Janaki Nair

Lessons learnt from Karnataka LS poll results: Congress guarantees fell to caste factor

The fear of Llingayat and Vokkaliga communities that they could be sidened by the Congress government in Karnataka may have derailed the party's ambition of winning most of the state's 28 Lok Sabha seats. File photo

Polls prompted Vokkaligas and Lingayats to unite against what Siddaramaiah represented – an alliance of OBCs, Dalits and minorities, backed by women

Are the Indian elections ‘simply too big and too local’ to be controlled by any party or majoritarian ideology, no matter how strong and entrenched, as Arjun Appadurai presciently said a week before the Lok Sabha poll results were out? And has caste long been the stable currency of such local calculations? How does Karnataka’s experience during the Parliamentary polls bear this out?

There is the old saw that Karnataka always has an ‘opposition’ government at the state to the party in power at the Centre. This came apart during the brief ‘double engine sarkar’ of the 2019-2023 period. So, in what appeared to be a master stroke of the Congress during its election run up, it played the ‘federal’ card to the hilt.

‘Chombu’ of empty promises

In a series of ads that it ran before the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) kicked in, the Congress suggested that the battle was really between a hostile Union government and a robustly independent state. The aggressive campaign of the Congress for its rights as one of the richest states in the Union to its share of taxes was exemplified in its use of the ‘chombu’. It was the BJP against Karnataka, and not the Congress itself, that underlay the ads that foregrounded the ‘chombu’, a necked vessel full only of the empty promises made by a Union government – that was increasingly becoming a ‘centralised government’.

Far from receiving the ‘Akshaya Patra’ (inexhaustible vessel) promised by the BJP, Karnataka had been short-changed on funds to alleviate the devastating drought that had hit more than 200 taluks. And it was being punished for achieving its welfare goals, in lowering birth rates, population, increasing per capita incomes and so on.

Welfare schemes

There was focus, too, on the guarantee schemes that put money in the pockets of women-headed households, and gave all women free bus rides, while giving free electricity upto 200 units, and finally, support to the unemployed. No doubt, working class women saved on travel (though we are yet to calculate whether this translated into more women in the workforce), and freed themselves from the coattails of the family patriarchs, by going on travels, especially pilgrimages, along with their young.

Why, then, has the showing of the Congress in the parliamentary election been underwhelming? True, to move from one to nine seats is a feat indeed. But the expectations that the guarantee schemes would translate into votes appeared to have faltered. Predictions that it would claw back a major part of the 28 seats, up to even 20, were seriously misplaced.

BJP counters

But just as this was no ordinary election nationwide, this was no ordinary election in a state that was willing to articulate the necessity and importance of returning to India as a union of states. Yet, the focus on federal principles simply did not have the affective charge to alter the electoral process.

On its part, given that it had no positive push back against the guarantees, the BJP did its utmost to drive the discourse back in the direction where it was most at home: producing fear among the people of Karnataka. There was an attempt to hoist a ‘Bhagwa Dwaj’ on government property that was swiftly thwarted; a purported quarrel between a shopkeeper and a small gang of local toughs (which included Hindus and Muslims) was handily turned into opposition to Hanuman Chalisa but also died down.

Communal discourse

Two other events, the bomb blast at the Rameshwaram Café and the murder of Neha Hiremath at the hands of Fayaz, fell like a ripe fruit into the hands of the BJP, giving it the verve it lacked on more urgent economic questions. Since it was quickly followed by several gruesome events in which Hindu males participated to decapitate their partners, among other things, this line of mobilisation had to be quietly relinquished.

Nevertheless, the Karnataka BJP was emboldened, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s impunity, to claim in its ads that the ‘chombu’ was full of the blood of Hindus, as a coded call for ‘revenge’. Wracked by internal dissidence, by rebel or frustrated candidates, it fell back on the exhausted capital of Islamophobia, hoping to echo His Master’s Voice.

Dominant castes unite

But meanwhile, there were other fears at work, which led to a BJP strategy that appears to have triumphed over the Congress’ righteous and non-communal campaign. This was a historic truce struck between Vokkaligas and Lingayats to allow for the two most dominant castes of the state to unite against what Siddaramaiah represented – an alliance of the OBCs, the Dalits and the minorities, backed by women.

Announcements of the possible release of the data generated by Karnataka’s own caste ‘survey’ had led to a consolidated demand from the dominant castes for a ‘scientific re-survey’. The Lok Sabha elections brought the usually hostile dominant castes together, who fear the possible challenge to their stranglehold on not just the economic and educational resources of the state, but also in the political arena.

It is no coincidence that they have (temporarily at least) stifled the long running intra-Lingayat campaign for change in reservation categories launched by Basava Jayamrutyunjaya Swamiji of the Panchamasali Peetha in Bagalkot. They also got the maverick Fakira Dingaleshwara Swami of the Balehosur Matha of Shirhatti Taluk in Gadag, who had declared a ‘Dharma yuddha’ against the Brahmin BJP candidate Pralhad Joshi in Dharwad, to withdraw.

This worked with formidable force against the women, grateful for the small revolution that had been brought about in their lives, and the minorities and Dalits, fearful of the possible changes that might result from Constitutional change or the removal of long-cherished social justice programmes including reservations.

Congress vs castes

In some cases, such as Bangalore Rural, where both the candidates were from the same caste, one with a formidable reputation as a politician (DK Suresh) and one with a reputation as a talented doctor and medical administrator (Dr Manjunath), it is clear that their 'mathadhipathi' (mutt chief) might have weighed in to account for the swing.

The Congress guarantees, in short, could not trump the local economies of the dominant castes.

It is too early to take heart from these developments as a sign of the end of the calculated normalisation of hate in Karnataka. It is too early to declare this as a triumph of those, including many dedicated civil social organisations, who protected the Constitution, hard won freedoms and liberties, indeed, the rule of law. No doubt, large swathes of people who were actively engaged in a learning exercise about the electoral process – civil society groups – will now be chastened into accepting the ‘local’ factors – the chemistry rather than the arithmetic -- that gave Karnataka this mixed result.

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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