It’s the only state the BJP has ever won in the south. It’s the only big state the Congress is in power now. But that’s not the only reason Karnataka 2018 will set the stage for India 2019. This high-stakes, high-decibel battle is being fought between two evenly matched sides, neither short of ambition, neither shy of playing to sentiments. As the BJP sweeps the map of the country, it’s been a while that the Congress has shown stomach for such a fight. As Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who is leading the Congress charge, calls it a “battle between secularism and communalism”, while pushing for a new religion in the run-up to it, could the state polls set the template for the elections to follow?
Clearly, both the parties see the Karnataka elections for what they are. Addressing the BJP media unit a couple of months ago, the party national general secretary in-charge of Karnataka, P Muralidhar Rao, said, “After the 2014 parliament elections, we have not lost any elections in any state to the Congress party. The Congress has not won any state where they have been in power since 2014.” Speaking at the Congress plenary session in New Delhi on March 17, Siddaramaiah declared, “We are all aware the country is looking at Karnataka. This is a going to be a battle between secularism and communalism… It will be a stepping stone for the parliamentary elections in 2019.”
While the Election Commission announced the election dates only on March 27 — voting on May 12, counting on May 15 — Karnataka has been in election mode for over three months now.
In four rounds of visits through February and March, Congress national president Rahul Gandhi accompanied by Siddaramaiah and a pantheon of leaders has visited most of the state — ‘Hyderabad’ Karnataka (40 seats); ‘Bombay’ Karnataka (50 seats); coastal Karnataka (19 seats); and the old Mysore area (65 seats).
The highlight of these visits has been stopovers at temples and religious mutts, as part of recent Congress efforts to portray itself as a party that believes in a “humanistic” form of Hinduism, as opposed to the BJP’s “communal” one.
BJP national president Amit Shah and the party’s CM candidate B S Yeddyurappa have visited all the areas visited by Rahul and Siddaramaiah, plus the central Karnataka region (22 seats) and Bengaluru city (28 seats). The highlight of their visits has been stopovers at homes of members of Hindu groups killed under various circumstances. Each of these murders has been projected as the failure of law and order under Congress rule and evidence of the latter’s “anti-Hindu” nature. Besides, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attended rallies in Bengaluru, Mysore, Davangere and Dakshina Kannada.
From November 2017 to January 2018, Yeddyurappa was on a 75-day ‘Parivartan Yatra’, which covered all the 224 Assembly constituencies. He spoke of “doubling farmer incomes” and protecting their livelihood, as well as water and power supply to villages.
The BJP’s CM face as well as state party leaders have also stayed at slums in cities, like Bengaluru and Mysuru, to win the support of the urban poor who are seen to be allied with the Congress on account of Siddaramaiah’s measures like the Indira Canteens offering low-price meals. This move backfired to an extent after allegations that leaders had special amenities like western toilets installed at some homes prior to the visit.
What makes both sides confident though is simple vote arithmetic.
The BJP is going into the Karnataka polls on the back of its best ever electoral performance in the state. Amidst the Modi wave in the 2014 parliamentary elections, it cornered 43.37 per cent of the vote share and won 17 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats. In terms of Assembly seats, the BJP’s 2014 performance translates into 132 constituencies, way past the 113 magic figure in the 224-member Karnataka House.
The 43.37 per cent figure was also much more than the 33.86 per cent votes the party won in 2008, when it bagged 110 seats to form the first BJP government in south India, with the support of Independents. It was also more than the BJP’s 41.63 per cent votes in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, when it won 19 seats.
The Congress counts on the fact that it has never won less than 35 per cent of the votes in the state, in Lok Sabha or Vidhan Sabha. The only exception was the 1994 Assembly polls, when it was beaten by the Janata Dal, which got the support of a cross-section of communities, while the BJP took away a chunk of votes too in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition (the Congress got just 26.95 per cent votes then, and 34 seats).
Even in 2014, the Congress, which had been in power in Karnataka for a year by that time, managed to win 41.15 per cent of the votes and nine parliament seats. That put it only marginally behind the BJP despite the Modi wave.In the 2008 Assembly elections that the BJP won, the Congress actually polled more votes (34.76 per cent) than the BJP (33.86 per cent). In 2013, when it returned to power in the state, the Congress got 36.59 per cent of the votes, and won 122 seats.
This consistent Congress support base comes from backward castes, Scheduled Castes and minorities. But the party has traditionally believed that to win an Assembly election in Karnataka, it needs the support of either of the dominant communities Lingayats or Vokkaligas, on top of its own consistent vote base of around 35 percent.
Traditional Congress supporters, the Lingayats, who at 17 per cent of the population form the single largest community in Karnataka and are relevant in 100 of the state’s 224 seats, began moving away from the party after then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi abruptly sacked Veerendra Patil, a Lingayat, as CM in 1990. In the 1994 state polls that followed, the Congress had its worst performance to date, with the Janata Dal winning (with 34.02 per cent votes, 115 seats).
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A share of the Lingayat vote base also went to the BJP that year. With 17.05 per cent of the votes and its highest ever tally of 40 seats, it emerged as the chief opposition party ahead of the Congress.
After that, the BJP rose steadily till 2013, when again the Lingayat vote proved decisive. The BJP was dealt a blow after Yeddyurappa, a prominent Lingayat leader, left the party to form the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP). Yeddyurappa felt slighted after he was forced to quit as CM by the BJP over corruption charges. In the 2013 polls, the KJP won only 9.79 per cent votes, but this was enough to sink the BJP.
In the Bombay Karnataka region, which is the Lingayat heartland, the Congress won 33 of the 50 seats in 2013, as the BJP plummeted from 31 in 2008 to 13.
It is this that explains the March 19 recommendation of the Siddaramaiah government for a separate religion status for the Lingayats, whose sub-sects include various Scheduled Castes. Admitting the Congress play for the Lingayat vote, a sitting party MLA and the son of a former CM says, “The problem is that the Vokkaligas are now allied with the JD(S) and the Lingayats with the BJP.”
Among the first things the Modi-Shah combine had done on getting control of the BJP in 2014 was bringing back Yeddyurappa, ignoring the criticism heaped on them for courting a man derided as the face of corruption in Karnataka. Apart from the Modi wave of that year, that is believed to have helped the BJP touch an all-time high of 43.37 per cent votes in the state.
“If we had not ended up a divided house, we would have won the 2013 polls. But now that is history. We are all working together,” says BJP Karnataka election in-charge Prakash Javadekar.
But for the BJP to repeat its performance of 2014, the consolidation of the Lingayat vote and reliance on Modi may not be enough. Realising this, the party has been chipping away at the Congress’s steadfast vote base among the Dalits and backward castes. If Shah has been repeatedly evoking the binary Hindutva narrative, behind the scenes, the BJP has been trying to forge alliances with grassroot leaders of various communities, especially Scheduled Castes.
Dalits make up nearly 23 per cent of the population in Karnataka, and the BJP has been targeting a section referred to as the ‘Left Dalits’ or Madigas or untouchables. They are considered most backward, and left out of the State’s benefit umbrella, with the Congress seen as more dominated by leaders from the more creamy ‘Right Dalit’ or touchable Holaya communities, like the Congress leader in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and state Congress president G Parameshwara.
There have been rumblings over the Siddaramaiah government’s reluctance to release the details of a socio-economic survey of castes in Karnataka, which is believed to show the Madigas as one of the most backward communities. Sources in the government admitted that there is a rethink over this now, but it is already too late.
The BJP has been wooing a prominent Scheduled Caste seer from the Lingayat community, Maddara Channaiah Swamiji of the Madara Channaya Mutt in central Karnataka. The seer attended a luncheon hosted for Dalits by Yeddyurappa a few months ago while Shah called on him in the last week of March. There is speculation that the seer is interested in contesting the Assembly elections on a BJP ticket to emerge as a Yogi-like figure in Karnataka.
The BJP has also attempted to woo Dalits with leaders like Yeddyurappa staying at homes of Dalits. Yeddyurappa later organised a meal at his home for Dalit families who had hosted BJP leaders.
Apart from the Dalit card, the BJP has also launched a strident Hindutva campaign, especially in coastal Karnataka. With many constituencies here with large Muslim populations, the region is ripe for polarisation and has long been a Sangh stronghold.
While the BJP had been dealt a shock loss here in 2013 — winning only three of 19 seats, against the Congress’s 12 — by 2014, the party had bounced back. Since then, right-wing groups allied with the BJP, like the VHP, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagaran Vedike, have kept communal embers burning in the region, including through incidents of moral policing and portraying similar crimes as religion-driven.
This narrative has been led from the front by Shah himself, and supported by rabblerousers such as Ananth Kumar Hegde. During his tours, the BJP president has been visiting homes of Hindu party workers killed in incidents of communal murders, and has announced this would continue under a BJP government.
Addressing college students in Dakshina Kannada district on the coast recently, Shah said, “The BJP will not take decisions that please people or decisions that create vote banks. We have come to take tough decisions that are for the good of the people.”
Dalits have already sent the Congress a warning. In 2008, the BJP had captured 22 of the 36 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes; the Congress had won only eight. The Congress had bounced back in 2013, but due to BJP infighting and corruption in governance.
A Congress leader says the BJP scored with the Dalits in 2008 by giving tickets to the Bhovis and Lambanis, who are acceptable to all communities in a reserved constituency.
The Congress has been trying to broadbase its appeal too, and over the past five years, has promoted Madiga leaders like H Anjaneya, the Social Welfare Minister, while tripling fund allocation, setting aside 24 per cent of the budget allocation for the benefit of SCs, amounting to over Rs 88,000 crore over five years.
“The Congress has done a lot for Madigas,” says Anjaneya. “Our leaders have been made ministers and important positions have been given to us. We want to be united behind the Congress.”
But the Congress worry isn’t the Madiga anger alone. It is also staring at a split in its Dalit vote due to an alliance between Mayawati’s BSP and former prime minister H D Deve Gowda’s JD(S). The BSP is contesting in 20 seats and is offering support to the JD(S) in the remaining 204. Though the BSP’s best performance in Karnataka has been 2.74 per cent votes in 2008, and in 2013, its candidates had lost deposits in 174 of 175 seats (getting 0.91 per cent votes), the alliance may do crucial damage to the Congress.
The JD(S), which won 40 seats and got 20.15 per cent votes in 2013, has been consistently losing support, but is expected to hold its ground in the old Mysore district of Mandya, parts of Hassan, and rural Bengaluru, which is populated by Vokkaligas. JD(S) Karnataka chief and former CM H D Kumaraswamy has been on the road, campaigning for six months and was the first to announce a list, of 130 candidates, for the elections.
With the BJP not having a significant presence in Old Mysore, it is the JD(S) that is the Congress competition here. The BJP has lately tried to make inroads by wooing the erstwhile Mysore royal family of Wodeyars.
Showing the Congress frustration, Rahul has called the JD(S) the B team of the Sangh Parivar. Countering the charge, JD(S) leader Danish Ali has said, “The alliance with the BSP is not aimed at the Congress.”
The JD(S) has been bleeding though due to internal bickerings. The party, which has been splintering along caste lines since 1999, has seen the exit of leaders like Siddaramaiah on account of differences over the control wielded by the family of Deve Gowda, including seven MLAs who recently joined the Congress.
Says B Z Zameer Ahmed, a young Muslim leader who was among those who left, “It is very difficult to work with Kumaraswamy. He does not consider our views. We were suffocated.”
Due to this lack of depth and width in leadership, and its shrinking support base, the JD(S)’s realistic hopes are repeating its performance of 2013 and winning 40 seats. But with the close-knit state race also threatening a hung Assembly, that would leave the party in the coveted kingmaker’s role.
Though no party has returned to power in Karnataka for a second term since the Janata Party lead by Ramakrishna Hegde in 1985, and no CM has returned after a full five-year term since Devaraja Urs in 1978, the Congress is hopeful of beating both those records courtesy a slew of populist schemes unveiled by Siddaramaiah since 2013.
The party is banking on schemes like Annabhagya (free distribution of rice), Ksheeradhare (subsidy for milk), Vidyasiri (hostel facilities for students), agriculture e-markets, interest-free loans for farmers, reservation for SC/STs in civil contracts, low-cost meals at Indira Canteens in urban areas, free dialysis facilities at all taluk centres etc.
“We have had three consecutive years of drought… These programmes have ensured that people’s lives have not been disturbed,” Siddaramaiah is fond of saying.
The Congress is also banking on schemes for Dalits, and the raised allocations for minorities to Rs 6,428 crore over five years. “Karnataka is the only state giving scholarships to all eligible students from minority communities. The number of students availing pre-matric, post-matric and merit-cum-means scholarship has increased from 5.5 lakh to 14 lakh,” the CM said recently.
This push for the minority vote, specifically Muslims who comprise 9 per cent of the population, comes amidst the rise of small start-up parties like the SDPI, the Mahila Empowerment Party (MEP) and the MIM, eyeing the Muslim vote. The MEP has in recent days made its presence felt in places like Bengaluru by holding rallies and putting up flags and buntings all over the city.
Sources said appeals had been made by mosques in response, advising people to cast their votes “wisely” and not be swayed by new parties.
Another big factor in the favour of the Congress is Siddaramaiah’s own image, distinct from the Congress, of a strong leader of backward castes, Dalits and minorities, as well as the party’s relatively controversy-free tenure in power. Allegations of corruption like the alleged illegal denotification of over 400 acres of government land have not stuck.
The party is hoping that the last-minute gamble of giving the Lingayats a separate religion will give it the decisive push over the finishing line. The Congress has recommended to the Centre that the status of separate religion be given to “Lingayats and Veerashaiva Lingayat followers of the teachings of the 12th century saint Basavanna”. The recommendation will remain stuck at the Centre due to the model code of conduct, but would have done the trick for it, hopes the Congress.
What the party is hoping for is a shift in at least 10 per cent of the Lingayat votes towards it from the BJP. That would be a neat repeat of 2013, when the exit of Yeddyurappa had taken 10 per cent of the Lingayat votes from the BJP and handed the Congress a victory.
Sensing the trap, the BJP’s Lingayat leaders, including Yeddyurappa, who had supported the move to seek a separate religion for Lingayats in 2013, have been non-committal on the Siddaramaiah government’s recommendation. And on Shah’s denouncement of the move as being “anti-Hindu”.
Shah, who has been visiting the top Lingayat mutts to convince top seers not to be swayed by the Congress, has said, “The move is a political ploy. The timing of the recommendation on the eve of the elections makes it clear.”
Defending his government’s decision, Siddaramaiah has said, “What we have done is recognise a fact acknowledged as far back as the Mysore Census of 1871. Those in the BJP accusing us of dividing religion better listen to the Lingayat-Veerashaiva community.”
The reports from the ground seem to favour the Congress. The seer of the Murgha Mutt in Chitradurga, Shivamurthy Swami, in fact told Shah when he went to visit him last week that the Congresss government in Karnataka had done the right thing. “It is not a step to divide the community but a measure to unite divided sub-castes of Lingayats,” he told the BJP chief in a letter.
As Shah hops mutt to mutt, Rahul with the CM in tow have been making it a point to visit Hindu temples and monastries over the last couple of months.
If that is to counter the “anti-Hindu” charge, the Siddaramaiah-led Congress has also been playing up the Kannada pride issue. Always a potent weapon in the state, it is seen as holding more bite at a time when the BJP is seen as an increasingly Hindi-belt party under Modi and Shah. Siddaramaiah has called for a separate state flag for Karnataka as well as stressed the primacy of the Kannada language in the state. The BJP has largely kept its silence on the issue.
What helps the Congress sustain this Kannada pride narrative is its strong state-level leadership, with faces from various communities and regions. The BJP campaign, on the other hand, is led mainly by Modi and Shah, along with Yeddyurappa.
The Congress is taking heart from the fact that rallies featuring Rahul and Siddaramaiah have consistently drawn good crowds. “The Janashirvad tour by Rahul Gandhi has seen a good response. This is a positive sign for the Congress,” says G Parameshwara.
At one such rally in Mysuru recently, where nearly one lakh people gathered, Rahul drew a booth-to-Parliament arc that would have sounded familiar to the rival camp.
“Congress workers should know that this is an ideological fight with the BJP. The Congress is fighting as one united organisation like never before,” he said. “In every booth, Congress workers have risen. We want to show the BJP the strength of the Congress. We will fight them at every booth and we will defeat them at every booth. We will win Karnataka now and Parliament in 2019. The Congress will rule Karnataka and India.”