Assembly Elections: Karnataka

Pulling out all the stops

Print edition : May 25, 2018

Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, BSP Supremo Mayawati and JD (S) State president H.D. Kumaraswamy at a rally in Mysuru on April 25. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

Caste, money and muscle power. These factors play a major role in the choice of candidates by the three main political parties in arguably the most tightly fought elections in Karnataka in recent history.

Politicians and political parties are pulling out all the stops as the acrimonious campaign for the May 12 elections to the 224-seat Karnataka Legislative Assembly gets into its final and determining phase. The results will be declared on May 15.

Nothing is inconvenient or beyond trying, and strategies, some staid and tested, many at variance and dramatically opposed to what the candidate’s party stands for, are being employed as the contestants woo voters with words, songs, speeches peppered with nasty comments against their opponents, tweets and, of course, a range of freebies—nose rings, food processors, sarees, puja articles, pressure cookers, and even a kilogram or two of chicken and sugar. As Uday Garudachar, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate for Chickpet constituency in Bengaluru district, explained: “There is a party strategy and a personal strategy.”

But with numerous opportunities to vote—in zilla panchayat, gram panchayat, corporation council, cooperative body and Assembly and parliamentary elections—voters are smart too. For example, many women may swear allegiance to a candidate in front of a deity, but they quickly donate a 100-rupee note in the same temple, ask forgiveness for “tappu kanige” (wrong vow), and go about their lives. Some smart families operate as a team: if there are five votes in the family, freebies are collected from all parties and oaths taken too. The family’s votes are then divided among the parties, and life goes on. In a tiny, poverty-stricken hamlet near Saragurmule town around 80 km from Chamarajanagara, the village headman is clear on what his needs are: “Any party that gives Rs.25,000 a family will get our votes.”

The May 2018 Karnataka Assembly elections have turned out to be, unarguably, the most closely fought, the most acrimonious and vicious, and the most crucial, since 1985 when Rajiv Gandhi, who had led the Congress to a landslide win in the parliamentary elections a year earlier, was checkmated in Karnataka by the Janata Party led by Ramakrishna Hegde. The three main political parties in the fray—the Congress, the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular), or the JD(S)—have in their single-minded quest for winnability fielded candidates who have served time behind bars. With no palpable wave of anti-incumbency against the Siddaramaiah government, grandstanding, nastiness and personal attacks against opponents have been rampant. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a speech at Santhemarahalli in Chamarajanagara district, claimed that Chief Minister Siddaramaiah was always found sleeping in public and challenged Congress president Rahul Gandhi to make a 15-minute impromptu speech in Hindi, English or his mother’s mother tongue on the Siddaramaiah government’s achievements. Siddaramaiah, who is by far the Congress’ biggest weapon and has repeatedly mocked Modi’s “Mann ki Baat” radio programme making it sound more like “monki baath”, also promptly challenged Modi to talk for 15 minutes on the achievements of the BJP government of the State led by B.S. Yeddyurappa.

In speeches at Gonikoppal and Periyapatna, Siddaramaiah drew attention to the significant number of BJP candidates, including the chief ministerial candidate Yeddyurappa, who were in the category of “jailu-bailu”.

In constituency after constituency, it is evident that only candidates who either possess or have access to crores of liquid cash and are ready to spend it have been chosen by the main political parties.

A senior politician who recently switched political parties confided to Frontline that he was asked by the president of the party he was joining to first “donate” Rs.25 crore to the party’s election kitty before he could be let in. He was also asked if he could rustle up a further Rs.25 crore for his own election-related expenses. Tales such as this are more the rule than the exception. The possibility of articulate, honest and loyal party workers who do not have the financial wherewithal being given the ticket is laughed away. A candidate in Bengaluru, according to one of his close aides, is ready with one lakh envelopes, each to be stuffed with two Rs.2,000 notes. The arithmetic is mind-boggling. Of course, the candidate must also be of the right caste and must have enough muscle power at his command.

Money is paid either directly to voters or through women’s associations, heads and managing committee members of the hundreds of religious bodies, slumlords and maxi cab operators. Sitaram Gundappa, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate for the Basvanagudi constituency, said: “I have seen pressure cookers and mixer grinders being distributed by members of a political party. When I complained to the Election Commission, I was asked if I knew where the items had been stocked!”

In Bengaluru, a Congress candidate whose nomination was delayed until the very end, always does a post-mortem once the results are out. Armed with the voting pattern of every booth in his constituency, the two-time legislator hands out money depending on how the votes have stacked up for him booth-wise. A bonanza for booth in-charges who have garnered the votes for him, a scowl, a sneer and no cash for those who have failed to bring in the votes.

Opinion polls and ground reports have suggested that no party will get a clear majority, prompting the main parties to consider alternative strategies. A key BJP functionary in Chikamagalur disclosed to this correspondent that the party leadership was “already aware of the ground reality and is putting into place a strategy that will be implemented in the event of a hung Assembly”.

On May 1, the very first day of his whistle-stop campaign tour, Modi praised JD(S) national president and former Prime Minster H.D. Deve Gowda out of the blue. It was widely seen as an overture to the regional outfit. The BJP, in fact, has fielded weak candidates in constituencies where its chances of winning are slim, presumably in the hope of consolidating anti-Congress votes in favour of the JD(S). The move has annoyed the Congress, and Rahul Gandhi even dubbed the JD(S) as the BJP’s “B” team. At the moment, the JD(S) is a lesser evil than the Congress for the BJP.

But the moot question is whether the JD(S), which has been out of power ever since Deve Gowda’s son, H.D. Kumaraswamy, resigned as Chief Minister at the end of a 20-month-long JD(S)-BJP government in 2008, will be able to retain its political base, keep its flock together, and capture between 30 and 40 seats to be the kingmaker in the event of a hung Assembly. Just two months ago, seven of its legislators—B.Z. Zameer Ahmed Khan (Chamarajpet), N. Cheluvarayaswamy (Nagamangala), Akhanda Srinivasa Murthy R. (Pulakeshinagar), H.C. Balakrishna (Magadi), Bhima Naik (Hagaribommanahalli), Ramesh Bandisidde Gowda (Srirangapatna), and Iqbal Ansari (Gangavati)—joined the Congress. The Congress has nominated all seven in the elections.

Vokkaliga country

The Congress and the BJP have carved out geographical pockets that are politically favourable to them and in most places are locked in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations. In the southern districts of the State, the “old Mysore region”, however, the JD(S) and not the BJP is the Congress’ chief rival. Consisting of a geographical area that corresponds almost exactly to that of the erstwhile princely state of Mysore, this unofficial region comprises the districts of Bengaluru (both urban and rural), Mysuru, Mandya, Hassan, Chamarajnagar, Ramanagaram, Kolar, Tumakuru, Chikkaballapur, Kodagu and Chikamaglur.

The BJP’s presence is largely restricted to the urban pockets of Bengaluru and Mysuru, though it also has a marginal presence in Chikamagalur, Kolar and Tumakuru. This is the land where the Vokkaligas—the politically, socially and economically dominant community that makes up around 12 to 13 per cent of the State’s population—rule the roost. The party that is seen as the closest to their hearts is the JD(S). With 62 seats in the region, excluding the 32 Assembly constituencies from Bengaluru Urban and Rural districts, no party can afford to antagonise the Vokkaligas.

This is the region where the JD(S), mockingly called the “father and son party”, hopes to win most of its seats. Of the 40 seats that it won in the 2013 Assembly elections, 14 came from the Vokkaliga-dominated districts of Mysuru, Mandya, Hassan and Ramanagaram. This time, too, the JD(S) is putting up a formidable fight, fighting as it is for its survival as a relevant regional party. It has tied up with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and has fielded many party-hoppers who have crossed over from the Congress and the BJP after they were denied nominations.

Siddaramaiah’s stronghold of Mysuru district, a region where his backward Kuruba community is a force to reckon with, next only to the Vokkaligas, is also part of the old Mysore region. Over the past five years of his rule, Siddaramaiah has been consistently criticised as being “casteist” in bureaucratic postings, going all out to favour officials of his community, tweaking changes to the reservation matrix and parachuting through official nominations members from the Kuruba community on to the boards of cooperative societies, agricultural produce marketing committees, taluk and zilla panchayats, primary land development banks and district cooperative banks, and as being blatantly anti-Vokkaliga and anti-upper caste. Siddaramaiah’s own statement that he wanted to end the political hegemony of his one-time mentor, Deve Gowda, who is still the most revered and tallest leader of the Vokkaligas, has certainly not endeared him to the community, and his detractors are using this to consolidate the forces ranged against him.

The Vokkaligas have traditionally split their loyalties—albeit not equally—between the Congress and the JD(S). But according to political pundits and voices on the ground, in many of the Vokkaliga-dominated constituencies there appears to be a consolidation of Vokkaliga votes against the Congress. This apparently new phenomenon could spell disaster not just to the Congress but also personally to Siddaramaiah, who is contesting from his old Assembly constituency of Chamundeshwari (Mysuru district), where he has won five times and lost twice.

The last time Siddaramaiah contested from Chamundeshwari was in a 2006 byelection, after he fell out with Deve Gowda, resigned the seat that he had won on the JD(S) ticket and joined the Congress. He won by a margin of 267 votes in a highly acrimonious battle. In 2008 and 2013, he opted out to contest successfully from the neighbouring Varuna constituency, which has a sizeable Kuruba population. His son, Yathindra, is now making his electoral debut from there.

When this correspondent visited the Chamundeshwari Assembly constituency, it was all too evident that though G.T. Deve Gowda, the veteran Vokkaliga leader, was the JD(S) candidate, it was basically a high-voltage personality clash between Siddaramaiah and Kumaraswamy, each predicting that this would be the other’s Waterloo. With the BJP a non-actor in the constituency, the Congress and the JD(S) have left no stone unturned as they try to consolidate the nearly 85,000 Vokkaliga votes in a constituency with 2.89 lakh voters.

Siddaramaiah has in recent weeks made attempts to pacify the Vokkaligas by meeting community leaders and describing himself as a “humanist”, rather than a “casteist”. But the delimitation exercise of 2008, which led to a sizeable chunk of Kurubas and Dalits ending up in neighbouring Varuna, making Chamundeshwari a predominantly Vokkaliga constituency, could negatively impact his chances. Siddaramaiah, who is hoping that his emotional call of this being his “last election” will sway voters and is banking on support from Dalits and minorities, is not, however, taking any chances. He has opted to contest also from a “safe” second seat, in Bagalkot’s Badami constituency, which has a sizeable Kuruba population.

Chamundeshwari is by no means the only seat on Vokkaliga turf that is witnessing a spillover of the Siddaramaiah-Kumaraswamy feud. Cheluvarayaswamy, the Congress’ new face in Nagamangala (Mandya district), who was a protege of the Deve Gowda family, switched to the Congress in 2016. Kumaraswamy and Deve Gowda, who did not take the switch lightly, have vowed to defeat him. The Congress has not been able to enlist the services of Mandya’s famed son, the rebel cine star Ambarish, who opted out of the contest and the campaign for health reasons. Driving into the constituency, it is obvious that a consolidation of the dominant Vokkaliga votes (98,000 in an electorate of 2.03 lakhs) will decide the fate of the candidates. Chamarajpet in Bengaluru Urban is another seat that Kumaraswamy will like to wrest from his one-time comrade-in-arms Zameer Ahmed Khan, who left to join the Congress.

The BJP has of late almost reconciled to playing a secondary role in the old Mysore region. But in the months running up to the elections, it did attempt to brazen it out. It even got on board S.M. Krishna, the veteran Congress leader and former Chief Minister, who joined the party just ahead of the 2017 byelections to the Nanjangud and Gundlupet Assembly seats. But Krishna, seen as a tall leader by the Vokkaligas with a strong presence in his home town Maddur and the district of Mandya, has not made any perceptible difference to the saffron party.

However, C.P. Yogeshwar, a maverick Vokkaliga leader from Channapatna who has switched parties numerous times and is now with the BJP, might win a seat for the party. Talking to Frontline, he said that he was confident of vanquishing Kumaraswamy in the Channapatna seat. This was why, he claimed, Kumaraswamy had decided to contest from the neighbouring Ramanagaram constituency also.

In Bengaluru, the BJP and the Congress are the chief players. In 2013, the BJP found itself losing 70 seats from its 2008 tally, but in Bengaluru its tally went down by just five. While the Congress won 13 seats, the BJP cornered 12. The JD(S) won the remaining three, but two of its legislators have now crossed over to the Congress. Things do not look very different this time around. The fact that there are two six-term, one five-term, four four-term, three three-term and 11 two-term legislators only goes to show how the same men keep getting elected. For the record just one woman legislator (Shobha Karandlaje of the BJP) has been elected from Bengaluru during the last decade.

In the western part of the old Mysore region, the rivalry in seats like Sringeri and Chikamagalur is between the Congress and the BJP. C.T. Ravi, the BJP’s Chikamagalur legislator, is clear about his campaigning. He has identified 7,000-odd grass-roots BJP workers. Each is designated as a “page pramukh” and given the responsibility of “talking” to the six or seven families (30 potential voters) listed on a particular page of the electoral rolls and bringing them to vote. Details like the voter’s age, sex, electoral photo ID card number, mobile number, caste and political affiliation are all on the page. The page pramukh must identify the voters and “remind and convince” them about the “political trend” wherever possible, in temples, liquor shops, at the market, in the street, or in their homes. The booth that gets the most votes for the party will be rewarded Rs.5 lakh, the second best Rs.3 lakh and the third Rs.1.5 lakh. Says Ravi: “We are a cadre-based party and that is why this system works for us. The Congress and the JD(S) cannot replicate it since they have neither the culture nor the cadre.”

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