A protest vote

Published : Jun 04, 2004 00:00 IST

Karnataka's electorate votes to reject the economic policy package implemented by the Congress government, which added to the hardships of the people.

FAR from bucking the national trend, the electorate in Karnataka seems to have voted for exactly the same reasons as a large part of the electorate in other parts of the country. It voted to reject a package of economic policies, assiduously implemented by the Congress(I) government in the last five years, which resulted in furthering the hardships with which the majority of people lived. No single party in Karnataka received a clear majority in the State Assembly elections. The ruling Congress party suffered a major setback with its strength coming down from 132 to 65 in the 224-member Legislative Assembly. As many as 31 of the 49 Congress(I) Ministers who contested the elections lost.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode the wave of popular discontent against the Congress(I) by emerging as the single largest party in the Assembly with 79 seats, nearly double the 44 seats it won in 1999. This is its best ever electoral performance in the State. Its ally, the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), won five of the 26 seats it contested. The Congress(I) was followed by the Janata Dal (Secular) with 58 seats, a remarkable improvement on its 1999 score when it won only 10 seats. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Republican Party of India won one seat each. Two regional parties, the Kannada Nadu Paksha and the Kannada Chaluvali Vatal Paksha, won a seat each. Independents won 13 seats.

The vote share of the Congress(I) fell from 41 per cent in the 1999 elections to 35 per cent. The BJP got 29 per cent of the votes and the JD(S) 20 per cent. (These figures have been released by the Congress(I) to support its bid to form a government in alliance with the JD(S). The Election Commission itself has not yet computed party-wise poll percentages for the State.)

The electoral base of the Congress(I) has eroded in all four regions of the State - the coastal belt, Bombay Karnataka, Hyderabad Karnataka and the Old Mysore region. In the coastal districts of Udipi, Mangalore, Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada and in the adjacent districts of Shimoga, Chikmagalur and Kodagu, the Congress(I) won in only eight of the 39 Assembly constituencies, while the BJP won in 27. In the Bombay Karnataka districts of Belgaum, Dharwad, Haveri, Gadag, Bagalkote, Davangere and Bijapur, the BJP won in 30 of the 58 constituencies and the Congress(I) in only 15. In the Hyderabad Karnataka districts of Bidar, Gulbarga, Raichur, Koppal and Bellary, the Congress(I) won in 11 of the 39 constituencies, the JD(S) in 14 and the BJP only in 11. Of the 84 constituencies in the Old Mysore region comprising the districts of Tumkur, Kolar, Bangalore, Bangalore Rural, Mandya, Chamarajanagar, Mysore, Hassan and Chitradurga, the Congress(I) won in 32, the BJP in 13 and the JD(S) in 33. Discounting its performance in Bangalore city where the Congress(I) won 10 seats, the seat tally of the Congress(I) in the Old Mysore region comes down to 22. In 1999, the Congress(I) had performed uniformly well in all these regions.

The BJP's gains are largely confined to the coastal belt and the Bombay Karnataka region. While in the coastal belt, sustained campaigns by the Sangh Parivar succeeded in polarising society along communal lines thus giving the BJP a Hindu vote base, the good performance of the BJP in the Bombay Karnataka region was largely because of its alliance with the JD(U). The JD(U) still retains a considerable base in this region and was able to channel the anti-Congress(I) vote into its alliance partner's kitty. Former Chief Minister S. Bangarappa's crossover to the BJP just prior to the elections paid off handsomely for the BJP. The BJP also did well in Chikmagalur, perhaps an indication that the campaign for the conversion of the Sufi shrine at Bababudangiri hill into a Hindu temple paid it electoral dividends.

The real story of the 2004 Assembly elections is about the re-emergence of the JD(S) as a force to reckon with in the politics of the State. The JD(S) had been written off as a political force after its debacle in the 1999 Assembly elections when it won just 10 seats. It started re-consolidating its base (which is largely confined to southern Karnataka) two to three months before the elections. A number of political leaders of the united Janata Dal, like P.G.R. Sindhia and M.P. Prakash, rejoined the party. Despite the failure to bring about a formal reunification of the JD(S) and the JD(U), the JD(S) was able to do exceptionally well in the Old Mysore belt, taking advantage of the popular discontent against the Congress(I).

Although perhaps not as definitive a verdict as in Andhra Pradesh, the mandate of the Karnataka electorate also appears to be against a pro-urban, World Bank-driven agenda of economic reform. Popular disenchantment with the policies of the Congress(I) government had been building up, and the elections provided the affected sections an opportunity to act. Making Karnataka the hub of the Information Technology and biotechnology sectors in the country was simply not enough. The State faced a severe drought in three out of the five years of Congress(I) rule. Drought relief was both inadequate and mismanaged. According to the government's own figures, more than 650 farmers committed suicide in the State in the past year, unable to get out of the quagmire of debt. The State government appeared to be in denial over the magnitude of the problem. Its attitude was seen as callous, particularly in the tardy way compensation was paid to the debt-ridden families of suicide victims. The reduction in rural employment, brought about by drought, led to mass migrations of peasants and agricultural workers from the countryside to the cities. Hikes in power tariffs in the countryside, the dismantling of the public distribution system, and the severe water shortages in both rural and urban areas added to a growing discontent, which found expression in the manner in which the people voted.

For the JD(S), joining hands with the BJP to form a government in the State is not an option, even if this means having to ally with the party that was its principal electoral opponent. At a meeting of the JD(S) legislators in Bangalore on May 16, Siddaramaiah was elected floor leader of the JD(S) in the legislature, an indication that he would be the front-runner for the post of Chief Minister in a JD(S)-led dispensation. The modalities of how a secular government comprising the Congress and the JD(S) could be put in place was left to Deve Gowda, the national president of the party, who is likely to initiate the process in consultation with Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, once the central government is sworn in. Although the JD(S) won marginally fewer seats than the Congress, its claim to lead the government has far more weight than a party that was defeated at the hustings. Several coalition models have been mooted, among them the Maharashtra model where the ministerial berths have been shared proportionately between the partners, and the Jammu and Kashmir model where each party holds the Chief Minister's post for two-and-a-half years.

Despite its differences with the Congress(I), the JD(S) is expected to ally with it to form a government. The two parties have a combined strength of 123 in the Assembly.

KARNATAKA was perhaps the only State that gave the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) some reason for hope in Elections 2004. Out of the 28 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP won 18 (34.75 per cent of the vote), the Congress(I) 8 (36.82 per cent) and the Janata Dal(S) 2 (20.45 per cent). That the Congress(I) got a higher vote share than the BJP, but less than half its number of seats, suggests that vote splitting benefited the BJP. Its alliance partner, the Janata Dal(U), drew a blank in the four constituencies it contested.

The BJP made a clean sweep of the coastal belt (Mangalore, Udipi, Kanara), the Malnad region (Chikmagalur, Shimoga), and the Bombay Karnataka region (Belgaum, Bagalkot, Bijapur, Chikkodi, Dharwad North, Dharwad South and Davangere). It held Bidar; its candidates won for the first time in Bellary (the Congress(I) stronghold from where its president Sonia Gandhi won in 1999) and Bangalore North (where retired police officer H.T. Sangliana defeated the veteran Congress leader Jaffer Sharief); and it even won in Tumkur, although by a slender margin. The BJP's margins were substantial, ranging from between 33 and 51 per cent of the vote share in those constituencies where it won. It fielded new faces in eight constituencies. In Dharwad North, Prahlad Joshi, a leader of the communally divisive Idgah Maidan campaign in Hubli, won by around 83,000 votes over his nearest Congress(I) rival, the former bureaucrat B.S. Patil. Manorama Madhwaraj, once a Minister in the Congress(I) government, who defected to the BJP just prior to the elections and was rewarded with a ticket, won by nearly 30,000 votes in Udipi. S. Bangarappa, who also defected to the BJP prior to the elections, won from his home constituency of Shimoga by approximately 76,000 votes.

The Congress(I) was able to retain only seven of the 16 seats it won in 1999. Its major defeats were in Bangalore North where Jaffer Sharief lost; in Mangalore where former Chief Minister, M. Veerappa Moily lost to D.V. Sadananda Gowda of the BJP; in Bellary, where K.C. Kondaiah lost to Karunakara Reddy of the BJP, and in Kanara where Margaret Alva lost to Ananthkumar Hegde of the BJP. The popular film actor M.H. Ambareesh won the Mandya seat by nearly 1.5 lakh votes. The most unexpected victory for the Congress(I), however, was in Kanakapura where its candidate Tejaswini Ramesh, a young television journalist who was given the Congress ticket virtually on the last day of nominations, defeated former Prime Minister and veteran politician, H.D. Deve Gowda by almost one lakh votes.

The JD(S), which rebuilt its party organisation virtually from scratch, did remarkably well in the elections. It won the Hassan and Chamarajanagar seats, while it narrowly missed victory in Tumkur (2,351 votes) and Raichur (508 votes). More significantly, its vote share has increased from 10.85 per cent to 20.45 per cent between 1999 and 2004.

Outgoing Chief Minister S.M. Krishna expressed regret for his decision to hold Assembly elections simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections almost six months before the Assembly's term came to an end. The Congress(I) held on to the hope that its "good governance" plank on which it fought the Assembly elections would help it in the Lok Sabha elections too. In the event, it appears to have got the mood exactly wrong.

Was "Vajpayee wave" the reason for the significant improvement in the performance of the BJP in the State? This argument would have had some validity if such a wave had swept the rest of the country as well. In its absence, it would appear that the surge in the BJP's vote base could be linked to the general anti-government mood that was also reflected in the Assembly elections. (It is significant that the vote share of the BJP, although up by nearly eight percentage points from 1999, was still below that of the Congress(I). The disunity within the Janata Parivar also impacted on the way the vote was cast, giving the BJP the electoral advantage even in those regions where it does not have an independent base. In the Bombay Karnataka belt, for example, the alliance with the Janata Dal(U), which has a significant organisational presence in the region, was a major asset for the BJP. In the regions where the JD(S) has a strong presence, southern Karnataka for example, it was able to attract the anti-Congress vote. The defection of S. Bangarappa to the BJP just prior to the elections played an important role in the improved performance of the BJP in the State.

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