Prabhu Mallikarjunan analyses the pre poll scenario in Karnataka in this incisive article and comes to the conclusion it is a battle of ideologies – Ahinda vs Hindutva
In May 2013, the Indian National Congress decisively defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party that had tasted power in South India for the first time in the previous election. Apart from the anti-incumbency factor and corruption allegations against then BJP Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa, what worked for INC was the consolidation of the Ahinda (Alpasankhyatavaru Hindulidavaru mattu Dalitaru - Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) votes under the leadership of Siddaramaiah.
Five years since, the political plot has evolved much across the country. The BJP has gone from ruling four states in 2013 to holding power in 21 states now. The “Modi wave” and strategic partnerships forged with regional parties has helped it come to power in many states.
But this time around, as Karnataka gets ready for elections to 224 assembly constituencies, the poll would be a high stake race for the big three in the state - the ruling Congress, the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular).
The Congress, which has been losing state after state to the BJP, is banking on the stable and relatively corruption-free governance delivered by Siddaramaiah’s Cabinet. The national party losing its hold on states expects Karnataka results to yield a favourable tide in form of a possible anti-BJP front for the Lok Sabha polls in 2019.
On the other hand, banking on the Hindutva vote consolidation, the BJP’s campaign is largely about boasting of its achievements at the national level. But that alone will not help the parties regain power this time. And that has led both the Congress and the BJP to enter each other’s political stronghold and make a dent in their traditional vote bank. Clearly, breaking the caste monopoly of each other is critical to their political agenda.
Moving beyond its Ahinda image, the INC is trying to woo the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas. And the BJP, which is strong with its Hindutva politics, is evidently targeting the Vokkaliga community and other backward castes, as reflected in the political strategies of both parties over last few months.
According to the leaked Census reports, the Lingayats and Vokkaligas constitute 8% and 10%, respectively, of the total electorate in the state, and Dalit and OBCs constitute 24% and 7.3%, respectively. Muslims are the second largest religious group after Hindus.
Political analyst and professor at Mysuru University Muzaffar Azadi says though the Congress party’s voter base are Ahinda, they now want to pocket Lingayat and Vokkaliga votes as well.
“It’s going to be ‘Ahinda plus’ this time. Symbolically, they have been trying to reach out to Lingayats by renaming Karnataka State Women’s University as Akkamahadevi Women’s University, ordering that all government offices be adorned with social reformer Basavanna’s portrait, and courting controversy regarding the Lingayat Dharma. Azadi says that minister D K Shivakumar was made chief of Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) and the party’s campaign committee only to woo the Vokkaliga vote bank.
About the BJP’s moves, Azadi says they are harping on communal issues by sleeping in the localities populated by Dalits and are targeting Vokkaligas by raising farming issues in the state.
“For the BJP, Hindutva will work only in the coastal belt. It’s not a phenomenon across Karnataka. Hindutva has never been a decisive factor in Karnataka because BJP’s votes have had certain personal and economic motivations,” he adds.
Evidently, trends establish that the contest will be between the Congress and BJP in north and coastal Karnataka, and Congress vs JD (S) in South Karnataka.
Vokkaligas in the South
The Congress-JD (S) tussle in South Karnataka could turn out to be an interesting contest with Siddaramaiah himself being a former JD(S) leader. The CM, who hails from the Kuruba community, a backward caste, broke with the JD(S) and joined the Congress as the father and son duo - Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy - aligned with the BJP in 2006, going against the party’s ideology. Siddaramaiah rose to prominence in the party over the years and launched the Ahinda movement in the state with a hope to teach Gowda a lesson.
For the Congress, the Supreme Court verdict on the Cauvery issue, a good monsoon and farm loan waivers announced by the incumbent government have acted in favour of the party, leaving not much left to claim for other two contenders.
Among the BJP’s smart moves has been roping in former chief minister S M Krishna, a Vokkaliga leader, into its camp. The buzz is that BJP may field Krishna’s daughter Shambhavi Umesh from Maddur constituency, a JD(S) stronghold.
“Fielding S M Krishna’s daughter might not have much of an impact. People will go for a party which is strong, and secondly, Krishna lost his image the moment he joined the BJP,” Chalavady Ramaswamy, KPCC general secretary says.
Hindutva politics in the Coast
Coastal Karnataka is the stronghold of BJP with all the three MPs from the region in their camp. But, the party won only two assembly seats of the total 13 in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi in 2013, as compared to eight seats in 2008. However, heavy polarisation keeps the party active in the region.
BJP is campaigning hard against the alleged killing of its karyakartas in the coastal region. The death of a Hindu activist, Paresh Mesta, last year has become the rallying point for the party’s election campaign.
“In the coastal region, many of our karyakartas have been killed and Muslim organisations are being backed by Congress. Hindutva agenda will be on the forefront in the coastal area. Also, PM Narendra Modi is doing a lot of development and we are going to take it forward,” says state BJP vice-president M Nagaraj.
He adds, “The recent attack on Lokayukta justice Vishwanath Shetty shows the absolute lawlessness in the state. People are feeling insecure and we will campaign for better administration.”
The Lingayat battle in the North
Earlier in March, a seven member expert committee recommended the Karnataka government to consider the plea of Lingayat Community seeking minority status. It is likely that the ruling Congress government will consider the report with a hope to divide the Lingayat vote bank — traditionally enjoyed by the BJP — in its favour.
“It is not that the Congress was favouring only Ahinda candidates. Over the years, we have had many CMs from Lingayat community, Brahmins, Vokkaliga and Backward Class. BJP has used them as vote bank in the last election, and hence people will turn to us now,” says Ramaswamy.
To counter such a shift, the BJP has been strengthening its roots in North Karnataka by engaging party workers at the booth level. BJP national president Amit Shah was quick to recognise this. In a rally last month, he urged that Nava Shakti workers (nine workers from each booth) should consider this action plan their ‘Bhagavad Gita’.
“We have more than 7 lakh workers across the state. They are working at the booth level. We are conducting Navashakti Samavesh, in which there is at least one woman, one SC/ST worker, one OBC and also a member from the minority community. We are trying to be socially inclusive,” BJP’s Nagaraj says.
OBC and Minority divide
While BJP at national level is trying hard to give constitutional status to OBCs, Congress has not been supportive in the Rajya Sabha. State BJP leadership is quick to remark that CM Siddaramaiah calls himself a messiah of Ahinda, but is not supporting the bill in favour of OBC.
Meanwhile, the Muslims, who have traditionally backed the Congress, may continue to support the party.
Psephologist Sandeep Shastry believes the Congress must recognise the fact that Muslim votes should not disperse among smaller parties representing the community. “Congress needs to put up credible Muslim faces. The BJP, on the other hand, has never focussed on the minority community. That is where the core Hindutva agenda becomes important for them,” says Shastry.
Like in UP, the BJP might not field any Muslim candidate this time to carry on with its Hindutva agenda.
As Shastry notes, the 2018 Karnataka election is of two alternative narratives — one that of the BJP national leadership guided by Modi and Amit Shah — the other being Siddaramaiah’s stress on state level schemes that worked for the people.
(Prabhu Mallikarjunan is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)