In Karnataka’s already tightly triangulated (Congress, BJP, and JDS) electoral race, the contestations and counter-contestations between the political parties have become louder and more ambitious. Political manifestos promise a dream list of good governance, and social media representations of political candidates draw on epic and film hero styles, and there is humour, spoof, and vulgarity between political competitors. But it is the speculation, as to who will be first past the post and what political chemistry and algebra of convenience will be drawn on to form a government, that has become the dominant narrative of Karnataka’s assembly elections. Yet, beyond the promises, contestations and speculation lie a vast array of issues and concerns that have been rendered non-issues by both political parties and the society at large.
Although credit must accrue to the Congress for holding out against the constant disruptions that the BJP and its vigilantes have enacted in the state, their own strategies of relying on a plethora of populist welfare programmes (from free rice to dentures for the masses), has spawned grand promulgations of competitive populism in all the parties. In addition, the Congress’s identity affirmations (classic language status for Kannada, a Karnataka flag, a minority religion status for Lingayats), declarations of a “Karnataka model of development” as a challenge to the BJP’s “Gujarat model”, and the proclamation of a “Humanist Hinduism” (against the BJPs’ Hindutva) are not recipes for a regional or national form of democracy that can address myriad economic and social issues.
That the configurations of power in all the political parties continue to be based on an arithmetic of caste-capital and charisma, and defines who gets tickets but defies any expectations of seeking effective and honest candidates, is an indication of the distortions of democracy. The fact that most candidates have vast amounts of wealth, which has increased manifold if they were previously in power, and that all the parties have several “tainted candidates” is an indication of the submission of political organisations to sources of quick and vast funds. That the Reddy brothers of mining infamy can even come into the political foray (if not as candidates) and that people in Bellary do not see illegal mining as rapacious and devastating, are sad commentaries on the mindset of the people. Similarly, a generation of “sons of leaders” are now waiting in the political stacks of all the parties, indicating how leadership continues to be vested in family and caste interests.
While the Congress has sought to draw on Kerala’s decentralised democracy and had initiated state-wide consultations on formulating a “people’s plan” for development (and is now represented in the “New Karnakata 2025 Vision Document”), the institutions of decentralised democracy, especially the panchayats and the nagar palikas, have been neglected. The failure to curb corruption and enhance the performance of bureaucracies is an issue that has not been raised at all and the performance of the key departments of education and health continue to be on a downward curve. The Congress government’s inability to challenge the might of private medical practitioners and its continued support to the privatisation of healthcare defies its very manifesto and declarations of being “pro-people”. Similarly, the proclamations on enhancing educational opportunities are belied by the failure to address the rapid decline of Karnataka’s state universities in which the seats of the vice-chancellors are themselves considered to be auctioned through the political-money nexus.
Concerns that should have been central and which could focus on addressing climate change, decreasing land productivity, loss of agricultural land, extant ecological degradation, water and soil conservation, etc have not been raised or debated. Issues of drought management, which should be a key issue, as the state has the second largest tract of semi-arid lands in the country, have been given short shrift and the promotion of extractive agriculture and mining through the deployment of heavy machinery and technologies continues.
Development and equity have been articulated either in terms of identity politics and the establishment of caste-based “development missions” and departments, especially for a number of backward caste groups, and has led to the growth of new boundaries between caste groups and to creating new tensions among them. Regional imbalance is best captured in the excessive attention that “Brand Bangalore” receives in terms of becoming a global destination for IT, BT and the new “startups”, versus the vast, neglected north-eastern hinterlands that are marked by ecological devastation, low agricultural productivity and high out-migration. The insidious seeping of Hindutva into the cultural lexicon of the people has been enhanced by the competitive religiosity that all the political parties are indulging in. And, only time will tell how the full implications of granting of separate and minority religion status to Lingayats will be played out.
Matching the political parties’ oversight of key economic, ecological and social issues is a range of demands by different organisations that seek to fulfil narrow agendas and interests. The sugarcane farmers’ association seeks loan waivers and high support prices, agriculturists in the Cauvery belt refuse to share water with Tamil Nadu, the dominant castes sulk at the celebration of Tipu Sultan, and the late actor Vishnuvardhan’s fan club threatens to boycott the Congress for failing to allocate land for a memorial to the actor.
Although several civil society organisations and groups of leading writers have come together to review the manifestos of political parties and to raise concerns about democracy, equity, and the well-being of people, their lack of political clout has meant that their inputs and advice have fallen on deaf political ears. Perhaps, the only movement that has raised larger issues is “youth for jobs”, which has now endorsed different candidates across different parties so as to realise its goals of promoting employment generation. The results of Karnataka’s elections may mark the fortunes and historical trajectories of the contending political parties but they may not change the terms, logic, and patterns by which democracy is being articulated.