The Karnataka electorate has lived up to its reputation of not re-electing the ruling party. No government has been voted back to office in this southern state since 1985. Although the Siddaramaiah government has not attracted a visible anti-incumbency wave, the voters have denied it a second chance in the Assembly elections 2018. At the same time, the voters have also not chosen the BJP as a clear alternative: With 104 seats, it is short by at least eight seats to secure a simple majority.
The BJP’s previous best performance in Karnataka was 110 seats in 2008 when it formed the first ever government in South India on its own strength. The BJP then rode on a sympathy wave, resulting from the betrayal by its then coalition partner, Janata Dal (S), as the latter declined support to the saffron party as part of a power-sharing arrangement between them. This time, with no strength to draw from its state leadership, the BJP relied solely on the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National President Amit Shah. Despite all that the Modi-Shah duo brought to one of the most-fiercely fought electoral battles, the party could not reach the magic number, nor could it match what it achieved a decade ago before Modi and Shah came to prominence in the party. The results, therefore, reveal the strength of the BJP as much as the limits of its strength in the only southern state in which it has been able to build a base so far.
A shriller message emerging from the results is the limits of welfare politics of the Congress government of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. In an election which lacked an over-arching issue, the BJP cleverly adopted a multi-pronged strategy, wooing different sections and regions with different narratives. The Congress clearly over-estimated the supposed goodwill that its welfare programmes generated among the disadvantaged sections. Such was the faith of the chief minister in the electoral benefits of these programmes that he did not take sufficient care in managing the social coalition, a very important determinant of the electoral outcome in Karnataka, with its complex social diversity. In the end, the Congress has lost what appeared a winnable election because the chief minister, inadvertently or knowingly, alienated the two dominant communities of Karnataka — the Vokkaligas who constitute roughly 11 per cent of the population in the southern parts, and the Lingayats accounting for around 14 per cent of the population in the northern and south-central districts.
To add to this, the BJP orchestrated a campaign in the coastal districts to paint Siddaramaiah as “an enemy of the Hindus” in the aftermath of a series of communal killings in the region. As the Congress did not do enough to counter this, a substantial chunk of Hindu voters cutting across caste-lines turned against the Congress. The party which swept the elections in the coastal region in 2013 suffered a total rout this time.
Siddaramaiah’s support to the Lingayats’ controversial demand for a separate religion tag seems to have backfired. The Lingayats have been rallying around the BJP ever since the disintegration of the undivided Janata Dal in 1999. With the objective of weaning the Lingayats away from the BJP, the chief minister threw his weight behind the long-standing demand of the community to break free from the Hindu religion. The gamble did not pay off. Ordinary Lingayats in rural Karnataka did not understand the philosophical and historical justifications advanced by a small, educated section of the community for their separation from the Hindu fold. Rural Lingayats saw this as an unnecessary political game. The Congress lost heavily in Hyderabad Karnataka and Bombay Karnataka, where Lingayat votes are decisive. Vinay Kulkarni, a prominent minister of the Siddaramaiah cabinet, who spearheaded the movement, himself lost in the Lingayat-dominated Dharwad constituency. Moreover, this issue also provided the BJP with yet another weapon against the Congress to project it as a party bent upon breaking Hindu unity.
In the case of Vokkaligas, it was Siddaramaiah’s running feud with former prime minister and JD(S) supremo H D Deve Gowda that distanced the community from the Congress. During Siddaramaiah’s tenure as chief minister, the differences between the two leaders sharpened and turned the entire Vokkaliga community against Siddaramaiah. To make matters worse, Siddaramaiah got a portrait of Gowda’s adorning the CM’s office removed. This was projected by the JD(S) as an affront to the grand-old Vokkaliga leader. The alleged raw deal received by Vokkaliga bureaucrats in the Congress government, dismissal of cine-actor-turned-Congress leader Ambarish, an icon of the Vokkaliga youth, from the Siddaramaiah ministry, and other such stray developments also contributed to the Vokkaliga grouse against Siddaramaiah.
Sensing a political opportunity, PM Modi publicly referred to the ill-treatment meted out to Gowda by Siddaramaiah, in a bid to alienate Vokkaligas further from the Congress. The political fallout of the Vokkaliga anger is too obvious to miss. The Congress performance plummeted to an all-time low in the Vokkaliga-dominated old Mysore region. In Mandya district, the hotbed of Vokkaliga politics, the Congress could not win even a single seat.
The Congress was banking heavily on the combination of the minorities, OBCs, and SC/STs (known by the Kannada acronym AHINDA), the primary beneficiaries of Sddaramaiah’s welfare governance. Either these groups did not consolidate fully behind the Congress or in the social cauldron that is Karnataka, AHINDA support itself is not enough to win an election.