. Kumaraswamy, has during his “Vikas Parva” rallies across the State focussed on playing the regional card and capitalising on his rural vote base.

He highlighted the woes of the State’s farmers, who according to him had incurred losses of more than Rs.58,000 crore in the past four and half years. (According to the State Agriculture Department, 3,515 farmers committed suicide in Karnataka between April 2013 and November 2017, and 2,525 suicides were owing to drought and crop failure.) Accusing the two national parties of not finding a permanent solution to issues concerning agriculture, irrigation and employment, Kumaraswamy said that “if abusing each other would solve people’s problems”, he, too, would spend two hours bad-mouthing other parties and their leaders.

He said Siddaramaiah announced a waiver of farm loans totalling Rs.8,160 crore but did not take adequate steps to ensure that farmers received the benefits. Kumaraswamy also claimed that during his tenure as Chief Minister he had taken steps to waive loans, but the then Finance Minister, Yeddyurappa, did not agree to a waiver.

Amit Shah has tried to counter Rahul Gandhi’s election rallies by making frequent visits to Karnataka. A number of Union Ministers have taken part in Yeddyurappa’s State-wide 75-day “Parivartan Yatra”, which was kicked off last November. The BJP has termed Siddaramaiah a(nti)-Hindu, playing on the word AHINDA.

But the politics of polarisation, overriding even caste equations, has not worked in the entire State, with the possible exception of the Hindutva belt—the districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. But even here, the saffron party came a cropper in 2013 when its seat tally dropped from 10 in 2008 to two. In a bid to counter any loss from its Lingayat base, the BJP, in what is arguably its biggest Dalit outreach, has been wooing the influential Dalit mutt seer, Madhara Chennaiah Swamiji of Chitradurga. He wields spiritual and political influence over the 1.5 crore Madigas (a Dalit sect). Madigas are unhappy with Siddaramaiah because of his reluctance to accede to their demand for internal reservation in the Scheduled Caste quota.

The BJP is hoping to cash in on this and make a dent in Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA platform.

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