Despite the high stakes in Karnataka for both Congress and BJP, the election debate has been noisy and substance-free.
As Karnataka prepares to go to the polls on Thursday, the campaign has been largely ill-tempered and substance-free. Tears have flowed freely, and so has political mudslinging. The lowest moment was when KPCC president G. Parameshwara taunted H.D. Deve Gowda by saying he was waiting for the former prime minister to consume poison, as the latter had threatened to do if the JD(S) lost the assembly elections. Parameshwara quickly retracted his comment. The funniest instance was when JD(S) opponents, concerned by Deve Gowda and H.D. Kumaraswamy’s ability to shed tears copiously, considered asking the Election Commission to declare shedding tears while canvassing an election code violation. As always, charges of corruption and communalism have been levied against all.
Still, for all the noise, it has also been a substance-free campaign. True, Kannada television channels have organised debates between candidates or their surrogates, carried out constituency profiles and discussions on development. Most candidates have also released individual manifestos for their respective constituencies. The print media hasn’t lagged behind. Vijaya Karnataka, the leading Kannada daily, offered an agenda for each Lok Sabha constituency, and then made leading candidates from nine constituencies ask and respond to five questions from each other.
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Much ink has also been spilled on how MPs, and particularly ministers from Karnataka, historically haven’t been vocal advocates of the state’s interests. It is true that Karnataka hasn’t produced outstanding parliamentarians, in the Madhu Limaye or Indrajit Gupta model. Nor has Karnataka generated strong leaders, who, as Central ministers, exert greater influence and bring disproportionate Central resources to the state. Kannada activists and media have been harking on the alleged pliancy of the state’s politicians, holding up Mamata Banerjee or J. Jayalalithaa as more appropriate models to emulate. JD(S) supremo and former PM Deve Gowda justifies the political relevance of his party exactly on this issue, arguing that only an “extortionist” regional party could protect the state’s interests. But this discussion has not made it to the actual campaigning. The star campaigners, be it Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi, have stuck to political muckraking. State leaders have been mostly ill-tempered, attacking each other and anyone who dares to take part in the political discourse.
Karnataka is a critical, battleground state for both the BJP and Congress, a fact that has led both Modi and Rahul Gandhi to visit repeatedly. Modi has been a more aggressive campaigner, and if there is a slight edge for the BJP, it is quite possibly because of the Modi factor. The party has bet on Modi to paper over differences within, especially over the return of B.S. Yeddyurappa and B. Sriramulu, and to energise the BJP voter, who too needed to be enthused after five years of dissidence, political bickering and corruption scandals, which haunted the BJP in Karnataka. Yeddyurappa’s re-entry has been largely quiet, as other leaders aren’t willing to defer to him any more. Consumed by his own electoral battle in Shimoga with Geetha Shivarajkumar, daughter of S. Bangarappa, Yeddyurappa hasn’t been the star campaigner of the past.
After its electoral debacles in the north Indian states last year, the Congress too expected Karnataka to contribute a substantial number of MPs. When it wrested two JD(S) seats in by-elections seven months ago, the party seemed to be in pole position. Siddaramaiah’s government has been functioning since May 2013 with one eye on the Lok Sabha polls. Its small populist measures and competent administration are in contrast to what was needed — bold and imaginative measures, which would have enabled Siddaramaiah to emerge as a national figure and speak of a Karnataka model of development. Perhaps, given the high command culture of the Congress, that’s an impossibility. But it was a necessity, nevertheless, to counter Modi in Karnataka as well as the BJP’s social coalition, reconstituted once Yeddyurappa and Sriramulu returned. Now, Siddaramaiah may have to perform creditably and win at least half the seats in order to ward off potential challengers to his leadership.
The JD(S) hopes to retain its regional base in southern Karnataka, whereas the Aam Aadmi Party, which could have injected substance and energy to Karnataka politics, finds itself spread too thin without enough volunteers or monetary resources.
The writer teaches at Karnataka State Open University