It is becoming increasingly tricky to make an assessment of Assembly elections in Karnataka. This is unlike in earlier elections, prior to 2004, when it was possible to predict who would come to power.
In the run-up to the forthcoming polls on May 10, most are cagey to pronounce as winner a single political party from among the Congress, BJP, or the Janata Dal (S). Despite some surveys predicting a Congress win, the common refrain so far is that it will be a hung Assembly.
This has been the case for the last nearly two decades except for the 2013 victory of the Congress (when the BJP split). In the on-going election campaign, while most, including fellow-journalists who are travelling through the state, say that the Congress is riding on anti-incumbency against the BJP, few are prepared to stick their necks out to declare the party an outright winner.
Perceptible change in Karnataka’s ground reality
The reason for this lack of clarity is not the inability of the assessor, but due to a perceptible change in Karnataka’s ground reality. From a traditionally predictable en masse voting pattern, the electorate is hopelessly fractured in its support for any particular party. This has become a psephologist’s pitfall.
The Lingayats are, for example, viewed as a community that votes for the BJP. Earlier, it was the Janata Dal and its chief minister Ramakrishna Hegde who had the backing of the Lingayats. Prior to that, it was the Congress that was preferred by this section. The first break happened in 1985, when Hegde in a mid-term election got the Lingayats to back him (and HD Deve Gowda, the Vokkaligas), in an anti-Congress wave, resulting in the Janata Party crossing the majority mark on its own.
Also read: Religion, politics and welfare: A tale of two manifestoes in Karnataka
In the 1989 Assembly election, in a huge anti-incumbency wave, the Lingayats deserted Hegde (and the Vokkaligas gave a thumbs-down to Gowda) that secured the Congress a massive 178 seats out of 224, a record for any party in any election in the state. Just a year later, in 1990, the Congress unbelievably goofed up big time buoyed by hubris. Its then leader and prime minister Rajiv Gandhi abruptly sacked an ailing chief minister Veerendra Patil, a Lingayat, and replaced him with the backward caste leader S Bangarappa.
Gandhi may not have realised the enormous damage his action had on the psyche of the Lingayat community. Hegde, and the Janata Dal, used the faux pas to win back the Lingayats’ support in the 1994 Assembly election. But not all voted with the JD. A sizeable section of the Lingayat electorate, influenced by the Babri Masjid demolition, voted for the BJP, whose tally jumped from four (in 1989) to 40.
Watershed moment in state’s politics
The expulsion of Hegde by the then newly-elected prime minister HD Deve Gowda from the Janata Dal in 1996 turned out to be a watershed moment in the state’s politics. In the 1998 Lok Sabha election, Hegde’s Lok Shakti joined hands with the BJP. This alliance managed to transfer Hegde’s goodwill and support within the Lingayat community to the BJP, and by default to its leader Yediyurappa.
In the 1999 Assembly election, the Congress returned to power on its own helped by anti-incumbency against the JD. The BJP also did well, helped by a sizeable section of the Lingayat vote. The exit of Hegde and the transfer of his Lingayat support base to the BJP turned out to be a permanent loss for the Janata Dal.
Fractured mandates leading to hung Assemblies
In effect, the Lingayat vote is now divided between the BJP and to some extent the Congress. Since then, other than in 2013, the Lingayat’s fractured mandate has played a role in a series of hung Assemblies, even if a majority opted for the BJP.
Also read: Karnataka polls: Congress tears into BJP’s “double engine” campaign
It’s not just the Lingayats alone. Similar fractures have occurred over the last three decades within the OBC sections, or the intermediate castes, to the advantage of the BJP. These have occurred mainly in coastal Karnataka and north Karnataka, and to some extent in the central region of the state.
Polarising effect of Babri Masjid issue
An important reason was the polarising effect of the Babri Masjid issue in the early 1990s using which the BJP was able to make inroads into what was traditionally a secular backward section that favoured either the Congress or the Janata Dal.
The maximum impact was in coastal Karnataka, which for specific local reasons was receptive to large-scale communal polarisation, which in turn has proved to be a springboard for the BJP’s emergence as one among the top three contenders for power in the state.
The 1992 Ayodhya mosque demolition also had a direct impact on the monolith Muslim vote that had traditionally opted for the Congress, everywhere, including in Karnataka. The Congress’s then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao’s perceived collusion with the BJP saw Muslims deserting the Congress in large numbers.
In Karnataka, the beneficiary was the Janata Dal, which, strengthened by en masse Muslim support, returned to power in 1994 and won 16 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in 1996.
Muslim vote may return to Congress in this election
The Muslim vote was effectively lost to the Congress. In the upcoming May 2023 election, after several years, there is a high likelihood of the Muslim vote returning as a bloc to the Congress under vastly changed circumstances, where the party is viewed as the more credible secular opposition to the BJP than the JD.
Also read: Karnataka polls | Congress history is about appeasing terrorists: Modi
The Muslims form approximately 12 percent of the electorate. What makes their vote potent is the fact that they are spread evenly across the state. The Janata Dal (Secular) too will likely get the Muslim vote in the southern parts of the state, but the bulk is expected to go with the Congress.
The more conservative Muslim-led SDPI and Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM are contesting in 16 and two seats respectively. At most they may nibble at Muslim votes, helping the BJP if the contest is close.
The crucial Dalit vote
For the Congress to remain relevant in the state and position itself as an alternative to the BJP, the 18 per cent Dalit vote is crucial. But, over the last few years, the BJP has gradually whittled away at the Dalit vote by attempting to woo sections selectively including the so-called “left-hand” Dalits – the more oppressed section within the larger community.
For instance, the BJP has pushed for internal reservations within the SC community that is expected to benefit the left-hand section. This could trigger a counter-reaction within the better-off “right-hand” Dalits. But the BJP appears to be taking a calculated risk as Dalit votes, even from one section, is better than none at all.
The Vokkaligas have supported Congress and Janata Dal (S)
That leaves the dominant Vokkaliga community, concentrated in the Old Mysore region comprising Bengaluru, Mysore and Hassan. Until now, this community largely voted for the Congress or Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular). In fact, one of the biggest factors for the emergence of the erstwhile Janata Party and later the Janata Dal, and its faction JD(S), was the Vokkaliga community’s unswerving support for Gowda.
Depending on which way the Vokkaliga vote swung, the JD or the Congress benefitted.
The BJP, realising it would never be able to come to power on its own without the backing of this powerful community, has tried its utmost to woo this section. The BJP has, willy-nilly, been helped by Gowda’s son and former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy, who allied with it in 2006.
Also read: Karnataka polls: EC pushes for greater vigil at inter-state border to curb flow of cash, drugs
The Vokkaligas had so far been divided between the Congress and the Janata Dal. The upcoming election will show whether the trend continues or this community too has finally been fractured in its support for the three main parties.
To get round the fractured electorate, the Congress has tried to highlight the negatives against the incumbent Basavaraj Bommai government while the BJP has unabashedly taken the communal polarisation route – hoping that voters look beyond their caste markers and identify themselves as Hindus first. The results on May 13 should throw up some interesting insights.