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Pieces of a scattered mandate

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There is a change in the electoral cartography of Karnataka, also highlighting the potential for alliances

By: Valerian Rodrigues

There are some trends that stand out in Karnataka’s 2018 Assembly elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has held on to the Central Karnataka region and the coastal and Malnad belt. In the Bombay-Karnataka region, while the BJP has held on to its existing advantage, in the Lingayat region of central North Karnataka, it has conceded much more space to the Congress as compared to the 2013 Assembly elections or the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

However, the BJP has made significant advances in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, except Ballari. Moreover, it has emerged as the rival to the Janata Dal (Secular), or the JD(S), in the southern belt dominated by Vokkaligas, replacing the Congress, although in Mysuru and Chamarajanagar the latter is still holding out. In Bengaluru city the BJP and the Congress are almost equipoised. In the North Bombay-Karnataka region, hitherto dominated by the BJP, the Congress has made significant inroads.

It is important to note that in Ballari district, dominated by the mining barons, the Congress has succeeded in whittling down the hold of the BJP-linked Reddy brothers. While the JD(S) is sitting pretty in the Old Mysuru region, except Malnad, it has made significant gains in Hyderabad-Karnataka and in some parts of the North Bombay-Karnataka region. While one can always draw parallels to the 2013 Assembly elections and 2014 Lok Sabha elections, what is important to note is the significant shift in the electoral cartography that this election signals.

Shift in the electoral base

There has been a shift in the JD(S)’s electoral constituencies, and the support extended by Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as an ally, and by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen publicly has been crucial in some constituencies. In Hyderabad-Karnataka, where the BSP always enjoyed a base, it also rallied Muslims towards the JD(S). The memory of the recent Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha by-elections, where the Samajwadi Party and BSP set up an alliance to inflict a stunning defeat to the BJP, was too fresh to be ignored. It is important to point out that Madigas, the most numerous Dalit community in this region and who form the main base of the BSP, have nursed a grievance that major benefits of reservation have accrued to Holeyas, and the Congress has tended to give relatively fewer seats to them. Besides, there is not even a single influential Muslim leader from this region in the State Congress today, particularly after the passing away of Qamarul Islam.

Two measures that the outgoing Chief Minister, Mr. Siddaramaiah, embraced, although much criticised, made the loss bearable to the Congress. The first was to undercut the dominant mining barons in Ballari. Otherwise, it was quite possible that the Congress would have suffered a great loss of face in this district.

The second issue was the recommendation of the Siddaramaiah cabinet to accord to Lingayats a distinct religious minority status. The inroads that the Congress has made in the Bombay-Karnataka region cannot be explained without significant sections of Lingayats shifting their loyalties to the Congress. The BJP may face the prospects of a declining social base in Northern and Central Karnataka if it does not respond to this recommendation. The genie is out of the bag!

The BJP has truly consolidated its power in the State, but the reasons vary across regions. In the coastal belt it has been strident Hindutva mobilisation alongside a new alliance between land-holding sections and business interests. In the Bombay-Karnataka and Malnad regions, it is a complex set of factors alongside Hindutva: self-conceit among Lingayats, that they be regarded as the first in the order of priority, and identification with B.S. Yeddyurappa as their salvific agent. Lingayats as well as Vokkaligas have smarted under the assertion of lower castes on Mr. Siddaramaiah’s watch. Further, the split along the Lingayat-Veerashaiva axis came too late, without attending to their other grievances. Like Lingayats in the North, in the Old Mysuru region, Vokkaligas were smarting under the assertion of Kurubas, Mr. Siddaramaiah’s caste.

What about the Narendra Modi factor? While this and BJP president Amit Shah’s organisational finesse were important, it was only relative to some of the important cleavages and trends mentioned above.

The Congress’s takeaway

The Congress is still to come to terms with Hindutva as a mass ideology, particularly with extensive support among the young across the caste divide. This ideology is sustained through regular public enactments and demonstrations of communal solidarities. The Congress, believing that secularism is too weak to combat Hindutva’s attraction, decided to play popular Hinduism with an inclusive appeal.

But popular Hinduism in Karnataka today is largely in the grip of Hindutva, and therefore the Congress gesture sounded inauthentic, as there is no major battle that the Congress has fought so far to retrieve a distinct version of Hindutva. The time has come for the Congress to ask whether a different Hinduism, or for that matter Islam or Christianity, can speak?

The Congress thought that the track record of the Siddaramaiah regime with lower caste concerns upfront and a large number of populist measures, combined with a sustained attack on Modi government, could be an adequate plank. It was not explained why it had centred on these populist measures and not others, and why for measures targeted at a section of the population others should vote for the party.

Even within the caste bloc that Mr. Siddaramaiah came to wield, there was much restiveness with regard to opportunities and resources, and it came to be dubbed as a pro-Kuruba bloc not merely by the upper castes, but by castes and communities below in the social hierarchy.

There was little enthusiasm within the Congress leadership in the State with regard to certain measures that Mr. Siddaramaiah embraced. Dalit and Vokkaliga Congress leaders in the State showed little interest in the Lingayat issue, and none of them brought the issue of sub-categories within Dalits or the marginalisation of Muslims in the State to the fore. Eventually, the proverbial Congressman was interested in his safe niche.

Several charges made against the Siddaramaiah regime, both by the BJP and the JD(S), stuck a popular chord, such as corruption and institutional disarray. Often Mr. Siddaramaiah was found alone batting against such charges.

One wonders why the Congress did not forge an alliance in Karnataka with the BSP or even the JD(S). There was everything going for it, particularly in view of the 2019 elections. Mr. Siddaramaiah, of course, had a personal axe to grind with the JD(S) leadership. While he has deep roots and a mass base in the State, it was important to supplement charisma with political prudence.

On the ground

There is one consequence of this election which probably none of the contenders had expected, or sought. Suddenly the boundaries of the State have become expansive and stretch to its northernmost and north-westernmost ends, with Mr. Siddaramaiah invoking the rich legacies of Pulakeshin II in Badami, Sonia Gandhi addressing a political twilight speech in Vijayapura, and Mr. Modi, Mr. Shah and Congress president Rahul Gandhi making repeated sorties to this region. Hitherto, much of the politics in the State was concentrated in the centre and the south of its territorial expanse. It is in North Karnataka that most of the problems of poverty, underdevelopment and distress migration lie, as well as resources to reimagine the deep plural legacies of the region as a whole.

Courtesy The Hindu

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