SPOTLIGHT

Will the Karnataka election result in a decisive mandate?

Published : May 03, 2023 15:24 IST - 13 MINS READ

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on the occasion of Basava Jayanti, the birthday of Lingayat saint Basavanna, at Kudalasangama, Bagalkot district, on April 23. The Congress expects the Lingayat community, which is estimated to form around 17 per cent of the electorate mostly across north and central Karnataka, to come back to its fold. 

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on the occasion of Basava Jayanti, the birthday of Lingayat saint Basavanna, at Kudalasangama, Bagalkot district, on April 23. The Congress expects the Lingayat community, which is estimated to form around 17 per cent of the electorate mostly across north and central Karnataka, to come back to its fold.  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The Congress looks better placed than the BJP and the JD(S) in the last leg of the campaign, as corruption, caste, and development take centre stage.

Marathoners go through various phases in the 42-kilometre test of endurance. They pump up their tired muscles and give it their best shot in the final few kilometres, after strategising and saving energy for most of the race. The Assembly election campaign in Karnataka, too, has reached the crucial end-phase of a long and exhausting race, where the three main contestants—the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Janata Dal (Secular)—are wringing out every resource they have in an effort to win on May 10, voting day.

The Congress appears to have the upper hand in the battle of narratives. With its relentless attack on the BJP government for its alleged 40 per cent corruption, the Congress rhetoric seems to have made a strong impact on the electorate.

Several non-partisan pre-election surveys put the Congress in front in the 224-seat Assembly. The election results will be declared on May 13. The Congress is also banking on the four monthly guarantees it has promised: 10 kilograms of foodgrains to each household, 200 units of free power, Rs.2,000 to the female head of the family, and Rs.3,000 to all graduates.

The BJP, which usually dominates the campaign narrative in States where it has a substantial base, seems to be on the defensive. It also seems unsure of whether it is still the go-to party for the Lingayat community, which is estimated to form around 17 per cent of the electorate mostly across north and central Karnataka.

Also Read | Tight contest expected in 2023 Karnataka Assembly election

Two prominent Lingayat leaders, former Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar and former Deputy Chief Minister Laxman Savadi, moved to the Congress after being denied the BJP ticket. Shettar and Savadi are expected to help the Congress wrest some constituencies from the BJP in Kittur Karnataka (earlier known as the Mumbai-Karnataka region in the northwest part of the State, which includes Bagalkot, Belagavi, Gadag, Haveri, Uttara Kannada, Dharwad, and Vijayapura districts), where the saffron party holds 36 of 56 seats.

Loss of Lingayat support

For the cadre-based party these high-profile defections were unprecedented. If the BJP fails to retain the Lingayat vote, the biggest factor for the party’s growth, it will mean two things: one, of course, is that the party will lose the election, the other is a realignment of traditional caste-based voting patterns that were set in place in the State in the 1990s.

M.B. Patil, a senior Congress Lingayat MLA from Vijayapura district who ensured the defections of the two high-profile BJP leaders, made this clear in a provocative tweet: “Lingayats are not treated as the core of BJP, but merely a vote bank. Karnataka will witness a new massive political churn because of how Lingayats were mistreated by the BJP.... Lingayats are set to return HOME to the Congress in 2023.”

The mention of the Lingayats’ returning to the Congress is a reference to the time when the community abandoned the Congress after the Lingayat leader Veerendra Patil was unceremoniously removed as Chief Minister in 1990 by Congress president Rajiv Gandhi, who was also Prime Minister. The subtext of this entire debate about Lingayats moving away from the BJP is the question of whether the party is following the diktat of B.L. Santhosh, the BJP’s national general secretary, who played a major role in the selection of candidates and, as some people suspect, is keen to foist a Brahmin as Chief Minister in the event of a BJP victory.

Shettar blamed Santhosh for his departure, accusing him of “sidelining Lingayats” within the BJP. The fact that all the incumbent Brahmin BJP MLAs, except one, were given another chance, whereas senior Lingayat leaders were denied the ticket, has strengthened this accusation against Santhosh.

Dinesh Amin Mattoo, a senior Kannada journalist, said, “The ticket distribution has been managed by two persons within the BJP: Santhosh and [Union Minister] Pralhad Joshi [both Brahmins]. Both leaders lack the stature of [former Chief Minister] B.S. Yediyurappa or even the late [Union Minister] Ananth Kumar [also a Brahmin] who maintained excellent relations with the religious heads of the Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities. Santhosh and Joshi are seen merely as Brahmin leaders and do not have the ability to retain the support base of the BJP among dominant communities in the State.”

Yediyurappa was himself involved in a long-running feud with Santhosh over the control of the BJP in Karnataka and, according to several political observers, the old Lingayat warhorse and the party’s only mass leader is toeing the party line to ensure the career of his son and heir, B.Y. Raghavendra. In 2019, Yediyurappa was unceremoniously removed as Chief Minister. In his public statements, though, Yediyurappa has denied that he is dissatisfied with the party and has stated that he voluntarily stepped down as Chief Minister. Regarding the BJP’s potential loss of Lingayat support, Yediyurappa said, “I will meet Lingayat leaders and voters at the local level across the State and convince them.”

Ethical questions

Shettar and Savadi have both been given the Congress ticket along with 13 other defectors from the BJP and the JD(S). This shows how the Congress is also counting on these defectors to win the election. The large-scale party hopping has, however, raised ethical questions on the Congress’ ideological moorings. That is why, even though Congress leaders are confident of emerging as the single largest party, they remain wary of the BJP’s propensity for poaching MLAs through “Operation Kamala”, which toppled the Congress-JD(S) coalition government in 2019. In his campaign speeches, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge has appealed to voters to ensure that the party wins at least 150 MLAs so that “we can have a stable government”.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah during a roadshow at Gundlupet in Chamarajanagar district on April 24. 

Union Home Minister Amit Shah during a roadshow at Gundlupet in Chamarajanagar district on April 24.  | Photo Credit: PTI

Apart from reiterating that the BJP is not against Lingayats, the BJP’s campaign has focussed on the advantages of having a “double engine government” (BJP governments both in the State and at the Centre) and the perils of the Congress’ dynastic politics and corruption. Unlike in 2018, when the BJP led a communal campaign highlighting the failures of the Congress government in protecting the lives of Hindus, the focus is now on issues of development, although the party has not entirely abandoned its polarising rhetoric. Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, who addressed three or four meetings in different parts of Karnataka daily, have proclaimed that the BJP is against reservation based on religion, justifying the Basavaraj Bommai government’s decision to scrap the 4 per cent reservation provided to Muslims because of their backward status.

The ban on the controversial Muslim group, the Popular Front of India, has also figured in their campaign rhetoric. BJP leader K.S. Eshwarappa made a provocative statement when he said that the party did not want the votes of “60,000 Muslims” in Shivamogga.

In comparison to 2018, the BJP has replaced 72 of its candidates, hoping that this radical Gujarat-like strategy will help it deal with anti-incumbency and reinvigorate the party. While this has opened the field for many rebel candidates across the State, it is a measure of the party’s entrenchment in the three coastal districts that its members have remained loyal here despite the party replacing seven of its 17 winning candidates. An interesting aspect of the BJP’s campaign in coastal Karnataka is that the focus has shifted from its communal campaigning of 2018 to issues of development and appeals to the numerically significant castes such as the Billavas in the region.

Wooing Dalits

In 2018, the BJP made substantial gains among Dalits, which at 17 per cent of the electorate, is the largest social bloc of voters. The BJP’s outreach to Left-Hand Dalits (Madigas) was successful mainly because the party promised to implement internal reservation within the Dalit quota in the State. One of the last major decisions of the Bommai government was to demarcate this internal quota, but the Congress labelled it an “election gimmick” as this cannot be implemented without Central legislation.

The Congress, on its part, has given two assurances on this front: first, that it will table in the Assembly the results of the caste census undertaken during Siddaramaiah’s tenure; and second, the party will strive to increase the total quantum of reservation to 75 per cent from the present cap of 50 per cent so that reservation can be provided to Dalits and backward communities in proportion to their population. Whether this will influence the Dalit vote, which is crucial for any party to win, only the results will show.

Highlights
  • With its relentless attack on the BJP government for its alleged 40 per cent corruption, the Congress rhetoric seems to have made a strong impact on the electorate.
  • Apart from reiterating that the BJP is not against Lingayats, the BJP’s campaign has focussed on the advantages of having a “double engine government” and the perils of the Congress’ dynastic politics and corruption.
  • The JD(S)’ campaign focusses on regional pride, and the party presents itself as an alternative to the two national parties.

Muslim votes

The religious minorities are expected to side with the Congress as they did in 2018, although the JD(S) is making a valiant effort to lure Muslims to its side. It appointed C.M. Ibrahim, a former Congress MLC (Member of Legislative Council), as its State president, and the party has also assured Muslims that it will reinstate the 4 per cent reservation for the community.

Muslims constitute around 14 per cent of the electorate, but the community’s representation has been declining in the legislature. Only seven Muslims (all of the Congress) were elected to the Assembly in 2018. With the rise of the BJP and the polarisation of the electorate, even secular parties such as the Congress and the JD(S) are hesitant to field Muslim candidates for fear of alienating non-Muslim voters.

Janata Dal (S) leaders H.D. Deve Gowda, C.M. Ibrahim, and H.D. Kumaraswamy releasing 12 promises for the election, in Bengaluru on April 15. 

Janata Dal (S) leaders H.D. Deve Gowda, C.M. Ibrahim, and H.D. Kumaraswamy releasing 12 promises for the election, in Bengaluru on April 15.  | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

The JD(S)’ campaign focusses on regional pride, and the party presents itself as an alternative to the two national parties. In his campaign rallies, its leader H.D. Kumaraswamy frequently asks: “Central leaders [of the BJP and Congress] will come and go. What is their relation to Karnataka?” He emphasises that his party will emerge as the single largest party.

Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, the party’s 89-year-old patriarch and star campaigner, is the most popular leader of the Vokkaliga community, which constitutes the bedrock of the JD(S)’ support base in southern Karnataka. The powerful peasant community is estimated to constitute 12-14 per cent of the electorate. The party has also freely distributed the ticket to many disgruntled members of the Congress and the BJP although these defectors are contesting in regions of the State where the JD(S) does not have a mass base. At best, the calculation is that these candidates will cut into the votes of the Congress and the BJP rather than emerge victorious on their own.

Civil society support

The Congress has received a boost from the support of civil society organisations such as Eddelu Karnataka (Wake Up Karnataka) and Bahutva Karnataka (Pluralistic Karnataka), which have released detailed, sector-wise reports on the BJP government’s failure on multiple fronts. These reports are shared widely on social media, catalysing the Congress’ campaign especially in urban centres such as Bengaluru, where the BJP holds 15 of 28 seats.

Speaking at a press conference organised by Eddelu Karnataka on April 25, Kannada writer Devanur Mahadeva said, “The BJP government’s campaign is focussed on the benefits of its ‘double engine’ government. One engine is filled with hatred, while the other is robbing people. Both the engines make a lot of noise, but there is no work happening.” For the BJP, which lacks popular leaders at the State level, its biggest strength is the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The party has always trailed the Congress in vote share in Assembly elections, but in the Lok Sabha election of 2019, which were seen as a referendum on Modi’s prime ministership, the party secured 51.75 per cent of the vote share in Karnataka and 25 of 28 seats.

“The Congress has received a boost from the support of a few civil society organisations.”

While campaigning in Mysuru, B.L. Santhosh used a metaphor from the world of Yakshagana to explain Modi’s significance for the party’s campaign. “According to our internal surveys, the BJP is expected to win 103 seats and emerge as the single largest party, but this is still an early part of the campaign. There is Balagopal’s dance in the beginning of Yakshagana and that is the phase which we are in now. After April 29, when Modi, like the main artiste of Yakshagana, takes the stage, the BJP’s seats will go up to 133,” Santhosh said.

Ticket distribution

In ensuring social justice, all the three parties have failed in their ticket distribution policy. The Congress, for instance, has fielded 48 Lingayats, 41 Vokkaligas, 15 Kurubas, 16 Muslims, seven Brahmins, 36 members of the Scheduled Castes and 18 of the Scheduled Tribes. The majority of the remaining seats have gone to the backward castes, with a few going to other upper castes and other religious minorities such as Jains and Christians.

The BJP has not given the ticket to religious minorities, but has reserved the lion’s share of its seats for Lingayats (67), Vokkaligas (42), and Brahmins (13). Apart from this, it has fielded 37 members of the Scheduled Castes and 17 of the Scheduled Tribes. The remaining seats have been distributed across other castes.

The JD(S) has reserved the most seats for Vokkaligas (54), while also fielding 44 Lingayats outside its bastion of ‘Old Mysore’. K.N. Lingappa, former member of the Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes, said, “It has been 75 years since India got Independence. Of the 197 backward castes in Karnataka, only members of 22 castes have been represented in the Assembly. Members of 175 castes have never been represented.”

The number of women candidates across all the three parties is dismally low, with the BJP, the Congress and the JD(S) allocating only 11, 12 and 13 seats respectively.

Apart from caste, the basis of elections in Karnataka has revolved around money power over the past few years, with some of Karnataka’s politicians also featuring among the richest politicians in the country. Large sums of money and other items are offered to people to vote for a particular candidate, but there is no transparent way to track this phenomenon, although the Election Commission (EC) regularly releases figures of how much unaccounted money has been seized.

Also Read | BJP does temple run ahead of Karnataka election to woo Vokkaligas, tribals

N. Divakar, a Mysuru-based political columnist, said, “The EC has so far [up to April 25] made seizures worth Rs.239.52 crore. This includes cash, alcohol, kitchen items, gold, and silver. What happens to this money? Who is responsible for using this money? How are voters being lured? There is no accountability.”

With 2,613 candidates in the fray for the 224 seats, Karnataka is witnessing a spirited three-cornered fight. The BJP has a candidate in every constituency, while the Congress has fielded 223 candidates and is supporting one candidate in Melukote belonging to a famers’ party. The JD(S) has 207 candidates in the arena. Other marginal political players include the Aam Aadmi Party, the Karnataka Rashtra Samiti and the Social Democratic Party of India, which, while not expected to win any seats, might dent the Congress’ votes.

The race is on in Karnataka, and it will become clear on May 13 whether the Congress will come back to power or whether it will be a repeat of 2018 when no party got a clear majority.

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