The Congress may have seized the opportunity to oust BJP from its only southern success story for now; but the Karnataka 2023 election result hold lessons for all sides before the Lok Sabha elections, writes Joyjeet Das after touring the state extensively.
April was uncharacteristically hot for Karnataka — one doesn’t usually associate Bengaluru with a sweltering 38°C. The political climate, however, was deceptively lukewarm: Assembly elections were less than a month away, but there was hardly a buzz on the streets and in neighbourhoods; no fluttering party colours or cut-outs of political big guns; neither super-sized rallies nor kilometres-long roadshows.
As the ‘national’ media started trickling in to cover what was arguably one of the most crucial elections in recent times, the lacklustre campaign was a bit of a dampener for the posse of outstation reporters and observers. A section of them wondered whether voters had turned indifferent and if there would be a decent turnout during the election day at the polling booths.
May 10, however, saw a record 73.19 per cent polling, confirming a strong political will among the citizens of Karnataka despite the low-voltage campaign. Pundits, who until then were prepping for an indecisive mandate, started predicting a regime change — as is customary with high voter turnout; various exit-poll surveys nodded in agreement.
The results, which followed three days later, confirmed this: The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party government was out; the Congress was in with a clear majority. It has 135 seats at the lower House of the Vidhana Soudha on Bengaluru’s Ambedkar Veedhi — the most for any party since 1989, and the first clear majority for any party since 1999.
The mandate is clear-cut. But was it plain-vanilla anti-incumbency? Karnataka, after all, is known for voting governments out regularly. Even the mighty SM Krishna, routinely credited for turning capital Bengaluru into a poor man’s Silicon Valley, fetched a paltry 65 out of 224 seats in 2004. The last CM who could win back a term was Ramakrishna Hegde, who resigned in 1984 — a year into his first term — citing the Janata Party’s dismal performance in the Lok Sabha elections but won back the chair in fresh elections the next year.
Or does it point to a wider trend? Rajya Sabha member Sharad Pawar, whom many still consider a possible nucleus for greater opposition unity, recently claimed the Karnataka results could be “replicated across the country” if the “working class remain strong and united”. Whether or not he is right, the ouster of the BJP from Karnataka has undeniably cheered its opponents up. On the other hand, BJP National General Secretary CT Ravi hurried to claim that the “loss was personal but not of ideology”, soon after suffering defeat at the Chikmagalur seat.
Realpolitik apart, the reality may be somewhere in between. And it may hold lessons for both sides of the political spectrum. The BJP squandered its chances in the only Dravidian state in its kitty as uncharacteristically as the Congress ran a tight, focussed campaign to replace it.
It is undeniable even for the staunchest BJP supporter that the Basavaraj Bommai government hardly enjoyed any goodwill. Even casual conversations with voters made this clear in the run-up to the election, or even several months prior to it. Clearly Bommai’s predecessor BS Yeddyurappa had left big shoes to be filled.
BJP’s ‘success story’ in Karnataka has swept under the carpet the fact that its track-record in the state has been patchy. None of its CMs could ever enjoy a full term in this state. The saffron party first tested electoral success in the state when it won four Lok Sabha seats in 1991, in the wake of LK Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra. It won 40 seats in the 1994 Assembly election to become the main Opposition party even as the undivided Janata Dal (JD) ousted the Congress from power. It managed to hold on to this position when the Congress returned to power five years later. By then the JD had split into two on the question of whether or not to support the BJP at the Centre. While JD (United) joined the National Democratic Alliance, JD(Secular) led by former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda wanted to remain equidistant from the two big national parties.
This is a time when the BJP started betting big on the state, with Sushma Swaraj famously yet unsuccessfully taking on Sonia Gandhi in Bellary during the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. It emerged the single-largest party in the 2004 Assembly polls with 79 seats. The Congress managed to remain in power with JD(S) support but for less than two years.
In early 2006, the JD(S) ironically brokered a power-sharing agreement with the BJP. Deve Gowda’s son HD Kumaraswamy was sworn in as CM with BJP support, with the understanding that he would make way for state BJP boss Yeddyurappa after 20 months. He eventually went back on his word and BSY’s first stint as CM in 2007 was only for a week, over much political drama and followed by months of President’s Rule.
But BSY was back the following year, winning 110 seats for the BJP and kicking in its first — and the only yet — full term in any state south of the Vindhyas. Halfway into that term, however, he had to step down as CM amid corruption charges flying thick and fast (remember the Reddy Bros?). But his hold over the state party unit remained intact and when his successor DV Sadananda Gowda fell out with BSY, he had to make way for Jagadish Shettar.
The allegations of impropriety and frequent CM changes wearied down the party in the 2013 elections, paving the way for the Congress to return to power. Siddaramaiah, who was earlier with JD(S) and had twice been deputy CM during his stint, pipped others to the CM post. He became only the second CM to complete a full five-year term in the state.
That, however, was not enough to buck the trend of Karnataka voting out incumbent governments. By 2018, the Congress was also beleaguered across the country in the face of an onslaught by the BJP led by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. A combination of the two factors propelled the BJP again to be the single-largest in the state Assembly but nine seats short of the required number to form a government. The Congress took the opportunity to keep the BJP out of power and offered support to JD(S), which had only 37 seats. Kumaraswamy took oath as the CM a second time.
The arrangement unravelled due to the infamous ‘Operation Lotus’ — when 15 MLAs from the Congress and two from the JD(S) resigned and joined the BJP. Yeddiyurappa engineered his way back to being CM in 2019, only to step aside a couple of years later.
When Basavaraja Bommai took over as CM on July 28, 2021, he inherited a political quagmire from BSY. The BJP, which once took pride in positioning itself as a party with difference, now routinely finds itself weighed down by corruption charges. It was no different in Karnataka, especially as the way it wiggled into government, skirting anti-defection laws.
The 17 resignations reduced the floor strength of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly to 206, instead of the usual 223 (discounting the Speaker), ensuring Kumaraswamy lost a trust vote. Rumours of horse-trading gained credence as most of those who resigned were re-elected on BJP tickets in by-elections and were accommodated in the Cabinet. Some received plum portfolios like Excise (K Gopalaiah), Labour (AS Hebbar), Tourism and Environment (Anand Singh), Irrigation (Ramesh Jarkiholi), Co-operation (ST Somasekhar), Urban Development (B Basavaraj). A couple of those who lost were sent to the Legislative Council. Plum postings apart, allegations of money changing hands also flew in thick and fast.
A series of events kept making the headlines even as the state was in the process of limping back to normalcy. The accused ranged from petty government functionaries to ministers, including some of the turncoats:
Contractors who would take up various government projects alleged that they were routinely asked to shell out 40% of the project value as “commission”. The Karnataka State Contractors Association even wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to complain and held demonstrations in protest. KSCA President R Manjunath had alleged in January that the state government owed them Rs 25,000 crores for work done over three years. Things came to a head when Santosh Patil, a 40-year-old contractor was found dead after alleging harassment by Rural Development minister KS Eshwarappa. Bommai dropped the former state party chief from Cabinet, but this proved insufficient to change the image of the government.
Over 100 people were arrested by the Karnataka Police for cheating in a test to recruit sub-inspectors (PSI). Candidates reportedly paid up to Rs 85 lakh in this ‘PSI scam’, the state Criminal Investigation Department admitted. The Congress alleged that Higher Education Minister Ashwath Narayan’s relatives were involved. The Opposition also alleged that Hebbar was involved in scams worth crores related to distribution of food kits during the COVID-19 pandemic and tool kits for labourers. Similarly, there were allegations of scams related to the supply of oxygen and beds during the pandemic; supply of eggs for school children; those related to the financial sector and accusations of land grabbing.
Though Bommai did not face any accusation personally, the CM found it difficult to wipe the slate clean before leading the party into an electoral campaign. Media reports suggested that even Modi was advised to refrain from focussing much on local leaders at his rallies.
A section of voters had also started drawing similarities between the previous BSY regime. The BJP found it difficult to neutralise the Congress’s ‘40% Sarkara’ charge by a mere change at the hot seat, especially since several of the tainted ministers continued in the Cabinet
The government’s handling of the economy and the pandemic also emerged as major complaints, especially among the lower-middle class of the population. Inflation and a lack of jobs that pay well enough were regular talking points in the run-up to the election. For farmers, forget a doubling of income, even earning enough to make ends meet became a struggle.
“Forget a helping hand, nobody even came to enquire how we were during the lockdown,” complained Jayamma, a highly skilled tailoring worker in the Bengaluru garment sector. “We were left to fend for ourselves even as the factories remained shut,” she added.
Manjula, who manages an eatery in the southern suburbs of the city, pointed out that some representatives of right-wing organisations offered food items and other help, but there was hardly any outreach from the government. “It is difficult to even withdraw the foodgrain from ration (public distribution shops) shops due to problems in matching fingerprints,” said the woman in her late-20s who had to drop out of college at Gadag in north Karnataka to look for work.
The state is globally admired for its information technology sector industry related services, a sector that was relatively unscathed by the pandemic. Karnataka’s economy grew an impressive 9.5% in 2021-22, according to latest budgetary estimates. The services sector contributes nearly two-thirds to the state’s gross domestic product (GDP) of around Rs 23 lakh crore, according to the latest Budgetary estimates. Karnataka is now placed fifth among states in terms of GDP and eighth in per capita GDP.
While the famed Silicon Valley substantially adds to the state’s revenue — Bengaluru Urban district contributed more than a third of the state’s GDP — it also skewed income distribution as most white-collar jobs with fat pay packets go to candidates from outside the state. “Our children mostly get contractual work as drivers or in housekeeping,” lamented a labour organiser. Bengaluru Urban recorded a per capita income of Rs 6.2 lakh for 2021-22, but only five of Karnataka’s 29 other districts could record even half of that.
Karnataka evolved as a manufacturing hub with the Centre setting up many public sector industries post-independence (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, Indian Telephones, etc). This drew in many private sector players too — especially those related to engineering — including Indian subsidiaries of multinationals like Airbus and Toyota Motor Corp. A dependence on the tertiary sectors, however, has reduced focus on the secondary sector and now industry contributes only about a fifth of the state GDP. In recent years, an increased influx of migrant workers from northern and north-eastern states — who are ready to work for less — have eaten into the pool of blue-collared jobs as well.
Thus while real estate rates and the prices of essentials have increased, general wages have not always matched up. “We have to pay at least Rs 6,000 in rent; a cylinder of cooking gas costs Rs 1,200 now; everything from food grain to electricity to bus rides have become costlier,” pointed out Jayamma. She and her colleagues make around Rs 11,000 a month.
But perhaps the most raw deal has been reserved for the state’s farmers. The primary sectors now make up only about 15% of the state GDP. The share of agriculture and horticulture is about 10%, but it still supports a substantial population — more than half of it, by some estimates. Marginal and small farmers constitute 80% of the agriculturists.
For this vast section, the PM’s stated goal of doubling farm income by 2022 seemed more like an irony: The advance estimates for 2022-23 predicted a meagre 3.2% rise in GDP from crops for the state. For many, low prices and high input costs have become a deterrent to farming. Though several crops are on the government procurement lists, delays force farmers growing food crops like paddy and ragi to often sell in the open market at lower prices. Those who grow sugarcane, an important and popular cash crop, have to mostly depend on private mills. They have been fighting for better compensation for almost a decade now and complain that it is increasingly becoming an unattractive proposition. “The government just doesn’t take us seriously. Perhaps we should stop cultivation for a year,” said S Krishna, a sugarcane farmer from Mandya associated with the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, a farmers’ body, as well as the cooperative movement.
“The agrarian crisis is a big issue that is going under-reported despite being widely prevalent,” claimed Yasvantha, general-secretary of Karnataka Prantha Raitha Sangha, which is backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). There has hardly been any substantial rise in procurement prices under this government and farmers don’t even get those prices. Fertilisers have become expensive and cattle feed prices have nearly doubled, he alleged. “The Crop Price Commission is now headless,” he added.
Factors like foods, droughts and break-out of diseases were also not tackled by the government, farmers alleged. “Acres in my village now lie empty as the owners have left for cities,” said a resident of Chatralinganadoddi, a hamlet in Maddur taluka of Mandya. Reduced rainfall and a lack of irrigation facilities have meant that farmers in the area must borrow heavily to invest in borewells. For many, the debt trap becomes unmanageable. “My son committed suicide last year after running up debts of a few lakhs,” said Manchayah MS from neighbouring Mallanayakanahalli. His son Sandesh Gowda had borrowed heavily to invest in mulberry cultivation.
The shrinking margin also put downward pressure on agricultural wages, putting agriculture labourers in a spot. Here too, migrant workers have moved in to work at cheaper rates. “Coffee plantations in Coorg now prefer workers from Assam as they are ready to work for Rs 300 a day,” said S Ali, a resident of Madikeri. “We can’t help it. Sugarcane now doesn’t leave us enough profits and we must cut corners,” said a farmer from Mandya, referring to rising costs of fertiliser, electricity and petroleum and stagnant prices. “Whoever forms the next government, must help us out,” he added.
In the face of such ground realities, the Bommai government’s response was found wanting. “Ever since the Goods and Services Tax were introduced, inflation has become unmanageable for me,” complained Manjula. “The government here doesn’t seem to care at all,” summed up Swetha, who works with Jayamma.
Rather than formulating policies to steer the state out of such hardships, the rightwing ecosystem’s only response seemed to be the communal card. In the recent years, Karnataka has seen major controversies flaring up over the Hijab ban in educational institutes, barring Muslim traders from certain fares and congregations. Local communal clashes have also been reported. “It is difficult for us to live here without trepidation,” said Shadath, who runs a small business in Bengaluru. “We refrain from putting our names on signboards to avoid getting noticed,” he added. “See, the locals — be they Hindus or Muslims — try to live in peace. But political parties keep instigating people to create trouble. Once clashes start, they even end in deaths,” lamented Shoyab, who works at a showroom in Maddur.
One of the BJP’s last ditch efforts to salvage the situation was to tinker with the state’s reservation policy. Predictably, the axe fell on Muslims, by withdrawing a 4% reservation for the community within the provisions for Other Backward Classes and distributing it equally among the Vokkaligas and Veershiva-Lingayats. It earmarked quotas within 17% reservation for Scheduled Castes that would cover 101 castes: 6% for the ‘SC Left’ — the most backwards among the Dalits, including the Madiga community; 5.5% for the ‘SC Right’ — the relatively less backwards, including the Holeyas; 4.5% for those who are not discriminated against as untouchables by other communities (eg, the Banjaras); and 1% for the rest.
This too didn’t work for the BJP as protests broke out soon after the March 25 announcement. While it may have taken into account the Muslim anger, even sections of the Vokkaliga and especially Banjara communities demonstrated against the move. A common refrain was the lack of consultations with the communities before the move.
It may be surmised that though the BJP managed to cobble together a majority and formed the government, it didn’t have enough to show for in terms of governance. Thus, it went to the elections without any major asset except the Teflon-coated persona of Modi. “I salute Modi sir. He works tirelessly for the country,” said Manjula despite blaming the GST (a central scheme) for runaway inflation, typifying how the PM has retained his popularity among many voters.
The rudderlessness of the local BJP unit was also evident in the lack of a vigorous campaign early on. There were also reports about how the central party unit had taken over the entire process. If it is true, it won’t be the first time that the BJP’s central brass was accused of sidelining local leadership. Such complaints have kept surfacing from time to time, including in a large state like West Bengal (2021). The saffron side did roll out its big ’uns, including Modi, home minister Amit Shah and UP CM Adityanath, but even they couldn’t change the tide much. Chairs were reported empty at rallies of star campaigners in several parts of the state just days before polling, culminating in an anticlimactic roadshow by the PM in Bengaluru on the final Sunday morning.
The listlessness of the BJP campaign was evident in a survey by Delhi-based research institute Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies: Before campaigning began, 39% voters in Karnataka were sure of which party they would vote for, leaving 61% undecided. This points to considerable anti-incumbency, but the BJP was still ahead of the Congress and the JD(S). Almost half (47%) of BJP voters had made up their mind even before the campaign began. In terms of the state’s total voting population, it comes to around 17%; For the Congress and JD(S), around a third (37% and 34% respectively) of its voters were already committed — in absolute terms, around 16% and 4.5%.
These indicate two things:
(a) The BJP’s famed election machinery, which supposedly assigns tasks down to the level of each page of the electoral roll and is funded by the lion’s share of electoral bonds, lost to a Goliath Grand Old Party in drawing enough fringe / undecided voters.
(b) The communal rhetoric, employed well in advance of the elections, has perhaps outlived its utility in Karnataka and has failed to draw in new supporters though retaining its existing votary. The BJP lost seats even in coastal Karnataka, which has been termed as the state’s Hindutva lab.
As the parties declared their respective candidates, 14% voters firmed up their choices. The rate was similar for the three parties, with a slight bump among ‘others’. In absolute terms, the BJP and the Congress benefitted almost equally in this stage.
During the campaigns, 15% more voters made up their mind. It is in this stage, that the Congress overtook the incumbent, though the gap was bridgeable. Among the 28% who made up their minds at the last moment, the balance again skewed towards the Congress.
The Rahul Gandhi-led campaign was visibly popular especially due to its five guarantees:
- 10 kg rice to every member of families below the poverty line
- 200 units of free electricity per household per month
- Rs 2,000 to every woman head of family
- Rs 3,000 and Rs 1,500 to unemployed graduates and diploma holders (up to 25 years)
- Free travel for women in public buses
The Siddaramaiah government approved these in principle in its first Cabinet meeting. These guarantees appealed to the lower middle class and the poor across age groups. As a result, it could beat BJP in all age groups, including those less than 25 by a minute margin — antithetical to the fact that first-time voters have routinely voted the BJP since the advent of Modi on the national stage. The trend remained the same (again by a hairline margin) among urban voters, another strong point for the right wing. The BJP though retained an edge among voters who have been to college, which ties in with the fact that the less educated — more likely to be in low-paying jobs and agriculture — were more for a change.
The Congress also trumped the BJP as far as solidarity towards the party goes: Two-thirds of those who voted it did so because of the party while half of BJP voters did so for the same reason. At a community level, the BJP predictably put up its best show among Brahmins (60%) and Lingayats (56%) — which helped it retain its vote share from the previous term (going by Lokniti-CSDS). It also fared marginally better than the Congress among non-Kuruba OBCs (37% vs 34%). And that’s where it ran out of luck.
While it was clear that the bulk of the votes that JD(S) lost went to the Congress, at this stage it becomes clearer: 49% Vokkaligas voted for the party, compared to 24% for the BJP and 17% for the JD(S). That decidedly shifts the fulcrum in the second-most populous grouping in the state towards state Congress chief DK Shivakumar from the Deve Gowda-Kumaraswamy duo.
Also, 70% Muslim voters sided with the Congress, delivering a further blow to the JD(S). It garnered 63% Dalit votes and 45% Adivasi votes, according to the survey — a handsome victory for Siddaramaiah, the champion of Ahindas — Alpasankhyataru (minorities) Hindulidavaru (backward classes) and Dalitaru. His own Kuruba community overwhelmingly sided (56%) with him though a third voted for the BJP.
In the results, lie lessons for all sides:
The BJP should now be wary of becoming a one-trick pony and relying too much on PM Modi. It shoud also understand that the Hindutva card can’t always cover up a lack of governance, leadership and political maturity. Too much centralisation and micro-management seemed to sap its creativity. Every polity needs a conservative player and it has got a historical opportunity to carry out that role in the world’s biggest democracy. It can do better.
For JD(S), the elections were a warning bell: The 13.3% vote share is its worst after the 10.4% it received during its 1999 debut. The family-driven politics of the Gowdas, where no other leaders can survive, may not be able to sustain long without new energy and creativity. This comes on the back of the crushing 1.3 lakh vote loss that Nikhil Gowda, Kumaraswamy’s son, suffered in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Mandya. A large section of the Vokkaligas supported the party in 2018 as they thought it had a shot at power. They were proved right but the party couldn’t capitalise on those gains. Being soft in its criticism of communal politics has also driven away a large part of its support among minorities. In a way, this is also a lesson for other such parties and satraps who keep harping on the Janata legacy.
The Congress was visibly energised and confident after the success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Unshackled by the pressures of running the party, Rahul Gandhi — clearly its tallest leader now — devoted himself to the campaign better. A clear-cut strategy with well-defined deliverables worked in its favour as did digging in its heels against communalism. But perhaps its biggest achievement was the maturity with which Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah worked without stepping on each other’s toes. The way they complemented each other is a lesson for Congress leaders across India, especially in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where elections are due soon. Priyanka Gandhi proved to be another asset, especially in connecting with women. Mallikarjun Kharge played a stellar role as the party president; it would benefit the party if he can replicate this show outside his home state. The biggest challenge: To deliver the promised goods and to keep the ship in shape, without factionalism, before heading into the next General Elections.
(Joyjeet Das is an independent journalist. The names of the interviewees has been changed. The views expressed in the article are personal.)