By Dr S.Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
The entire nation’s political attention is concentrated on the election in Karnataka as if it will decide the fate of India for the next five years. The two main contenders to power in the State are two national parties — a phenomenon unknown in southern India.
It is only after 2014, when a strong BJP wave across the country elevated the party to its present status, State Assembly elections have been arousing nation-wide interest. Even by-elections are keenly contested and intensely watched. All regional parties are following every move of those in the fray in Karnataka which seems to be a trial run for approaching Lok Sabha elections. Speeches and campaigns are indeed conducted like a dress rehearsal for the parties for the final drama in 2019.
Karnataka has been a stronghold of the Congress until the victory of the Janata Party in 1985. The State does not consistently support any particular party and does not normally go with the predominant national mood. When the Congress was in power at the Centre in 1994, Janata Dal won Karnataka Assembly; in 1999, when the BJP led NDA won Lok Sabha, Congress won most of the Lok Sabha seats in the State. In 2004 and 2009 when UPA defeated NDA at the Centre, BJP came to power in the State. In 2013, Congress won the Assembly and replaced BJP government, but in one year, Karnataka saw the emergence of the BJP in 17 out of 28 Lok Sabha seats. The State has even preferred Congress for the Centre in 1984 and the Janata Party for the State in the next year.
Because of the Karnataka election, the Union Government has not been able to frame the Cauvery Water Sharing Scheme within the deadline given by the Supreme Court. And the Congress government of Karnataka on its part has not been able to take the risk of releasing 4 tmc ft water to Tamil Nadu as directed by the Cauvery Tribunal for fear of losing votes for the party and cites water shortage in the State even for drinking purposes as its defence. The arch enemies in the field have a common interest in taking no action with regard to releasing Cauvery water pending elections!
Retaining power in Karnataka is a life and death question for the Congress, for losing it will mean getting restricted to one State and one Union Territory — Punjab and Puducherry. For the BJP, winning Karnataka and thereby regaining a lost foothold in the south is necessary to sustain the Modi wave and to break the prevailing notion about the BJP as a party of north India.
Hence, both national parties are deploying maximum energy and electioneering talent to outdo each other. Since February end, several Central leaders of the BJP have visited the State. The Prime Minister has a programme of addressing some 30 rallies within a week in May. The Congress president is also holding road shows and rallies in different regions of Karnataka. The rallies to some extent display the changing mood of the people ahead of Parliament elections.
The Congress has a habit of playing regional politics in southern States. Few may remember that at times it included two-language formula as its election promise in its manifesto in Tamil Nadu. In Karnataka, it allows State party leaders to wave the flag of Karnataka, promote State identity through Kannada language and opposition to Hindi, and champion State rights in federal set up. The State Cabinet has already approved a tri-colour State flag, a cultural policy to promote Kannada language and culture, opposition to use of Hindi name boards in metro trains and stations. The strategy of the Congress seems to be to oppose the nationalist stress of the BJP and assume a posture of unity with the local masses by vociferously supporting their parochial interests.
Neither the Congress nor the BJP has touched the crucial State-level issue of sharing Cauvery water in their election manifesto. No plans to improve the condition of the river or to rejuvenate it is mentioned. But, both have centred their focus on the farming community with schemes to enhance funds for agriculture, and promises of farm loan waiver, infrastructure plans, education, sports and culture, women’s empowerment, social welfare schemes, and special programmes for development of Bengaluru.
Both the BJP and the JD(S) have a common objective of defeating the Congress — a reason strong enough to form an alliance. But, it has not taken place pre-poll. On the contrary, both Congress and BJP accuse each other of having a secret understanding with JD(S). This does not prevent Modi and Deve Gowda from praising each other’s statesmanship and efficiency. It is part of the politics of keeping the doors open for post-poll alliances which may be necessary in case of fractured verdict.
Even parties willing to form post-poll alliances for forming government fiercely fight one another in elections to increase their individual strength which will improve their bargaining power in post-poll scenario. Such fights do not preclude accusations and complaints against each other. Doubtless, they confuse the voters not knowing the combinations that will finally form the Government and the Opposition.
As conditions stand in the week preceding polling, it is clear that the JD(S) will have an important role in the case of a hung Assembly. Its State president maintains that the party will not remain just a “king maker” as predicted in some reports, but will become the “king”. Its role depends on the speed of Modi wave and the vigour of the new Congress leader more than its own acceptability.
The mood of the people is not clear despite lavish gifts like separate religious identity to Lingayats. What is clear is that election is no longer a simple traditional caste fight as Lingayat (identified with Yeddyurappa), Vokkaliga (associated with Deve Gowda) and so on. Wishful thinking of non-political reformists that political divisions within castes may gradually weaken their social unity and lead to disintegration of castes is falsified in real life as there are no cases of disappearance of castes due to political divisions.
The case of Lingayats may become another instance to prove that solid vote banks made up of castes is an illusion of politicians and not a reality. The energy, time, and money spent on building block votes of castes may be more usefully diverted to get block votes territorially by area development schemes cutting across caste lines.
Hectic campaigns by top level leaders, fierce propaganda, charges and counter-charges against one another have reached a new high setting model for future electioneering in other States. This new momentum, triggered in UP and intensified now in Karnataka is going to be the factor deciding the outcome of this election surpassing record of work and package of promises. Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan are bound to undergo the trend-setting experience of Karnataka Election.
It is difficult to believe that voters will have 2019 election in mind in making their choice this year for the State. But, the winners in 2018 State elections will get a splendid opportunity to build their goodwill and popularity with the people. —INFA