May 07, 2023

Karnataka: A High Stakes Election

THE Karnataka assembly election has a special importance in the present conjuncture.  For the BJP, in its quest for overall political dominance, retaining this southern state is vital for its ambition to spread its influence in other southern states.

With the election campaign at its peak, by all accounts, the BJP is facing rough weather with widespread anti-incumbency and popular discontent over rampant corruption, price rise, unemployment and farmers’ distress.

The BJP had formed the government in July 2019 after toppling the Congress-JD(S) coalition government by organising defections through “Operation Kamala” from the ruling alliance.  Since then, in the past four years, the state has seen two chief ministers and three deputy chief ministers.  BS Yediyurappa had to give way to Basavaraj Bommai in July 2021 as chief minister.  The record of the Bommai government has been singularly inept and riddled with corruption. Bommai, a convert to the BJP from the JD(S), sought to reinforce his position by adopting an aggressive Hindutva communal agenda. 

The Bommai regime has seen a naked appeal to majoritarian sentiments with the stringent ban on slaughter of cattle and disruption of the meat trade carried out mainly by Muslims; the state also passed a draconian anti-conversion law directed against Christians; the ban on hijab wearing by students in the plus two stage followed; 4 per cent reservations for Muslims within the OBC category was scrapped; the efforts to vilify Tippu Sultan culminated in the absurd story that he was killed not by the British but by the two mythical Vokkaligas. The way the Karnataka government sought to push the anti-minority agenda looked like it was competing with Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh to top the Hindutva honours list.

However, these efforts to deepen communal polarisation and rally majoritarian sentiment was undermined and overwhelmed by the record of corruption and pro-corporate anti-worker and anti-farmer policies.  The Bommai government became synonymous with 40 per cent commission as bribes.  This was a charge leveled by the State Contractors’ Association that clearance of bills of the various departments and ministries required bribes to be paid at the rate of 40 per cent of the total bill.  The minister, KS Eshwarappa, had to resign after a contractor, Santosh Patil, committed suicide after accusing him of demanding a bribe.  More recently, a BJP MLA and his son were arrested for demanding bribes and the Vigilance Bureau uncovered Rs 8.1 crore in cash from their houses.

This open loot through institutionalised corruption was accompanied by anti-farmer policies.  The land reforms act was amended to allow conversion of land for non-agricultural purposes. The APMC mechanism was weakened to allow for corporate entry in agricultural trade in line with the farm bill passed by the parliament.  Price rise of essential food items and cooking fuels has become the biggest issue for the poorer sections, according to latest surveys. Apart from corruption and price rise, unemployment has also emerged as a major problem. 

Knowing fully well that there is a strong anti-incumbency, the BJP central leadership has set the pace for highlighting the Hindutva divisive agenda.  This campaign is led by none other than Amit Shah and Narendra Modi themselves.  Amit Shah has boasted that Muslim reservation would be scrapped if the BJP comes back to power. He has warned that if Congress wins, riots will erupt in Karnataka.  Narendra Modi has sought to depict the Congress leadership as protectors of terrorists and masters of appeasement.  The BJP manifesto has harped on introducing a Uniform Civil Code and a National Register of Citizens. It has talked of regulating local businesses around temples, meaning, prohibiting Muslims from setting up shops in the vicinity of temples. 

The election campaign so far shows that the usual tactics and slogans that the BJP had been adopting in recent elections are not showing much results. The call for a ‘double-engine sarkar’ is falling flat given the all-round failure of the state government. The Hindutva card has also its limits, it may galvanise the already committed and in certain communally-polarised areas, but it is not able to attract the broader sections of the discontented populace. The Hindutva appeal seems confined to the coastal districts and parts of the central and Malanad region. There is moreover, the disarray in the BJP’s Lingayat leadership over the distribution of tickets, leading to the exit of some of its prominent leaders.

As against the centralising trend inherent in the ‘double-engine’ slogan, the protection of a regional Kannadiga identity has also emerged in this election.  The double-engine government has led to imposition of Hindi, neglect of Kannada in central competitive exams and the encroachment of Amul into Karnataka with talk of merger of the Karnataka Milk Cooperative Federation with its Gujarat counterpart to the detriment of its popular brand ‘Nandini’. 

An increasingly desperate BJP campaign has now fallen back on relying on the Modi appeal. Basavaraj Bommai has begun saying in election rallies that voting for BJP candidates is equivalent to showing your admiration for Narendra Modi.  This appeal to vote for Modi is reminiscent of what happened in Himachal Pradesh assembly elections in February this year. Modi himself had claimed in speeches then that “You need not remember the BJP candidate, only remember the symbol of lotus. Voting for the lotus is like voting for Modi”.  We know what happened in this election – the BJP was defeated and lost its government.

Karnataka is the only southern state where the BJP-RSS combine has acquired a significant political and ideological influence.  A defeat in the assembly polls will be a major setback for the Hindutva forces and will set the pace for the secular and democratic opposition to mount a serious challenge to the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

(May 3, 2023)