Taxi drivers and auto-drivers are an outsider’s best friend, so I asked a soft-spoken autowallah at Badami railway station about the direction of the political wind in Karnataka. He turned out to be from the Lingayat caste, and this is what he said: “(Congress chief minister) Siddharamaiah is dividing the society on the basis of caste. First, he is dividing all of us Lingayats between Veerashaiva and Lingayat, which is not good as we Lingayats are all one. Second, his decision to provide eggs only to SC/ST students (an untrue claim) is promoting discrimination among children on caste basis. That is why I will support the BJP”.
Welcome to the mother of all complicated elections in Karnataka. As if it were not enough to gauge the impact of the Narendra Modi government after four years of its rule at the Centre – and upon an Opposition-ruled state – the Congress’ decision to give minority status to the powerful Lingayat caste in Karnataka is believed to be backfiring in many strange ways. Apart from the unhappiness, this has created among other caste groups, even those not opposed to the move remain unsure about the kind of benefits they would get.
Then there is the consolidation of the BJP alliance; remember that factions like the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) had stood separately in 2013, but are part of the right-wing umbrella this time. Does this mean that Lingayats are consolidating in favour of the BJP? Will outgoing chief minister Siddaramaiah’s carefully crafted caste and religious alliance – consisting of Dalits, backward castes and minorities, abbreviated in Kannada to AHINDA – once again bring the Congress back to power? Or will the Deve Gowda-Kumaraswami-led JD(S), with support from the Vokkaliga (the second-largest community in Karnataka), be kingmaker in the state?
The Lingayats are the single largest community in Karnataka (estimated at approximately 15 per cent of the population). They have a major presence in North Karnataka (Hyderabad and Mumbai region) and Central Karnataka regions and can play a decisive role in around 117 seats. Since the early 1990s, Lingayats have been a major vote bank for BJP, causing a higher seat conversion ratio as compared to other parties in Karnataka.
In 2008, BJP won 72 out of 117 seats in the region. In 2013 this number fell to 21 seats – remember that Lingayat leader B S Yeddyurappa had floated a new party, the KJP, which got around 10 per cent of the vote. This caused the BJP to lose 13 per cent of the vote.
This time around, the BJP has ensured that the vote doesn’t split. So much so that it has violated its own unwritten old age convention by naming the 75-year-old Yeddyurappa its chief ministerial candidate. As a result, Siddharamaiah’s decision to grant minority status to Lingayats does not seem to have had much of an electoral impact.
Core Voters base
In Karnataka, all three major parties have their strong core voter bases. Lingayats are core voters for the BJP, the Congress enjoys major support from the Backward, Dalit and Muslim communities (AHINDA), and JD(S) gets heavy support among Vokkaligas. Like the Lingayats, a majority of the Vokkaligas are based in the Old Mysore region, Central Karnataka and Bengaluru.
Unlike the Vokkaliga and the Lingayat, however, the Congress party’s core AHINDA base is spread across the state. This electoral coalition, which has stood the test of time, was first created by the remarkable Congress leader Devaraj Urs after the 1969 split in the Congress party, between the Syndicate-led Congress (O) and the Indira Gandhi-led Congress(R). Many stalwart leaders in the state, like S.Nijalingappa, Veerendra Patil, Ramakrishna Hegde and Deve Gowda, joined the Syndicate, but Devaraj Urs remained with Indira Gandhi. He became chief minister in 1972 and implemented the Land Reforms Act, as a result of which the backward castes and Dalits became major beneficiaries. They showed their appreciation by voting with their hands to give Devaraj Urs an unprecedented second term as chief minister.
In the 2008 election, Siddharamaiah tried to construct the same AHINDA coalition for the Congress party but did not succeed. When he won in 2013, he had learnt his lessons. He initiated many welfare schemes addressing the major concerns of this group. In rural areas, there is the Anna Bhagya (7kg/person free rice), besides a variety of pension and welfare schemes. My auto driver in Badami, despite being critical of Siddharamaiah, marvelled at the pro-poor schemes as well as the government’s efficiency in the delivery of rations on time. The scheme was especially popular during the severe drought in Karnataka, as it ensured at least one square meal of rice, dal and oil for the people, every day.
Complexities of electoral calculation
All this makes the 2018 assembly election very difficult to call. This is because no incumbent government has won consecutive elections since 1985. Second, despite Lingayat support and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attacking campaign, the BJP remains weak in Southern Karnataka (Old Mysore region), the largest region of the state. In the 2008 election, when it won the state, the BJP only won eight of the 51 seats in this region, while in the 2014 parliamentary election, despite a huge wave in support, the BJP could only win seven Assembly seats in the Chamarajanagar, Hassan, Kolar, Mandya, Mysore, Tumkur districts that comprise this parliamentary region. Incredibly, this is just three seats more than what the BJP won in the 2013 assembly election, indicating that the enormous goodwill for Modi in 2014 did not get translated into votes.
Question is, how the Deve Gowda-Kumaraswami-led JD(S) will fare in the coming polls and if it will become the kingmaker in case of a hung Assembly? Is there a secret alliance between the JD(S) and the BJP, despite Modi’s public criticism of the former prime minister, and will that secret understanding be enough to pull them both through?
The stakes have never been higher. Prime Minister Modi is pulling out the stops like never before, while Congress president Rahul Gandhi has now said that he will stake his claim to the prime ministership in 2019. If the Congress keeps Karnataka, it will be a huge boost to the party’s flagging fortunes as well as to Rahul Gandhi’s personal credibility. If the BJP wins, it would have demonstrated the party’s unstoppable machine.