ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Caste, Capital and Captaincy in the Karnataka Elections

The Bharatiya Janata Party triumphed in Karnataka because it followed up on years of groundwork by cynically combining caste with money power while choosing its candidates. This strategy could mark a new direction in the politics in the state.

COMMENTARYjune 14, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly10Caste, Capital and Captaincy in the Karnataka ElectionsA R VasaviThe Bharatiya Janata Party triumphed in Karnataka because it followed up on years of groundwork by cynically combining caste with money power while choosing its candidates. This strategy could mark a new direction in the politics in the state.On the dot, at the “auspicious” moment of 1:49 pm on May 30, with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi at their side, accompanied by an entourage of swamis and amidst large mobs of people milling around the area, the triumphant members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government took their oath of office in Karnataka. In what was not a completely unex-pected result, the BJP came to power in a close finish after a fractured and closely fought election. The results flag several issues: the complex configurations of caste, capital and captaincy (leadership) which were built on the well-entrenched political formulae in the state but whose alterations have made for new politics, people’s concerns about stability, regional rights and identity, and the manifestations of enhanced regional differences across the state. The pantheon of English political commentators and psephologists, who postured during the many presentations on television and all of whose forecasts and verdicts were wrong, ignored all these issues – indicating that political cal-culations require deeper reading than what makes for fashionable sound bites on television. It was the Kannada political commentators and writers, who with their ears and eyes closer to the ground realities of the state, who were able to better read the trends in the state, but their voices and ideas were rarely recognised by the dominant English and Hindi media.BJP’s Planned AssaultOver the past few years, the BJP has worked its way into the rural hinterland through networks of associational politics and has raised issues that have been central to the interests of the people. Ratherthan invoking ideas of Hindutva, the party has focused on regional issues, Karnataka’s rights to Kaveri waters, the problems faced by farmers, and the issue of poor urban administration in the growing metropolises. The party manifesto was a clever docu-ment that charted and focused on popular issues. Instead of raising the bogey of “secularism” or “saffronisation” it promised that Hindu temples would be given auton-omy. In localising itself to Karnataka, it sought to provide succor to the agricul-tural communities that saw globalisation and the excessive focus of the Congress Party on Bangalore as the sources of ills of the state. Drawing on support from the several mutts in the state, many of which are run parallel governments and provide education, health and judicial services to the people, and from those that are affili-ated to the lingayat power base, the BJP consolidated itself through well-chosen leaders. In the urban areas, where middle class support for the BJP existed both overtly and covertly, the party promised good governance and the resolution of the multiple civic problems. But the BJP’s biggest political alliances were made by compromising with the record of their candidates. Forsaking any pretence at giving election tickets to only Sangh parivar or “clean” persons, the BJP courted and promoted many who had popular support even if they had criminal records (27 out of the 110 elected BJP legislators have criminal records). Match-ing the Congress’ and JD(S)’s accumulation of vast wealth, theBJP courted many new millionaires whose money power helped the party buy votes and after the elections to buy support from the independent (rebel Congress) legislators so as to stake their claim to form the government. In many cases, large sums of money – prob-ably unprecedented in any election in India – decided the choice of candidates and the results. Role of MoneyAs the analysis by the independent Karnataka Election Watch indicated, the average wealth of the recontesting legis-lators had increased by about 800 per cent and most of the assets of the candidates A R Vasavi ( is with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 14, 200811were counted in crores with some candi-dates having assets close to Rs 1,000 crore. All the three key parties fielded several millionaires, who included “real-tor rajas” in Bangalore and the “mining mafia” from the Bellary belt. The end result was the confirmation that not merely the political culture but the popular culture in Karnataka had come to legitimise and accept the presence of “crorepatis” who had amassed wealth by both legal and illegal means. In sum, caste – long played out on the axis of the dominant Vokkaligas and the Lingayats contesting for alliances with the support of the scheduled castes (SCs) andthe other backward classes – was strengthened with the consolidation of the Lingayats with theBJP. The Vokkaliga votes were scattered between the Congress and the JD(S), as was that of the SCs between the Congress and the poor performing Bahujan Samaj Party. The choiceof candidates was based primarily on the formula of ensuring that caste-basedalliances and caste vote banks couldbemarried to the personal wealth of the candidates. The Congress on its part chose its nominees poorly – even those with records of good performance andpopularity were side-lined for those with wealth – and yet the outcome was not always decided by those who had wealth to dispense. Further, in fearing and failing to project a single leader and in overestimating the charisma of S M Krishna, the Congress lost its game plan of boldly asserting its pro-corporate, pro-metropolis alliances, and of kowtowing to the dictates of “Madam”.It is in the next few years, and perhaps after the term that theBJP will enjoy, that the results and impact of this configuration of caste, capital and captaincy will be manifested. For Karnataka, which pio-neered many policies, such as that of decentralisation of administration, and whose engagement with globalisation has marked the very nature of the state, now stands mired in its own contradictions. The key challenges, those of addressing the needs of the agricultural communities even as the urban base grows, of bringing about a balance in the economic and social divide between the regions (the northern dry belt, the coastal belt and the south and interior), of continuing to retain its global ambitions while also catering to demands for local recognition (for employment, language, identity and culture), and of either reproducing the BJP’s national agenda or of subscribing to a communally harmonious agenda, will be the markers in which the present dispensation can be assessed and through which the future directions can be read.

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