Karnataka chooses

Southern shock

Print edition : May 31, 2013

Siddaramaiah after he was elected to be the next Chief Minister at the Congress office in Bangalore on May 10. Photo: G. R. N. SOMASHEKAR

Congress workers celebrating the party's victory in Bangalore on May 8. Photo: Shailendra Bhojak/PTI

Party supporters greet Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi on May 9. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Janata Dal (Secular) leader and former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

KJP president B.S. Yeddyurappa. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Union Labour Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge and Petroleum Minister M. Veerappa Moily. They were in the race for the chief ministership. Photo: PTI

The shoddy performance of the BJP during its five-year rule ensures a stunning victory for the Congress in Karnataka.

FOR the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the results of the May 2013 elections to the 225-member Karnataka Assembly have been a costly reminder of the truism that in politics actions speak louder than words. How else can you explain the decimation of the saffron party at the hands of the Congress—whose government at the Centre is facing serious charges of corruption—and the very regional Janata Dal (Secular) led by the father-son duo H.D. Deve Gowda and H.D. Kumaraswamy? The BJP, which was elected to power in 2008 for the first time in a southern State, won just 40 of the 223 seats to which elections were held. (One nominated seat is reserved for the Anglo-Indian community and election to one was countermanded following the death of a candidate.)

The results showed a dramatic dip in the BJP’s fortunes—from 110 seats in 2008 and 79 in 2004 to 40 in 2013. People’s anti-incumbency mood, one of the many factors that affected the party’s chances, ensured the defeat of as many as 23 Ministers, who had held portfolios in the governments headed by the BJP’s three Chief Ministers, B.S. Yeddyurappa, D.V. Sadananda Gowda and Jagadish Shettar. This list includes the outgoing Shettar government’s Deputy Chief Minister and former BJP State president K.S. Eshwarappa. The electoral outcome also debunked the BJP’s belief that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi would be able to sway voters in its favour. He visited Karnataka twice (April 29 and May 2) and addressed well-attended public meetings in Bangalore, Mangalore and Belgaum.

The Congress has made big gains. It won a stunning 121 seats and, after being in the opposition for seven years, the right to form the next government on its own. Sharing a credible second place with the BJP is the JD(S), which has got 40 seats, winning more than a dozen seats in areas beyond its traditional stronghold of Vokkaliga-dominated Old Mysore.

The fledgling Karnataka Janatha Paksha (KJP) of the BJP’s former poster boy Yeddyurappa won a meagre six seats. But the KJP has succeeded in what its leader set out to do—spoil the BJP’s party. Led by the Lingayat strongman who was once the unquestioned leader of the BJP, the KJP has eaten into the BJP’s traditional Lingayat vote bank in the north Karnataka region.

Independents, rebel candidates and others, including the Badavara Shramikara Raithara (BSR) Congress (a party started by B. Sriramalu, a former BJP Minister and business associate of the Reddy brothers of Bellary) and C.P. Yogeshwara, who fought on the Samajwadi Party ticket from Chennapatna, have won 16 seats. All of whom would have been much in demand had the Congress fallen short of a majority.

To most of Karnataka’s four-crore-plus electorate, more than governance or developmental programmes, the BJP’s five years in power only evoked images of Hartal Halappa, the BJP’s Minister for Food and Civil Supplies being led away by the police following accusations of sexually assaulting a friend’s wife; of young men and women in a pub being physically and verbally assaulted by goons owing allegiance to fringe Sangh Parivar outfits; of three BJP legislators watching pornographic clips on a cellular phone while the Assembly was in session; and of a defiant Yeddyurappa refusing to step down as Chief Minister even after being indicted in the multi-crore mining scandal and parading his supporters in front of the Raj Bhavan. In addition to the myriad corruption scandals, charges of land grab, gross nepotism, inefficiency and non-governance, the party was also wrecked by an almost unending internecine battle that split it three ways, damaging it beyond repair. What is more, the nationalist BJP, which claims to be “a party with a difference”, has found its vote share sliding to 19.97 per cent from the impressive 33.86 per cent in 2008.

The Congress has improved its share of seats substantially from 80 in 2008 to 121, and its vote share marginally from 34.76 per cent to 36.55 per cent, way short of the 40.84 per cent and 132 seats it got in 1999 when S.M. Krishna led the party to a landslide victory. Its inability to increase its vote share despite a massive vote against its main opponent should be a matter of concern for the Congress. The JD(S) has also seen its share go up marginally from 18.96 per cent to 20.09 per cent. The KJP garnered 9.83 per cent of the vote and wrecked the BJP’s prospects. The fledgling party, besides playing a spoiler, won six seats but credibly finished second in 36 and third in 35 constituencies. The BSR Congress got 2.68 per cent of the vote and four seats, while independents garnered 7.41 per cent of the vote and won 12 seats.

The urban local body elections held in March seemed to have forecast the Congress’ victory in the May elections. The Congress won 1,960 of 4,952 seats/wards, emerging as the single largest party in 69 of the 207 local bodies. About 30 per cent of Karnataka’s around 35 million voters were eligible to vote in those elections.

In the run-up to the Assembly elections there was no discernable wave in favour of any political party and there were no tangible issues at stake.

Political pundits and psephologists had predicted a close race with the Congress emerging as the single largest party winning around 100 to 110 seats, short of a simple majority of 113 seats and looking for support from either the JD(S), independents or the KJP. But these forecasts went awry. The electorate, if one can take an educated guess, perhaps did not want to see a repeat of 2004 when a fractured mandate led to the formation, initially of a Congress-JD(S) coalition government, and then a BJP-JD(S) dispensation, which lasted for just 20 months. In both the coalitions, the JD(S), had sought to manipulate the government and grab ministerial berths that were disproportionate to its legislative strength. What also seems to have weighed heavily in the minds of the electorate, even as it was determined to see the back of the saffron party, was stability.

While money did play a big role in the elections, with amounts ranging from Rs.20 crore being spent by each candidate belonging to major parties and contesting urban seats (especially in Bangalore) to Rs.5 crore in rural seats, a redeeming aspect was the relatively minor role of the caste/community factors compared with the past elections.

While Vokkaligas, dominant in the Old Mysore and Bangalore Rural areas, preferred the JD(S) and the Congress, Lingayats, the socially, economically and politically dominant community in the northern regions, have voted almost evenly for the four parties in the reckoning. In 2008, the BJP gained the most in the region. The Congress has done exceptionally well in areas where the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Dalits and the minority communities were predominant.

According to M. Veerappa Moily, Union Minister for Petroleum and former Karnataka Chief Minister, the election results have debunked the long-held contention of the BJP and Yeddyurappa that they are the natural choice of Lingayats. Moily said the Congress was voted to power in the hope that it would give “a clean, stable, corruption-free government”. With the Lok Sabha elections less than a year away, he said the onus was now on the party to show that it could do a better job in Karnataka than what Narendra Modi or Shivraj Singh Chauhan were doing in Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh. “Only this [good governance] can wipe out the Modi effect that the BJP is hoping to cash in on.”

Moily, who is one of the architects of the Congress’ victory in Karnataka, told Frontline that the party could have won 130 to 140 seats had some weighty leaders of the Old Mysore area not interfered in the ticket distribution—always a troublesome affair in the Congress. This time, the party was saddled with the onerous task of having to sift through more than 25,000 applications for the 224 seats. This was compounded by the machinations of the chief ministerial aspirants to ensure that their loyalists got the ticket.

Speaking to Frontline after the results were announced, Mallikarjuna Kharge, Union Labour Minister and one of Karnataka’s tallest Dalit leaders, said: “People have reposed faith in the Congress. They became fed up with fundamentalism, maladministration and poor governance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and now want a good, clean government. It is our responsibility to provide this. The Congress also benefited from the three-way split in the BJP. The rule of law should once again prevail in Karnataka. Besides providing good governance, world-class infrastructure, large-scale investments, strengthening of the information technology/biotechnology sectors must be encouraged. Bangalore and Karnataka should once again become names to reckon with.”

Siddaramaiah new Chief Minister

The Congress high command moved with surprising alacrity and purpose to adopt the secret ballot route to choose Siddaramaiah, the veteran Kuruba leader from Varuna in Mysore district, as the Chief Minister. Four observers of the All India Congress Committee, A.K. Antony, Luizo Falerio, Madhusudan Mistry and Jitendra Singh, arrived in Bangalore on May 10 and called a meeting of the Congress Legislature Party to select the new leader. Siddaramaiah becomes the 22nd Chief Minister of Karnakata. While most of the Congress MLAs this correspondent spoke to were happy with the transparent and quick process of election, some of them were disappointed because they were not consulted on the choice of the Chief Minister. Reports of the secret ballot to choose the CLP leader indicate that Siddaramaiah got 78 votes; D.K. Shivakumar, the Vokkaliga strongman from Kanakapura, two; and Mallikarjuna Kharge 38, with three leaving it to the high command.

The Congress leadership perhaps speeded up the process to avoid dissidence and heartburning in the party. The race for the top post began as soon as the election results started trickling in. Among the serious contenders were Siddaramaiah, who was the Leader of the Opposition since 2008, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president G. Parameshwara, and Union Minister for Labour Mallikarjuna Kharge. Shammanur Shivashankarappa, the only serious contender from the Lingayat community, D.K. Shivakumar and R.V. Deshpande, former KPCC president, had also thrown their hats in the ring. Moily was also in the running.

With the Lok Sabha elections not too far away, the Congress probably wanted to send out the right message to the voters and install a person who would be able to galvanise the party in terms of cadre (numbers) and finances. (The Congress only won six of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in 2009.) Siddaramaiah is credited with having brought the various OBC sub-groups together. Kuruba is the third largest community in the State after Lingayats and Vokkaligas. The argument against Siddaramaiah in some sections of the party was that he is a relative new comer to the party, having migrated from the Janata Dal only six years ago. But the high command seems to have dismissed this view. Having served as Deputy Chief Minister twice in Janata Dal dispensations, Siddaramaiah joined the Congress with the primary aim of becoming the Chief Minister.

His closest rival in the race was Parameshwara, an educationist, no-frills-Dalit leader and a Congress loyalist. But he lost the Koratagere seat by over 18,000 votes. Dalits constitute 25 per cent of the State’s population, but Karnataka has never had a Dalit Chief Minister. The Congress had a candidate in Mallikarjuna Kharge. Much of the party’s recent good showing in the Hyderabad-Karnataka area is attributed him. What went against him is the lack of mass appeal.

Siddaramaiah’s elevation will certainly keep Kurubas and other OBCs happy. With the exception of Dharam Singh (May 2004-January 2006), Siddaramaiah will be the first non-Lingayat and non-Vokkaliga Chief Minister since Moily in 1992.

Expressing happiness at the process of selecting the new CLP leader, Moily said: “With Parameshwara losing in the elections, Siddaramaiah was the natural choice.” Moily also discounted suggestions that Siddaramaiah was chosen overlooking the claims of loyal Congressmen like Kharge and himself. “Yes, Kharge had a claim but I have consistently said that I am not in the race. And Siddaramaiah has been in the Congress since 2006, and he was the Leader of the Opposition for the last five years.”

For the JD(S), these elections could well be a watershed. Although Kumaraswamy chooses not to admit it, his party’s primary aim was to secure enough seats and hope that the Congress would fall short of a majority. Out of power for five years, the JD(S) will need to reinvent itself and move away from the long-held view that it is only a party of the Old Mysore area and that, too, only for and by the father-son duo.

The KJP has nowhere to hide. Most of Yeddyurappa’s followers who chose to leave the BJP, have lost the elections. Many of them may just go back to the BJP.

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