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The Election Outlook in Karnataka

Trends, Issues and Uncertainties

James Manor ( is with the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Karnataka will be going to the polls this year before May. Since 1985, every government, no matter its performance, has been voted out after one term. With the ruling Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party gearing up for the battle at the hustings, this article looks at all the issues that can benefit or hamper their prospects.

The author is most grateful to M Madan Mohan, M B Maramkal, Imran Qureshi and Narayana A, none of whom are responsible for errors here. 

No state government in Karnataka has been re-elected since 1985. Some of the six governments rejected by voters over the last 32 years had performed reasonably well, but faced ouster nonetheless. This grim reality casts doubt on the outlook for any ruling party in the state, including the current Congress government led by Siddaramaiah and which will face the polls before May 2018. Despite some solid achievements, it has encountered severe problems, not the least being three and sometimes four years of drought in different parts of the state.

The Congress also faces a challenge from a party with great political momentum. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in the Uttar Pradesh state election and its subsequent inclusion in the ruling coalition in Bihar lead many to see it as unstoppable. But Karnataka has its own distinctive political logic, and recent tests of opinion give the Congress a lead. So here, with the help of several valuable surveys and analyses, is a guide to current trends, issues and uncertainties.

Recent Tests of Opinion

Two recent indications of the popular mood are both encouraging for the Congress. First, in February 2016, it outperformed rivals in the zilla panchayat elections (Table 1).

Congress gained over two million more votes than the BJP. It came first or second in over 90% of the contests, as against the BJP in 70% of the seats. It was helped in the southern districts by a decline in the Janata Dal (Secular)—JD(S)—vote share from 20.09% in the 2013 state elections (Mohit Rao 2016). Second, an opinion survey conducted by C fore, again showing a solid Congress lead emerged in August 2017. The BJP claimed that it had been undertaken for the chief minister’s office. However, the survey was apparently commissioned by a Kannada television channel with links to the BJP and that refused to broadcast the results after seeing the numbers. The results then found their way to other outlets. C fore’s founder has served as a member of the chief minister’s vision group, but the Congress did not organise the poll. Its detailed findings for the state assembly of 224 seats are shown in Table 2.1

A little caution would be in order here. Any extrapolation of seat totals from vote shares is prone to error. The large numbers of seats predicted for the Congress in two regions is open to doubt. In Bengaluru, it won only 11 seats in the last election of 2013, and the Congress (with JD[S] support) holds power in the municipal corporation. Its large projected lead over the BJP in Hyderabad–Karnataka (located in north–east Karnataka) is also questionable, although a secretary of the All India Congress Committee from the region is an effective operator who may be able to counter formidable BJP leaders there.2

C fore’s record in earlier elections has been good. However, polls conducted by the Congress show 90–95 seats in its favour as against 80–85 for the BJP,3 thus indicating that the ruling party’s lead is not insurmountable. These figures were reconfirmed when BJP President Amit Shah scornfully informed BJP colleagues that they would currently lose, with only 80 seats—based on private polling—while his target is 150. State BJP leaders were offended by his harsh personal attacks on many of them, including a former deputy chief minister, a Member of Parliament (MP), leaders of the party youth and women’s wings, and party district presidents. Shah even pulled up another former deputy chief minister for not taking notes on his comments.4 He stressed his potentially accurate belief that hard work over the eight or nine months before voting could retrieve the situation.

Congress Campaign Strategy

At the coming election, the Congress will not suffer from certain disabilities that have crippled it in several other states as also in Karnataka during previous elections. Unlike the Congress in Haryana under Bhupinder Singh Hooda, it has not been weakened by a chief minister who diverted vast resources to cultivate a constituency for his son. It is less vulnerable to a charge that damaged it in Uttar Pradesh—that the caste of the chief minister (whose party was an election ally) had been excessively favoured. Siddaramaiah’s programmes have benefited a broader array of disadvantaged groups. The Congress organisation in Karnataka is in far better shape than the “terrible, terrible” mess discovered in Uttar Pradesh by a senior party strategist.5

The Congress in Karnataka no longer faces the ghastly problems that afflicted it in 2008–09 and were described thus: “utter disarray, (a) string of defections, poor choices of candidates, incessant infighting, and total confusion in the ranks” (Shastri and Devi 2014: 464). As in other states, factions flourish,6 but the high command has strongly backed Siddaramaiah—minimising the problem. The party is prepared to resist any efforts by the BJP to bribe key district-level Congress operatives to remain inactive. In 2008, the BJP distributed massive illicit funds from the mining lobby to neutralise 24 such people. The Congress will not be damaged by a politically inept election “in-charge” like Prithviraj Chavan whose bungling allowed a winnable state election to slip away in 2008 (Manor 2008). This time around, Kerala MP K C Venugopal, respected by most state Congress leaders will be the election incharge for the party. He is backed by Rahul Gandhi and is seen by most to be shrewd and well informed, even though he knows little of the state’s subtleties. The Congress’s “fund-raising” has taken a severe hit due to the obvious fact of it being out of power in almost all major states. The BJP has, in any case, far more money to spend on campaigning. But this factor will not decide the election. Parties with less money have won a large majority of elections in Karnataka—and in India—since the early 1980s.

The BJP and Its Themes

The Congress victory in 2013 owed much to a three-way split in the BJP. Former Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa formed his own party which took away Lingayat votes from the BJP. Another formidable defector with influence in the Hyderabad–Karnataka region also formed a rival party. The split cost the BJP approximately 36 seats many of which were lost to the Congress by narrow margins. Both rebels have now rejoined the BJP, and their combined appeal could regain many seats in central, Bombay Karnataka and Hyderabad–Karnataka regions although the C fore survey and private polls by both main parties appear encouraging for the Congress except in the Bombay Karnataka region.

Some BJP senior leaders complain about their leaders’ failure to highlight failings of the Congress government. Embarrassing revelations were instead unearthed by H D Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) who pointed to a diamond encrusted watch worth ₹70 lakh gifted to Siddaramaiah by a friend and which the former handed over to the speaker of the state assembly to be treated as a state asset. Kumaraswamy also accused the chief minister of wearing shoes costing over ₹70,000.

Many in the BJP also bitterly resent their national leaders’ choice of Yeddyurappa as the chief ministerial candidate,7 and several rumours discrediting him have been doing the rounds. One perceptive analyst locates Yeddyurappa’s main adversaries in the BJP rather than the Congress.8 The complaints in the BJP about his autocratic ways are decades old (Manor 2011). He has not heeded instructions from national leaders and reverted to type, for example, by insisting that supporters observe his birthday. This may well erode many activists’ commitment during the campaign.

The BJP’s organisation in Karnataka is arguably less extensive and strong than that of the Congress. It finds it difficult to penetrate beyond a small coastal region, large urban centres and the district level into rural constituencies that will largely decide the election. Amit Shah has ordered the formation of nine-member committees for all the 66,000 polling booths and it is possible that party activists’ resentment of Yeddyurappa may undermine the instruction.9 Senior Congress leaders have pledged to visit every booth, but despite having more personnel, the party is not as well coordinated as the BJP. Shah has also ordered detailed dossiers on every constituency though this has for long been a common BJP practice not only in Karnataka but also other states.10 The party will not be able to reinforce its efforts by drawing upon the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres from other states because a majority of them would be unable to speak in Kannada. This forces the party to rely mainly on its local organisation. However, one of Shah’s other ideas—that each of the BJP’s one crore members in the state reach three others —holds promise.

Yeddyurappa is systematically visiting a huge number of localities. That may pay dividends despite the embarrassment caused by the controversy when it was found that the food he ate in 33 Dalit homes had been supplied from outside. He is also cultivating certain “backward” castes and encouraging caste associations among them, seeking to draw them away from Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA (Kannada acronym for backward castes, Muslims and Dalits) coalition. He has promised to help them by lifting the cap on reservations to take them above 50%. (Siddaramaiah responded with a similar promise, although both know that court rulings will prevent that.) Another BJP leader from the same Kuruba (shepherd) caste as Siddaramaiah, former deputy chief minister K S Eshwarappa, has created an organisation that also courts backward castes going against Yeddyurappa’s express instructions not to do so. But since Eshwarappa seeks to challenge not just the Congress but also Yeddyurappa, this may produce as much disarray as benefit for the BJP (Qureshi 2016).

It is clear that the BJP is struggling to find a winning election narrative. During a visit to Karnataka, Shah declared that the main issues for the campaign would be decided by him, from above, on the advice of a team of 11 national-level aides. This would not include Karnataka BJP activists who understand the subtleties of the state’s politics, as an unhappy senior state BJP leader pointed out. This was consistent with his disastrously over-centralised management of the Bihar state election campaign in which the BJP threw away an early lead. The BJP leaders there complained angrily that Shah and Modi did not listen to their views (Manor 2016). As one of Shah’s close confidants in New Delhi had said at the time, “Amit goes into meetings with his mind made up.”11

Campaign Themes

Shah has announced three key campaign themes: the state government’s alleged misuse of central government funds; the massive corruption it has indulged in; and communal polarisation. Many BJP leaders in Karnataka recognise that this is an unpromising agenda.

The first theme enables Siddaramaiah to re-emphasise a favourite complaint: that the centre has underfunded his government, providing ₹10,000 crore less than its share under the finance commission rules. He stresses the politically sensitive shortfall for drought relief. Siddaramaiah is also well armed with detailed statistics to show that funds have not been misused. He has presented 15 state budgets—some as finance minister in earlier governments—and is rather adroit at explaining quantitative data in compelling terms. As opposition leader, his arguments in budget debates were so perceptive that government ministers actually took notes as he spoke. He has already torn apart the BJP’s claim about the misuse of funds with persuasive rebuttals.

The BJP may make more headway with allegations of corruption, but here too there is a major problem. One survey of 20 states found that Karnataka was the worst case: 77% of households “experienced corruption in accessing public services”—that is (worryingly for Congress), petty bribery which affects them directly. But the survey may not be reliable: the sample was perilously small —an average of 150 households per state, and it was conducted in only two districts in many states (Centre for Media Studies 2017: 4). Karnataka also ranked first among 19 states in a similar study in 2009 when the BJP was in power (Bhaskar Rao and Srivastava 2010: 6). The present government has not faced major scandals—in contrast to the multiple and prolonged controversies that engulfed the previous BJP regime under eddyurappa, the first chief minister to be jailed. Siddaramaiah has hit back resoundingly at Shah, saying that he has no moral right to make this claim when the “corrupt are sitting next to him.” That reply came before a report emerged suggesting that Shah’s son had made huge financial gains since the BJP took power in 2014 (Singh 2017).

Shah’s third theme, communal polarisation, also lacks promise. It has never produced a popular response in Karnataka, except in the small coastal region and certain other minor pockets. On the coast, where the right has recently pushed hard Hindutva, it backfired at the last state election. Under the previous BJP government, “communal riots took place … with unusual frequency and ferocity …” Muslim boys were assaulted merely for talking to Hindu girls. Extremists stormed a pub where young women were “slapped, beaten and chased out” for “violating ‘Hindu culture and tradition’ by drinking publicly”. “Indiscriminate looting and atrocities against minorities were the order of the day” (Jha 2017: 96–97 and 100). In the 2013 election on the coast, a longtime BJP stronghold, voters reacted against these outrages and against an aggressively communal campaign speech there by Modi—giving rival candidates 14 of the 17 seats (Manor 2013).12 Shah has either overlooked that episode, or he believes that communal polarisation is important enough to risk a backlash.

There are other signs that polarisation will find little traction. The ideas of Basaveshwara, an iconic historical figure for Lingayats who form the core of the BJP’s base, do not lend themselves to communalism. That partly explains why Yeddyurappa—a Lingayat leader—has tended to downplay hard Hindutva. Even the RSS knows that it will alienate Lingayats in the BJP’s “Bombay” Karnataka bastion, and has practised restraint there.13 Attempts to whip up anti-Muslim sentiments away from the coast, in Hubli and at a disputed shrine in Chikmagalur district, have generated little enthusiasm.

More clues to the appeal of BJP themes emerge the shrewdly crafted survey by Lokniti conducted in Karnataka plus Gujarat, Haryana and Odisha (hereafter, Lokniti’s 2017 survey). Some findings will be discouraging for Hindu nationalists. Half of the (mainly Hindu) Karnataka respondents reported having a Muslim as a close friend as compared to only one-third respondents in other states. Considerably, fewer respondents in Karnataka than elsewhere believe that Hindus are more patriotic than minorities, or that Muslims are mostly violent. Respondents in Karnataka were somewhat more libertarian than in the other states in attitudes to freedom of expression. On the other hand, 80% in the state voiced majoritarian views on issues linked to nationalism.

Despite uncertainty about the appeal of Hindu nationalist themes, hard-line rightists have been given prominence in the BJP’s election preparations. B L Santosh, an RSS leader, will have great influence over candidate selection to the dismay of Yeddyurappa. This is partly the result of the party’s national leaders’ distrust of Yeddyurappa who failed to cover his tracks in allegedly illicit land deals as chief minister and who, when he was ousted, denounced them and left the party. The recent surprise appointment as union minister of Anant Kumar Hegde who has had a case registered against him for incendiary comments about Islam reinforces the impression that polarisation will play a big part. The choice of Prakash Javadekar, who hails from Pune and has always been a member of the upper house with little experience of election management, is another sore point for Yeddyurappa. According to a perceptive political analyst from that city, Javadekar is “not known for tactical expertise.” His main qualification for the role may be his close ties to “core RSS sections.”14

The emphasis by Modi and Shah on communal themes in the Bihar election backfired. As one BJP leader said, “Bihar is not Uttar Pradesh” (Pushkarna 2015). Nor is Karnataka.

One crucial unknown factor is the potential impact of Modi’s campaigning in 2018. At the 2013 state election, he gave two speeches. He was then little known in Karnataka, so state BJP leaders who were worried about embarrassingly low turnouts scheduled one meeting in a hall in Bengaluru where the party has many supporters. The hall was full, but his second speech in a modest open area on the coast, capable of accommodating 50,000, drew a mere 5,000. In 2018, however, the turnout will not pose a problem, and stirring speeches from a popular Prime Minister may make a major difference.

Siddaramaiah’s response to Modi will be modelled on that of Ramakrishna Hegde in the 1985 state election campaign when Rajiv Gandhi addressed enormous crowds soon after his landslide victory in the national election. Hegde repeatedly said that whatever the result of the state election, Rajiv Gandhi would certainly not be chief minister. The unstated message then was that the widely disliked Gundu Rao would take power. In that state election, just nine weeks after Gandhi had swept Karnataka’s Lok Sabha elections, 105 out of 224 assembly segments swung towards Hegde’s party which won an astounding victory (Raghavan and Manor 2009: 187–200). The unstated message in 2018 will be that if the BJP wins, the bumbling, scandal-ridden Yeddyurappa—and not Modi—will become chief minister.

The Janata Dal (Secular)

A familiar wild card in Karnataka elections is the JD(S), led by former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda and his son (and former chief minister) H D Kumaraswamy. It has far less money to spend than either the BJP or Congress, but has shown that it can win seats without lavish funds thanks to its networks among the Vokkaligas. The community dominates the belt running south and south–west from rural Bengaluru district. It won 40 seats at the 2013 state election, and it hopes for 35 to 40 in 2018, to hold the balance of power in a hung assembly.

That will be a challenge. Siddaramaiah is also popular there and it is his home region. Congress won two by-elections in the far south in April 2017, enhancing its victory margins from 2013. The JD(S) was so unsure of its prospects, even in these southern districts where Vokkaligas are numerically strong, that it boycotted both contests. The Congress won despite the campaigning by former Chief Minister S M Krishna, a Vokkaliga leader who had joined the BJP. The Congress also showed that it can defeat the BJP even in a constituency where Lingayats have a dominant presence. Siddaramaiah’s pro-poor policies appear, against initial expectations, to have attracted significant Dalit support (Narayana 2017).

In 2014–15, the JD(S) was in crisis. Kumaraswamy’s wife lost the elections first, to the state assembly and later to Parliament. When he also failed to win a parliamentary seat, he spoke of quitting politics. The party also faced serious dissension. The Congress, however, failed to seize this opportunity to cultivate the Vokkaligas, and since then the JD(S) has managed to recover some ground.

It has suffered defections by eight legislators who were impatient with the aloof leadership of Kumaraswamy. One defector has since returned to the JD(S), but seven will probably get Congress tickets, and three or four will probably be re-elected. In a tight election, that could be important.

If the JD(S) wrests seats from the Congress in the southern districts, it will benefit the BJP, which is a minor player in the rural constituencies there. But one BJP tactic may backfire by helping the Congress against the JD(S). Raids by the income tax department (controlled by the central government) on a leading Congress Vokkaliga, B K Shivakumar—who was targeted by the BJP as an example to support allegations of corruption in the state government—could trigger a sympathy vote for the Congress from the Vokkaligas.

Electoral Implications

For much of its first three years in power, the state government tended to drift. The chief minister was called “Niddaramaiah,” a Kannada pun on his name suggesting a sleepy leader. At times, he was even seen to doze. The impression created is summed up in the title of an article by an eminent journalist: “That Dull Drone from Bangalore” (Qureshi 2015).

Actually, Siddaramaiah was suffering from sleep apnea, for which he was treated successfully. The last two years have seen much more dynamism. But even in that early phase, the government mounted numerous initiatives to benefit disadvantaged groups which provided its main base under the AHINDA strategy: backward castes, Dalits, Muslims, and Adivasis. Most notable was the Anna Bhagya programme to provide heavily subsidised food to poor families. A massive 79% of respondents to a 2017 survey cited it as the best government scheme—which indicates approval for it far beyond the groups who gain from it (C fore 2017: 10). If the Congress reminds people that the BJP opposed the Anna Bhagya, it may resonate with voters.

During the last two years the amount of foodgrains provided under the Anna Bhagya has been increased, and schoolchildren are supplied with milk for five days per week as compared to the three days earlier. Anna canteens offering meals at ₹10 to all comers have been inaugurated, as has a new scheme to aid pregnant and lactating mothers during the six months before and after childbirth, which includes medical check-ups and inoculations. Another new programme named for Kempe Gowda, a Vokkaliga icon, may wean some of them away from the JD(S). An agricultural loan waiver in mid-2017 has eased, at least somewhat, the plight of drought-affected farmers.

The Congress hopes that the loan waiver, plus the impact of Article 371J of the Constitution which gives Hyderabad Karnataka special status, will strengthen its chances in that region. The article has increased the flow of development funds and provides local residents with reservations in government employment and education. The Congress leader from there, Mallikarjun Kharge (now Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha), played a key role in passing it in 2012. That may enable gains for the party there, partly because in contrast to the BJP bastion of Bombay Karnataka, cooperative societies are not dominated by the Lingayats.

Alongside social programmes, the state government managed to gain more industrial investments in 2016 than any other state.

Rising revenues have enabled the state government to commit substantial resources to social programmes, the loan waiver, etc, without incurring a fiscal crisis. But as one Karnataka minister noted, the Gehlot (Congress) government in Rajasthan had spent heavily on social programmes and still lost.15

He may be too pessimistic. Lokniti’s 2017 survey found that 96% of respondents were aware of government programmes. This figure was higher than that in Gujarat, Haryana and Odisha, although the average across all four was 90%. The percentages of respondents who were self-reported beneficiaries of pension and employment schemes, and of agricultural policies, were much higher than in the other three states. In Karnataka, 70% reported ease of access to five public services, well above the average of 58% for the four states. And 48%—a far higher proportion than in the other states—regarded the state government as strongly liberal in its response to protests against state actions to acquire land.

Again, in April 2017, a survey among workers in the unorganised sector—disadvantaged groups—gauged their awareness of and access to social security benefits provided through the state government. It focused on rural dwellers who will probably decide the result of the forthcoming election. It found that the Dalits and OBCs were nearly as aware as the landed castes of social security programmes, and that their awareness of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which the state government had strongly promoted amid drought, was quite high. Most households had gained access to between one and three schemes. Large numbers of Dalits availed themselves of pensions, scholarships and health provisions. Overall, the state government’s targeting of 15 social programmes had made a significant material difference to disadvantaged households.16

Third and perhaps most tellingly, the findings of the C fore survey reveal broad popular approval for the government’s performance. Of the total, 18% respondents were “extremely satisfied” and 53% were “somewhat satisfied” against 29% who were “not satisfied.” When recent Karnataka governments were compared, 44% said that Siddaramaiah’s government was “functioning better,” compared to 28% who named the previous BJP government and 18% who pointed to an earlier government headed by the JD(S). Similarly, when asked whom they preferred as chief minister, the figures were 46% for Siddaramaiah (Congress), 27% for Yeddyurappa (BJP), and 17% for H D Kumaraswamy (JD[S]) (C fore 2017: 7 and 9–10).

The long recent drought could undo these approval ratings. In 2016–17, for example, the south–west monsoon was deficient by 18%, and the north–east by 71% (Maramkal 2017). To make matters worse, in 2016 the state government was forced by a decision at the national level to release river waters to Tamil Nadu and thus, for the first time to deny farmers in southern districts water that was crucial for their crops.

The Karnataka authorities did all that they could to ease what threatened to be an agricultural and political disaster. Strenuous efforts were made to provide drinking water and water for cattle. A new system was inaugurated to transfer funds swiftly to farmers, and in mid-2017, loan repayments of 2.24 million farmers were waived.

The state government also sought, throughout its tenure, to maximise the impact of the MGNREGA. That effort was undercut at first, after 79 gram panchayat development officers were suspended leading to a “go slow.” But after 2015, the pace quickened. Four districts won national prizes for implementing the programme. In 2016, many water conservation works were completed, easing the agony in 2017 amid another poor monsoon. The authorities also worked hard—unusually for a state government— to inform the rural poor of their rights under the MGNREGA, and from 2016 onward, there was a huge increase in uptake on the scheme (Pattenden 2017).

The government’s performance may help in its attempt to gain substantial votes from Dalits (16.2% of the population) but it faces a major problem. Dalits (like all castes in South India) are split ritually between “left” and “right” hand groups. Congress is well placed with the latter, but the “left” Dalits have recently backed the BJP, and they have great numerical strength in northern districts where the election may be decided.

Three things may enable Congress to gain enough “left” Dalit votes to defeat the BJP. First, many have gained from Siddaramaiah’s social programmes and the MGNREGA. Second, the state government has dealt adroitly with the “left” Dalit demands for reservations internal to the Scheduled Caste (SC) category. Third, a little noted change was stressed by a very knowledgeable Dalit source. The pursuit of the beef issue by national BJP leaders, and consequent attacks on Dalits in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh (plus a similar atrocity in Karnataka’s Chikmagalur district) are well known and deeply resented by both “right” and “left” Dalits in the state.

Social Media

Well-informed observers argue that social media is widely followed even in rural areas where the election will be decided, and that it could influence the outcome. The BJP and allied organisations have a strong social media presence. Worried Congress organisers are struggling to play catch-up. They are confident that they can rival the Hindu right on Facebook and Twitter, but they are especially concerned about WhatsApp, where the right has 24,000 groups and where fake news and scurrilous comments flourish. False rumours on WhatsApp seriously undermined government inoculation campaigns in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (Rao and Govindarajan 2017). Congress activists cite cases in which Hindutva zealots draw many participants into WhatsApp groups by beginning discussions on popular film stars, but then go on to inject misrepresentations and attacks on Congress into the mix. Congress is seeking to infiltrate such groups and to challenge these views, but this is
extremely challenging.17

Promoting Regional Identity

The phenomenon of regional identity in Karnataka has not loomed as large as in some other states, but Siddaramaiah has seized upon a number of issues in an attempt to inspire a sense of regional solidarity. This is intended to serve multiple purposes. It may become a counterweight to the BJP’s hyper-nationalism. It may undercut support for the JD(S) which has stressed similar themes. It also reinforces the chief minister’s effort to deflect blame onto the central government for denying the state adequate funds and for forcing it to divert its river waters to Tamil Nadu, which has brought excruciating hardship amid drought to Karnataka’s farmers.

Siddaramaiah has formed a panel to consider adopting a flag for the state, something that Kannada enthusiasts have been agitating. This triggered apoplectic protests about insults to India’s tricolour from bellowing commentators on television news channels. But within Karnataka their fulminations appear to have strengthened popular support for such a flag and put the BJP onto the back foot. The chief minister dared BJP leaders to oppose the flag, and all but one has remained silent.

He has also backed efforts to promote the use of Kannada and to downgrade Hindi. Siddaramaiah is a logical champion of this cause since, as a minister in Hegde’s government in the 1980s, he headed the Kannada watchdog committee. He has spoken forcefully in defence of Kannada, and the recent blacking out of Hindi signs on the Bengaluru Metro by agitators has been officially endorsed. Some observers expect this issue to gain traction mainly in the state capital, but Lokniti’s 2017 survey of four states contains one surprise, which suggests that it may resonate more widely. The preference in Karnataka for the use of the regional language in public spaces was astoundingly high at 85%—much higher than in Gujarat, Haryana and Odisha. Support was especially strong in rural areas, although it also found respondents comfortable with their national identity.

These issues conveniently dovetail with Siddaramaiah’s frequent arguments that New Delhi has treated Karnataka unfairly over river waters, and by providing fewer funds than the state deserves under Finance Commission rules. That theme may cushion Modi’s impact during the election campaign.

Lingayat/Veerashaiva Controversy

Advocates of a separate religious status (as non-Hindus) for Lingayats—which might gain them government concessions and reservations—have recently attracted huge crowds to rallies in northern Karnataka. This infuriates the BJP which seeks to include them in its drive for solidarity among Hindus, and which fears a split in this group, its core electoral base. The terms Lingayat and Veerashaiva have often been used interchangeably, but of late, Lingayat complaints have increased about Veerashaivas departing from the ideas of Basaveshwara by ceding ground to certain Hindu ideas.

One cannot go into fine details in this article but it is unfortunate that the clearest guide to these complexities was written (before her murder, discussed below) by the late Gauri Lankesh who contrary to scurrilous suggestions by extreme rightists on social media, was a Lingayat (Lankesh 2017).

What is the potential impact of the Lingayat/Veerashaiva controversy on the state election? Siddaramaiah and his ministers believe that the split might fracture the BJP base, but they also know that an aggressive approach might trigger a backlash among Lingayats. So they have tried to keep the issue alive, but have moderated their stance by, for example, calling for religious leaders to resolve the dispute. This is unlikely because several mainly minor swamijis are committed to it. The heads of most major maths (monasteries) have said
little, although some oppose it openly and BJP leaders have maintained an anxious silence, except for Yeddyurappa who after strangely backing separatism, reversed his stand under pressure from national leaders.

Leading analysts of northern Karnataka believe that the controversy will have little effect on the election results. The separatist religious leaders are only minor figures who lack both a firm base within any Lingayat jati (caste) and the capacity to change voters’ minds. Common people are mostly “unmoved” and even if they support separatism, “converting that into votes is very difficult.” They also argue that voting is mainly shaped by more tangible issues and by politicians’ actions.18 So while the dispute is inconvenient for the BJP, it is unlikely to cost it large numbers of votes. The best hope for Congress is that some of Siddaramaiah’s programmes may have benefited the poorer Lingayats.

Murder of Gauri Lankesh

On 5 September 2017, Gauri Lankesh, a campaigning journalist who had sharply criticised the Hindu right, was gunned down outside her home in Bengaluru. Five suspects from an extremist Hindu organisation, Sanatan Sanstha, are reportedly sought by investigators. The BJP has no associational link to that group, but if these reports prove accurate, they could undermine support for hard Hindutva. Modi has remained strangely silent on the murder, despite an angry outcry, in India and abroad. It has also emerged that a rightist zealot who posted grotesque celebrations of her murder online was, embarrassingly, “followed” by the Prime Minister on social media. But this is not expected to have much influence on the election outcome.


Much may change over the coming months, and many questions remain unanswered. Will Siddaramaiah’s social programmes attract enough support from disadvantaged groups? Will the BJP damage the Congress by winning over some backward castes—a fragmented category, not a solid bloc? Will many ritually “left” Dalits find enough in those programmes to abandon recent ties to the BJP? Will poorer Vokkaligas and Lingayats who have certainly benefited from those programmes, support the Congress? Will many tactical votes by Muslims (12.2% of the population) go to JD(S) candidates if they appear more likely than the Congress to deny the BJP seats?

Will voters decide that the state government’s greater dynamism in the last two years compensate for its earlier listlessness? Will farmers see government efforts to ease drought hardships, like the loan waiver, as inadequate? Which government—central or state—will they blame for the loss of river waters to Tamil Nadu? Will the Lingayat/Veerashaiva controversy confound expectations and cost the BJP votes? Will Siddaramaiah’s promotion of a regional identity reach enough rural areas to counter Modi’s emphasis on nationalism? Will communal polarisation evoke a popular response for the first time in Karnataka? Will the BJP move beyond its current, unpromising set of campaign themes? Will voters focus on state-level leaders, as in 1985, or on Modi’s campaigning? Will Yeddurappa’s tainted record cost the BJP votes?

Will efforts to invigorate rival party organisations make progress? Crucially, will parties select attractive candidates? Will infighting within either or both main parties damage them? Will Congress erode the BJP’s current advantage in social media, will rightist fake news and wild accusations backfire—and will those media influence many votes? Will concerns about Kumaraswamy’s health prove valid and undermine the JD(S) campaign?

The answers to these questions will determine the election outcome.


1 These comments are based on the author’s interviews in Bengaluru and Mysuru with two senior journalists, one Congress minister and a senior adviser to the chief minister on 20, 23 and 28 August, 2017.

2 This is Satish Jarkiholi. He considered leaving Congress after the chief minister dropped him as a minister, but he relented after a long discussion with Rahul Gandhi who made him an AICC secretary.

3 Interview with a well-informed journalist, Bengaluru, 23 August 2017.

4 Interview with a BJP leader who was present in those meetings, Bengaluru, 26 August 2017.

5 Interview in New Delhi with an advisor to Sonia Gandhi, 18 August 2013.

6 See the comments by Sandeep Shastri and Chandan Gowda in Sukumaran (2016).

7 Four interviews with BJP leaders and activists, Bengaluru, 24 and 25 August 2017.

8 Interview with M B Maramkal, Mysuru, 20 August 2017.

9 Personal interview with senior BJP leader, Bengaluru, 28 August 2017.

10 This writer has seen similar analyses, usually by RSS activists, in previous Karnataka elections and—for example—in Madhya Pradesh at the 2003 election.

11 Interview, New Delhi, 19 November 2015.

12 Polarisation also backfired in UP by-elections in September 2014. The BJP got Yogi Adityanath to make ferocious anti-Muslim speeches, but then lost.

13 Interview with M B Maramkal, Mysuru, 20 August 2017.

14 Private communication, 9 September 2017.

15 Interview, Bengaluru, 28 August 2017.

16 I am grateful to D Rajashekar for this evidence. He led the team at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru. 2,232 households were surveyed in 154 villages in diverse regions of Karnataka.

17 These comments are based on numerous interviews with Congress activists and social scientists, Bengaluru, 17–30 August 2017.

18 Interviews with M B Maramkal, Mysuru, 20 August 2017, and (by telephone) with M Madan Mohan, 25 August 2017. Quotations are from Madan Mohan.


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Updated On : 6th Feb, 2018


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