Assembly Elections: Karnataka

Divide and win

Print edition : May 25, 2018

B.S. Yeddyurappa, the BJP's chief ministerial candidate, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a campaign rally at Chamarajanagar on May 1. Photo: PTI

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah at a campaign in Bhatkal on April 26.

The Siddaramaiah government’s welfare schemes will stand the Congress in good stead in northern Karnataka and to some extent in the coastal districts of the State, but the election scene is dominated by communal and caste politics.

AS temperatures soar in northern and coastal Karnataka with the onset of summer, the political heat is also increasing with just a few days remaining for voting day, May 12, in the crucial election to the Karnataka Legislative Assembly. This election assumes salience for both national parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which are in direct contest in these parts of the State. For the Congress, Karnataka is the last big State that the party still governs. A loss here would restrict it to a handful of smaller States, the largest of which will be Punjab. For the BJP, a win here will disprove the general sense of discontent with Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is perceived to be gathering steam all over the country. It will also bring the BJP closer to its stated aim of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”. The third player in the fray, the Janata Dal (Secular), has its electoral strength confined to southern Karnataka. It will be staring at its marginalisation in State politics if it does not manage to improve on its tally from last time.

Coastal Karnataka includes the districts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada. Northern Karnataka is broken up into two parts: Bombay-Karnataka, comprising the districts that became part of Karnataka and were drawn from the Bombay Presidency, and Hyderabad-Karnataka, comprising the districts that became part of Karnataka from the erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad. Northern Karnataka comprises Belagavi, Dharwad, Haveri, Gadag, Bagalkot, Vijayapura, Kalaburagi, Bidar, Yadgir and Raichur districts. Ballari and Davangere districts, located geographically in central Karnataka, are also added to this portion of Karnataka for the purposes of this article. Totally, coastal and northern Karnataka account for 117 of the State’s 224 constituencies.

With 70 seats, the Congress had a clear majority in these 117 constituencies in the last election. The BJP was a distant second with 29 seats, while the JD(S) won six seats. Independent candidates and smaller parties picked up the remaining 12 seats. This time around, four of the JD(S) MLAs are contesting as Congress candidates, while one has moved to the BJP. Of the smaller parties, the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) and the Badavara Shramikara Raitara Congress (BSRC) have merged with the BJP, while the one-man party of Ashok Kheny, Karnataka Makkala Paksha (KMP), has merged with the Congress. Even the candidates who won as independents last time are contesting on the Congress or BJP ticket. Thus, the contest has emerged as a direct fight between the Congress and the BJP.

The Badami Assembly constituency in Bagalkot district, which is famous for its rock-cut temples, a prestigious battle is taking place between Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress and B. Sriramulu of the BJP. This is the only constituency in the State that has in the fray two high-profile candidates who are also contesting from other constituencies. While Siddaramaiah is contesting from the Chamundeshwari constituency in Mysuru district in southern Karnataka, Sriramulu is contesting from the Molakalmuru constituency in Chitradurga district of central Karnataka. In a way, this contest sums up the electoral battle in northern Karnataka: while Siddaramaiah is relying on Kurubas, Dalits and Muslims, the BJP is relying on Lingayats and Valmikis (a Scheduled Tribe community to which Sriramulu belongs) to see its candidate through. Siddaramaiah is relying on castes that form part of the “Ahinda” (an abbreviation for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) agglomeration that he has assiduously cultivated, while the BJP is relying on the dominant caste of Lingayats while wooing a second caste group in each constituency.

Lingayats are numerically strong in large swathes of northern Karnataka and have a decisive influence on electoral politics. The majority of candidates from the BJP and the Congress in northern Karnataka are Lingayats. Siddaramaiah’s gambit to recommend that the community be granted the status of a separate religion has shaken things up in the region as its impact is unclear. Shivakumar Gangal, a Lingayat doctor based in Badami, said that it would backfire on Siddaramaiah. “All the 68,000 Lingayats in Badami follow the Shivayoga Mandira [a Veerashaiva-Lingayat mutt in the town], and our swamiji has communicated that we should vote for the BJP as Siddaramaiah has tried to divide us. The Valmikis are also with the BJP as they are against the Kurubas,” he said. BJP national president Amit Shah, who toured the region extensively a few weeks ago, paid a visit to the Shivayoga Mandira. Asked whether the pontiff had made an open call in the way certain Lingayat religious heads such as Mate Mahadevi had made for the Congress, Gangal said: “No, but the message has gone out to all Lingayats, at least in Badami, that we have to defeat Siddaramaiah.”

At the other end of the town, Congress leaders C.M. Ibrahim, B.B. Chimmanakatti and Satish Jarkiholi (a Muslim, a Kuruba and a Valmiki respectively) were having a meeting with Congress workers. “Siddaramaiah will certainly win from Badami and his presence will ensure that the Congress party wins the majority of seats in northern Karnataka,” Ibrahim told the audience that had gathered. The situation in Badami shows that the fundamental social blocs of Indian society, caste and community, prevail over other issues. Voters are getting consolidated behind individual candidates or, in some cases, the party that best represents their caste and community interests. Travelling through northern and coastal Karnataka, it seems there are no substantive issues on the basis of which people vote apart from community interests that will be safeguarded by potential candidates. It is rare for a voter to discuss issues that do not frame the discussions around community interests. Most voters are keenly aware of their community’s strength in their respective constituencies.

However, community interests are relegated to the background in some cases when the discussion revolves around Siddaramaiah’s welfare schemes. There is widespread acknowledgement across north Karnataka that the schemes, especially Anna Bhagya (rice at Re.1 a kg for below-poverty-line families) and Ksheera Bhagya (free milk for children in government schools) have helped families in both cities and villages. Laskhmana Chougule, a Lingayat farmer who was having a cup of tea on the highway between Belagavi and Hubbali, said that his family had come to rely upon Anna Bhagya immensely. But his vote would be for Siddaramaiah mainly because his stand on the Lingayat issue and only partially because of his welfare schemes. A Madiga Dalit, Ashoka Harijan, who was also drinking tea, differed slightly: he would vote for Siddaramaiah because of the welfare schemes.

Religious polarisation

In coastal Karnataka, which scores very high on all development indices, the welfare schemes do not have much traction. Religious polarisation matters here as the region has a long history of communally divisive activity, and so does the charisma of individual candidates. In an interview, Ganesh Karnik, BJP Member of the Legislative Council based in Mangaluru representing the South West Teachers Constituency, said that while there were some development issues like the regularisation of kumki land (used for grazing cattle; the BJP has been seeking regularisation of kumki land for all “patta” land holders) in Dakshina Kannada, the main issue for the BJP would be the killings of Hindutva activists in coastal Karnataka. “Communal killings have hurt the sentiments of the majority community. They feel that a great injustice has been done to them,” he said. Karnik was referring to the alleged murder of 27 BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh activists that have taken place in Karnataka during the Siddaramaiah government’s tenure. “I am not saying that the government is directly responsible for the murders, but how has the investigation been handled? That is our main issue here.”

Overt communalism has worked well for the BJP in coastal Karnataka for certain historical reasons, but it is not easily transposed to the other parts of Karnataka. The party has succeeded in polarising voters to some extent in the Bombay-Karnataka region with its history of minor communal conflagrations. Sanjay Patil, BJP MLA from Belagavi (Rural) and a party candidate, stated at a recent public event: “This election is not about road, drainage or drinking water. This election is about Hindu and Muslim religions.” In response, Fairoz Nuruddin Sait, Congress MLA and candidate from Belagavi North, said: “What issues does the BJP have? Apart from support from a section of the print and electronic media and the propagation of fake news, they have to rely on communal issues. Patil is on a shaky wicket and you know how it works in the BJP: the person who abuses more gets promoted.” Sait added that the fact that Siddaramaiah was contesting from northern Karnataka would give a huge boost to the Congress in the region.

Talking about some of the issues in northern Karnataka, Basavaraj Horatti, JD (S) MLC from West Teachers Constituency who is based in Hubballi, candidly stated that hardly any issues were being discussed in this election. “Look at the way in which candidates are jumping parties. It clearly shows that there is no ideology among any party or politician nowadays. There are only two criteria on the basis of which these elections are being fought: caste and money power. There is no space for honest principle-based politics any more,” he said.

A potentially emotive issue is the sharing of the waters of the river Mahadayi between Goa and Karnataka and farmers’ disenchantment with the BJP’s role in the matter. Former Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar, Leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka Assembly, who is contesting from the Hubballi-Dharwad Central constituency, said it was not a major issue and the farmers’ agitation was a Congress ploy to show the Central government in a bad light. He was confident of the BJP’s prospects in northern Karnataka with strong candidates in all the constituencies. “Plus, we have the leadership of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Yeddyurappa,” he added. Asked why the BJP was relying on the support of Janardhana Reddy who was jailed for his role in illegal mining, Shettar said that Reddy was campaigning for Sriramulu on a personal level and not as a representative of the BJP.

In Ballari city, the constituency from where Janardhana Reddy’s brother G. Somashekhara Reddy is contesting as a BJP candidate, few people buy the argument that the Reddy brothers are not influencing the elections with their money power. Sadiq Ahmed, a driver, said: “Everyone in Ballari knows the BJP needs the Reddy brothers. Yeddyurappa is powerless before them, and the central leadership is playing a strange game-pretending that Janardhana Reddy does not exist.”

Somashekhara Reddy, who spoke to Frontline, said that jealousy over his family’s development work in the region motivated “false” allegations of the Reddy brothers using their money to influence the election. “I don’t know why people call us powerful. It is a creation of the media. Our motto is only development and to work for the people,” he said, adding that the family was strong in some 15 to 20 constituencies in Ballari, Davanagere and Chitradurga districts. Another brother, G. Karunakara Reddy, is contesting from Harapanahalli in the neighbouring Davanagere district, while extended family members have been given the party ticket in five other constituencies.

The Reddy brothers

The JD(S) candidate from the Ballari City constituency is Tapal Ganesh, who has waged a consistent battle against the irregularities in the Reddy brothers’ mining activities from 2006 to 2011. He said: “Both the Congress and the BJP have candidates with cases against them relating to illegal mining. Narendra Modi says that he won’t tolerate corruption, but the most corrupt Reddy brothers are supporting the party here. What does Modi have to say about this?”

The Hyderabad-Karnataka region has a significant population of Dalits and Muslims. While Muslims all across the region are certain to vote for the Congress, there may be a split in the Dalit vote. In Karnataka, Dalits are broadly consolidated under the “left hand” and “right hand” caste agglomerations. The relatively more backward left-hand caste agglomeration, comprising the Madigas, is disappointed with the Congress government for not implementing the recommendations of the A.J. Sadashiva Committee, which advocated internal reservation among Dalits to ensure that one sub-caste did not garner all the benefits. Some of the Madiga voters, who have so far been with the Congress, may move to the BJP, it is believed.

Harish Ramaswamy, professor of political science at Karnatak University, Dharwad, said that the Siddaramaiah government had a better image than previous governments: “Siddaramaiah’s welfare schemes have done really well. They have ensured that the rural population gets basic necessities. Distress and seasonal migration from rural areas has also reduced. He has also taken on the BJP in an eyeball-to-eyeball contest and has set the agenda. With his focus on a pro-Kannada image, he has managed to take the lead in cultural politics.” On whether Lingayats will favour the Congress this time around, Ramaswamy said, “The whole move has yet to penetrate the mind of the ordinary Lingayat voter, but it will help the Congress slightly.”

All over northern and coastal Karnataka, there is anger against the BJP among small businessmen because of demonetisation and the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), which may work in favour of the Congress. The Congress has been astute in its selection of candidates and has looked at winnability as the only criterion. This is evident from the fact that it has taken in candidates who are also tainted with illegal mining and people like Ashok Kheny in spite of opposition from local party members. The sense that one gets while travelling through northern Karnataka is that the Congress has a slight edge over the BJP. While the party may lose a few seats in coastal Karnataka this time around with the BJP ramping up its communal agenda, the Congress will make gains in northern Karnataka with a section of the Lingayats voting for it. However, Congress candidates ensure that they do not lay much emphasis on this factor when they are out on the campaign trail.

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