March 26, 2023

Major Factors Driving Karnataka Electoral Race

Vasanth N K

KARNATAKA is just days away from the formal announcement of the assembly election schedule; hence the inauguration/announcement spree of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It started with the inauguration of the 10-lane (really six lanes!)  Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway and a series of controversies and setbacks. As the inauguration was hurried even before the work was really completed, only one side of the highway was finished and next day many cracks were seen at many places, showing the ruling party in poor light rather than as a shining example of grand achievement. The poor quality, consequent series of accidents, heavy toll and bus fare increases imposed even before the entire highway is ready led to protests. A downpour in the next few days turned the expressway into “waterways” washing away whatever little “propaganda impact” the BJP was hoping for. 

The expressway inauguration was also planned as a gateway to make an inroad into the Vokkaliga belt of south Karnataka where the BJP is weak. The entry gate into this belt was named “Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda Mahadwar” (fictional Vokkaliga chieftains who killed Tipu Sultan according to a ‘revised history’ of the Sangh Brigade) – a gate specially erected for PM Modi’s visit. After severe criticism including by Vokkaliga leaders who resented this Sanghi ploy for driving wedge between Vokkaligas and Muslims on the one hand and painting the Vokkaliga community as pro-British on the other, BJP had to backtrack and take down the “Mahadwar” hours before the prime minister’s visit. A few days later the Vokkaliga seer also criticised BJP for building a false narrative around these fictional characters, forcing a BJP tycoon to withdraw his announcement of producing a film around these fictional characters. 

Another round of negative publicity about PM Modi’s special meeting with a well-known rowdy-sheeter ‘Figher Ravi’ during his visit and poor responses in Mandya for the rallies, completed the backlash BJP faced. Meanwhile, the public misbehaviour of a BJP MP with a woman, questioning her why she is “not putting a bindi even when her husband is alive”, and the wide criticism it evoked embarrassed the BJP further.

However, the BJP is continuing unfazed with the scheduled inauguration of a metro route (again which is not fully ready) and announcement or inaugurations of a series of statues of historical personalities – Basavanna, Kempegowda (in front of Vidhan Soudha), Akka Mahadevi, Mahadeswara.  It is also continuing with lunch/dinner parties, distribution of gifts like cookers, sarees on festivals etc.

However, an unprecedented series of struggles by many sections conveyed the mood of the people, turning the heat of anti-incumbency on BJP, despite its brazen election gimmicks. Major militant struggles of state government employees, workers of public transport, power transmission, National Health Mission, auto-rickshaws and guest lecturers broke out in the last two weeks. A general strike called by all central trade unions on March 23 against labour law amendments is continuing the heat on BJP.


In a way, battle lines are already drawn and the election campaign is underway in Karnataka. All political parties have started election campaigns and are finalising their strategy, candidate lists, etc. Many issues or factors have come to fore which will drive the election campaign, impact voters’ choice and ultimately the result. These are not issues necessarily posed or pushed by this or that political force or real people’s issues. Rather they are the result of various developments over the last five years and coalesced into major factors. It will be useful to identify such factors, analyse their relative impact on election campaigns and electoral choices. 

Such major issues or factors are: religious hate politics vs harmony; social justice vs quagmire of caste politics; corruption, misgovernance, scandals; double engine vs regional identity/autonomy; development: infrastructure vs human.

Religious Hate Politics vs Social Harmony

The BJP has been pushing religious hate politics most aggressively in the last five years in Karnataka. Having tasted success in coastal Karnataka – considered a laboratory of this brand of politics not only for the state but the entire country – it has now been extended all over the state, particularly in Bombay and Hyderabad Karnataka regions. Recently attempts, although not very successful, have been made ins Karnataka also. Bogies of ‘Hindus in danger’, love jihad, forcible conversion, oppressive hijab, noisy azaan, and masjid built over temple have been systematically raised; time/place being carefully planned by the Sangh outfits with all-out support from the BJP state government as never before. BJP legislators and leaders have been competing to be more aggressive to curry favour with the leadership. Provoking riots and blaming it on Muslim individuals/organisations, boycotting Muslim traders in Hindu festival fairs, and exclusion of Muslims in all possible social and cultural activities have been systematically used to polarise the two religious communities. Development of minority communalism, particularly in the form of PFI/SDPI, partly autonomous and partly as a reaction to the majority communalism, has intensified polarisation further. This polarisation is the prime election strategy of the BJP.

However, several factors seem to be also diminishing its impact. While it is true that confronting the BJP’s hate politics and strengthening secular politics on the ground has been isolated and weak, much more resistance has developed. Extreme polarisation, incessant violence, and utter falsehoods on which they are based have led to revulsion in many sections of people including some amongst middle classes supporting the BJP. Also given strong foundations of communal harmony in Karnataka, there is a new craving for social harmony at the least, though not yet on a firm secular basis. Left, democratic and progressive forces have confronted this with ideological political struggles. Even the Congress and the JD(S) have confronted the crass communal propaganda shedding their ‘soft Hindutva’ to an extent. They have exposed the Sanghi lies and propaganda. Backlash against and rejection of ‘Urigowda, Nanjegowda are killers of Tipu’ fables of BJP and that too by a religious head is an example of the revulsion developing. 

Development of most other factors listed above may also diminish or override the influence of polarisation based on religious hatred. However, whether and how much people get polarised and get carried away by religious hate politics remain to be seen.

Social Justice vs Quagmire of Caste Politics  

Social justice has at least been the election slogan of most political forces in Karnataka. The Congress particularly retained its base mostly on this slogan, although it has hardly been realised in practice. It has been reduced to clamour for reservation, which again is poorly implemented. Karnataka has Backward Classes Commission for decades now. Apart from SC/STs, reservations for OBCs have been provided for. Without implementation of universal school education, economic empowerment and inherent stratification within SC/STs and OBCs, reservation has been cornered by more ‘powerful’ castes disproportionately. The castes lower in hierarchy who have not been able to effectively use reservations in college and higher education have not been able to utilise job reservations and get political representation also. This has led to a demand for “internal-reservation” or reservation within reservations on the basis of percentage of population.   

For example, Scheduled Castes in Karnataka include 101 castes broadly sub-classified into two groups – called Holeya (or right handers) mostly engaged in agricultural labour and Madiga mostly engaged in ‘polluting’ work such as leather, sweeping, toilet cleaning etc. SC reservations has been mostly utilised by Holeya and ‘touchable’ castes such as Lambani, Bhovi. Hence Madigas, numerically the largest group amongst SCs, mobilised around the demand for ‘internal-reservation’. Due to persistent pressure, Justice A J Sadashiva Commission was appointed in 2005 to investigate the possibility of ‘internal-reservation’ and gave a report in 2012 recommending internal reservation. Several governments have come and gone, but the report has not even been published, let alone be implemented. Leaks of the report suggest that the commission has recommended 6 per cent for Madigas, 5 per cent for Holeyas, 3 per cent for ‘touchables’ and 1 per cent for other small ‘untouchable’ castes. 

The Congress, which supported the report when in opposition, did not even table it in the house when in government in the period between 2013 and 2019. This is due to pressure from relatively more influential Holeya and ‘touchable’ leaders in the party, as well as fear of losing support of these more vocal castes. BJP does not believe either in social justice or reservations, being driven by its casteist ‘Manuvad’. But due to electoral compulsions it was looking for ways to break the near monopoly of SC/ST votebank of Congress. In the first stage it promoted ‘touchable’ leaders and succeeded in making inroads. In the 2018 elections, BJP successfully turned the anger of Madigas against the Congress, which was one of the major causes of its losing majority. Similar anomalies and demands have also impacted ST reservations.  

However, the BJP government in power for the last four years has not done anything either. It is also not doing anything for the same reason as Congress. But BJP has succeeded in pitting dalit subgroups against each other, which is in sync with its larger design of making reservations meaningless in general. On the one hand, these subgroups have mobilised and asserted their rights – Madigas demanding implementation of ‘inner-reservation’ as per Justice Sadashiva Commission, and other groups in support of status quo. Recently re-united Dalit Sangharsh Samiti and Left-democratic forces have seen through BJP’s game and have mobilised all dalits demanding tabling of the commission report and wider discussion and consensual implementation. It also demanded an increase in both SC and ST reservations per population percentage as recommended by the Justice Nagmohandas Committee appointed by the Congress government towards the end of its last rule. BJP tried to counter this move by increasing SC reservations from 15 to 17 per cent and ST reservations from 3 to 7 per cent, purely as an electoral gimmick.

There have been many other demands around reservations. Panchamasali, a subsect of the powerful Lingayat community, has unleashed a series of high-profile agitations for quite some time on moving them from their current category 3B to 2A (with a larger pool) in the OBC list. Kurubas, the third largest caste group (after Lingayat, Vokkaliga, of course barring SC/ST and Muslims) have been demanding moving from 2A of OBC List to ST category. Obviously, the castes in those categories are opposed to it. The Panchamasali demand has put BJP in trouble as it was part of its larger Lingayat base, while the Kurubas demand can upset Congress base. In both these cases, either party is in dilemma as they are not able to promise anything. Showing the carrot of reservations, dividing and pitting communities against each other by creating umpteen categories and promising them the best, but not implementing anything has been the standard game of all parties. 

The BJP has by now learnt this game well and has been conducting electoral social engineering skillfully at micro scale. Confronted with the challenges of assertion of the many communities mentioned above, BJP has rolled the new dice, 10 per cent EWS reservation. It is trying to mollify some vocal communities by promising to provide ‘inner-reservation’ within the EWS. It has also helped BJP to render the whole reservation system meaningless and debunk the very idea of social justice. 

Reservation has been rendered meaningless by large scale privatisation of education, public sector and casualisation/contractualisation of public sector and government jobs. It has succeeded in diverting attention away from all the policies causing/increasing unemployment, poverty, price rise into divisive battles for reservation. But people are driven by their idea of social justice and are realising this. At the same time they are making political parties accountable for implementing promises they made on reservations, otherwise threatening electoral actions, similar to the one the Madigas took in the last election. This time being in power, BJP could face the consequences. While monolithic caste vote banks are a myth, traditional party loyalties, alignments of various caste groups in Karnataka have been unravelling for quite some time. For example, BJP repeating solid support from Lingayat community and Madigas seen in 2018 and Congress getting bulk of its support from OBC may change substantially. In this quagmire of caste and identity politics, powerful as well as powerless castes are likely to assert their own idea of social justice by taking suitable electoral actions so that they are seen and heard. This factor may diminish or override religious hate politics substantially.

The remaining three factors will be analysed in a subsequent article.