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The Defeat of Saffron in Karnataka

With the debacle of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Karnataka 2013 assembly elections, the Congress takes over the reins of the state. Blatant corruption, aggressive Hindutva and factionalism has led to the demise of the saffron party in the southern state. A region-wide analysis of the election results show that even though the gains of the Congress are not that dramatic, the voters have delivered a clear mandate. A political analysis of the results indicates a serious setback to the BJP.

The 2013 assembly elections in Karnataka have arrested the southern expedition of the saffron brigade by giving a verdict against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The electorate of Karnataka has punished the vulgar display of corrupt and communal practices indulged in by the party after it came to power in 2008. Even though the verdict cannot be construed as a decisive rejection of either the Hindutva politics and corruption or the BJP as a party, considering the other equations at play, it is nevertheless a clear reflection of the resentment of the common man. The results prove, unambiguously, that Karnataka is not Gujarat, contrary to many Delhi-centric theories floated by the national media. There are as many fundamental differences between the two as there are superficial similarities. Though the defeat of the BJP was a foregone conclusion even before the election results were declared, the nature of the electoral performance of the party and a closer study of the nature of its defeat unveils how comprehensive and convincing the rejection of the party has been. While the 2008 victory was considered by the BJP as the opening of the gateway to south India, one can safely say that the gate is shut for some time to come.

First, let us take a look at the numbers. Elections were held in 223 out of 224 assembly constituencies. The Congress won 121 seats establishing a simple, but comfortable majority and gained 41 seats over 2008. But the BJP’s performance was so abysmal that it 110 seats of the 2008 elections came down to a mere 40 in these present elections. Though the Janata Dal (Secular) [(JD(S)] also got 40 seats ‒ an improvement of 12 seats over the previous election ‒ its vote share was marginally higher than that of the BJP. Even though the election for the Piriyapatna constituency in Mysore District has been rescheduled for 29 May, it has never been a stronghold of the BJP, and the victory of the JD(S) or the Congress there is a foregone conclusion.

There are of course moves and counter moves to attain the status of the prinicipal opposition party in the Legislative Assembly. While Ashok Kheny, a first time MLA and a staunch opponent of Deve Gowda has offered to merge with the BJP to make it the principal opposition party, the JD(S) and the Badavara Shrakikara Raithara Congress (BSR) party of B Sriramulu, which got 4 seats, have sent signals of a merger to check this move.

It is obvious that electorally the BJP has been set back by at least 20 years. If we recall, in the 1994 elections the Janata Dal had emerged victorious, and the BJP emerged as the principal opposition party having won 40 seats. The Congress stood third with 35 seats under its belt.

An analysis of the vote shares in various constituencies reveals not just the magnitude of BJP’s defeat but how compelled the voters felt to choose an alternative to the BJP.


Anti-incumbency of epic proportions

The 2013 assembly elections witnessed a record voter turnout of 71.29%, the second highest since 1978 when almost 71.9% people voted. Out of the 3.12 crore votes polled, the Congress won 1.14 crore, or 36.55% of the valid votes polled; an improvement of 1.96% over its tally in the 2008 assembly elections. The JD(S) and the BJP both got got 62.32 lakh votes (though the former got a few more than the BJP). While JD(S) increased its vote share by a minor 0.65 %, the BJP saw a loss of 13.96 % of the vote share.

To decipher what this vote share means, one has to look at the voter support. In the 2008 assembly elections the BJP was endorsed by 88.57 lakh voters. This time more than 26.25 lakh voters (30% of voters who voted for the BJP in 2008) did not vote for the party. There are multiple reasons for this rejection, and these vary from region to region. B S Yeddyurappa, who broke away from the BJP to form his own Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), clearly affected the BJP's prospects in a few regions. The BSR Congress party of B Sriramulu, another breakaway faction of the BJP, also severely hurt the BJP in the central Karnataka region. But it is also true that the BJP vote base suffered a huge setback in many areas which were impervious to the Yeddyurappa factor.


Lingayats Votes get divided in Mumbai Karnataka

The major gains for the BJP in the 2008 elections came from the Mumbai Karnataka region where the dominant Lingayat community is numerically strong. When the BJP got 40 seats in 1994, a mere four seats came from this region. But by 2004, with Yeddyurappa heading the BJP, the tally in this region rose to 24 and then to 34 seats in 2008. The single biggest factor that helped the victory of the BJP in 2008 was the “betrayal” by H D Kumarasvamy (a Vokkaliga) in 2007 when he refused to vacate the  chief minister’s post for Yeddyurappa, a powerful Lingayat leader, as a part of the power-sharing agreement between the BJP and JD(S). Yeddyurappa used this to polarise the Lingayat votes in favour of the BJP in the 2008 elections.

Even this time Yeddyurappa, after quitting the BJP and forming his own party, concentrated his campaign in this region with the singular agenda of teaching a lesson to “the party which stabbed him in the back”.1 The result was disastrous for the BJP. It could capture only  13 seats in the region, a loss of 23 seats as compared to its tally in 2008. Even its vote share decreased by 8.5%. While Yeddyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Party (KJP) could win only two seats here, it gained 10.3% of the total votes polled. The Congress also improved its vote share by a considerable 3.5% in this region. This suggests that the Lingayats did not support the KJP en masse and saw the Congress as a viable alternative to the BJP.


Electoral History of Centrist, Rightist parties along with left parties in Karnataka from 1952-2013
1951 (80)
8.73 (SP)
1957 (179)
14.06 (PSP)
1962 (208)
14.08 (PSP)
1967 (216)
8.88 (PSP)
26.2 (INC-O)
1978 (224)
37.95 (JNP)
33.07 (JNP)
43.60 (JNP)
27.08 (JD)
33.54 (JD)
10.42 (JDS)
13.53 (JDU)
20.77 (JDS)
2.6 (JDU)
18.96 (JDS)
  • Figures in the brackets after the year show  the number of constituencies. (1951- Election to Mysore state- 80 constituencies. 1957- First election after Unification-179 constituencies. Number of Constituncies rised to 208 in 1962, to 216 in 1967 and to 224 in 1978)
  • BJS- Bharatiya Jana Sangh till 1977, BJP- Bharatiya Janata party after 1980
  • The party among  SP, PSP, JNP, JD and JDS which contested the elections in that particular year is referred to in the brackets. (SP- Socialist Party, PSP- Praja Socialist Party, SP- Socialist Party, JNP- Janata Party, JD- Janata Dal,JDS- Janata Dal (Secular) and INC (o)- Indian National Congress (Organisation))
  • Ind- Independents
  • St- Seats won, Vt- Vote share

Trounced in its Stronghold

The two important regions where the BJP lost heavily, both electorally and politically, was in the Coastal Karnataka and the Malnad region.2 The Sangh Parivar has been working here for the last six decades and has been successful in cultivating a social base for its Hindutva ideology cutting across caste lines. Right from the 1990s, these two regions saw a polarisation of Hindu votes in favour of the BJP, resulting in an assured Hindu vote bank for the party.

The vote share of the BJP in all the eight constituencies in Dakshina Kannada district and five constituencies in Udupi District ‒ considered to be the “Hindutva Lab”of Karnataka ‒ has been rising since 1989 irrespective of the number of seats won. This trend reached its climax in 2008 when BJP got 10 out of 13 seats in the two districts. But this time a host of factors – unseemly behavior of the BJP MLAs in the assembly, rampant corruption and nepotism practiced by the BJP leaders, their high handedness in administration, extreme acts of moral policing, attacks on churches, and attacks on Muslims with blatant state support in the name of preventing cattle slaughter, among many others ‒ gave rise to enormous resentment not only among the Muslims and Christians but also among the traditional voters of the BJP. This trend was palpable during the local body elections, in which the BJP lost the Udupi municipality, the first local body seat that the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the predecessor party to the BJP) won in the country and had retained uninterrupted for 40 years. It lost all but one seat in the urban local body in Dakshina Kannada and the Mangalore Corporation.

This trend continued even in the 2013 assembly elections. The seat tally of the BJP decreased from 10 to 2 in 2013. In this Hindutva bastion out of a total of 17.08 lakh votes polled the BJP could get only 6.88 lakh votes (38.68%), whereas Congress polled 8.7 lakh votes (48.87%). Thus the BJP could not continue its onward march and obtained a vote share 10 percentage points less than the Congress. In 2008, the BJP had polled 7.13 lakh votes and the Congress 6.82 lakhs.

A micro view of the constituencies, which had become communally hypersensitive due to the activities of the BJP, reveals this trend with some more clarity. In two of the three constituencies where the BJP won in this region, the winning margin declined by over 70%. In the eight constituencies where the BJP lost, the margin was huge. For example, in the Mangalore constituency, the worst affected by the Hindutva attacks, the BJP polled 5,000 fewer votes than 2008 but the margin of victory of Congress candidate was around 30,000. Likewise in Udupi, another hotbed of Hindutva, the BJP’s votes fell by 11,000 and the victory margin of the Congress was around 40,000. This was despite the much awaited and celebrated visit of Narendra Modi to Mangalore. Communities, such as the Mogaveeras and Bunts, who have been traditional supporters of the BJP have been moving away from party and the other hand, anti-BJP votes are getting polarised in favour of the Congress.

Over the last two decades BJP had cultivated its vote base in the Malnad region comprising of the Chikkamagalore and Shimoga districts. In the current elections the BJP won only 4 seats out of a total of 14 as compared to the 11 it had won in 2008. The rout was most telling in the Shimoga district from where many BJP bigwigs hail. Here, the BJP could not even win a single seat. Yeddyurappa’s KJP stood second in most of the places. Even K S Eshwarappa, BJP’s state president till before the elections, lost heavily and came third. The Congress and the JD(S) both gained at the BJP's expense.

The Hyderabad-Karnataka region comprises of eight districts and has 54 assembly seats. The denial of the chief minister's post to Yeddyurappa in 2007 had generated a lot of sympathy for the BJP. The Reddy brothers of Bellary ‒ the mining barons ‒ and their ally B Sriramulu had played an important role in garnering support for the BJP in the 2008 elections. Sriramulu had ensured the mobilisation of the scheduled castes in favour of the BJP. This time around, Sriramulu broke away from the BJP and formed the BSR Congress Party and contested on his own. His party won two seats, and Yeddyurappa’s KJP gained three. From the 27 seats it had won in 2008, the BJP was reduced to six with a vote share loss of 18 percentage points. Meanwhile, the Congress increased its tally from 18 to 34 seats.

In South Karnataka the BJP has never been an electoral force. Even in 2008 it won only 7 out of the 54 seats, and this time its number was reduced to 2. Here the major gains went to the JD(S), which improved its tally from 17 to 23 seats. Even in Bangalore the BJP could not withstand the anti-incumbency wave, and its tally reduced from 17 to 12 out of a total of 28 seats.


A Clear Mandate

Unlike in 2008 when only three major parties contested, this time there were five parties in the fray, and hence a more fractured mandate was expected. But a comparison of the two elections indicates that the voters demonstrated a clear preference this time. In the 2008 elections, more than one-third (64) of the MLAs who were returned won with margins of less than 5,000 votes; of which the BJP’s share was 34. Eleven constituencies had a vote margin of less than 1,000. This time around, there were 41 constituencies which returned victors with margins of less than 5,000 votes, of which the Congress party's share was 20.

Further, 22 legislators won in 2008 with a vote margin of more than 25,000 votes ( 16 of them from the BJP) and only four had victory margins higher than 40,000. In the 2013 elections, 53 MLAs, almost double the number, won with a comfortable margin of over 25,000 votes, of which the share of the Congress was 30. And this time more than 18 MLAs obtained a margin of over 40,000 votes, of which the Congress’ share was 18. Thus most constituencies reflected a clear cut preference, and more so in favour of the Congress. So even though the overall vote share gained by the Congress was around 2%, it can be said that it was the preferred choice in many places. Likewise, wherever the JD(S) was preferred over the Congress in the south, it won with a comfortable margin. Out of the 40 constituencies in the south, JD(S) candidates had a margin of more than 25,000 votes in ten constituencies, and more than 10,000 votes in around 20 constituencies.

In 2008, the BJP could not get a single seat in five districts out of the 30 in the state. This time, the BJP could not win a single seat in 11 districts. In another 14 districts, including its strongholds such as Coastal Karnataka and Mumbai Karnataka, it could win only one seat each. Thus the rejection of the party by the electorate this time was all round and comprehensive, and one can say that it was a vote against the BJP. Except in 1994 when the Congress suffered similar losses, never in the history of Karnataka have people voted so decisively against any party!


Vote in search for an alterantive?

Though even a superficial study of the results suggest that it is basically a vote against the BJP, is it not also a vote in search of an alternative.

While the Congress cannot be expected to provide a radically different form of governance when it comes to the fundamentals, it is expected to provide a polity without a communal agenda like the BJP. But on the other fronts like corruption, nepotism and misgovernance, the Congress has always been quite the leader! And yet, the voter in Karnataka has decisively chosen the Congress from among the four available options (JDS, KJP, BSR and the left parties). Whether the Congress government under a “clean” and “efficient chief minister” like Siddaramaiah ‒ said to be wedded to the “politics of social justice”‒ can deliver, is a superfluous question. Even though the gain of Congress is not that dramatic and its vote share not that overwhelming, the results show that in the absence of a credible alternative the voters preferred the Congress.


Predicament of the Left

The left and left-of-centre formations in Karnataka have become weak to a point of becoming inconsequential in electoral politics. The Left-of-centre formation like the Praja Socialist Party (PSP) was once a major opposition party in the state assembly. After its disappearance from the political scene in 1972 no such political formation emerged till the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) entered the fray. However, it failed miserably and could elect only two MLAs during the 1994 and one in the 1999 elections. After a gap of 14 years, one KRRS leader has entered the assembly this time.

After their peak performance in 1983 where the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPM] sent 3 MLAs each, there has been a sharp decline in their vote and seat share. A look at the electoral history of Karnataka shows that the marginalisation of the Left and the progressive formations in the electoral scene has happened almost simultaneously with the rise of the right. After the 1989 elections, while the BJP vote and seat share galloped from 4% and 4 seats to 33.86% and 110 seats in 2008, the combined vote share of CPI and CPM never crossed 1%. While the CPI never won an assembly election after 1989, CPM could win only Bagepalli constituency in 1994 and 2004. And in 2013, the combined vote share of CPI and CPM has been reduced to less than 0.5%, without any representation in the Assembly.


Assembly Composition Remains the Same

In the absence of a fundamental alternative which could change the electoral and political equations in society, the state assembly remains upper class, upper caste and male dominated, reflecting the power equations prevailing in the society at large.

This time, out of the 223 MLAs, 203 are crorepatis, some with assets worth almost Rs 1000 crore. After 1989, women's representation in the Karnataka assembly fell below the national average. In 2008 it was the lowest in the country with just three women MLAs(it rose to five after by-elections). For the first time in 2013, 170 women candidates contested the elections, of which less than 30 were from the three major parties. But only six women got elected. No party has offered even 10% of its tickets to women, let alone 33%. Even the left parties have fared poorly on this count.


The dominant castes of Karnataka have always grabbed more than half the seats in the assembly, thereby making it an essentially upper caste forum. It was only during the Devaraj Urs regime in 1972 and 1978 that the balance tilted in favour of the Other Backward Classes and minorities.

Even in this assembly where the Congress victory has been hailed as the return of the “Rainbow Coalition”, it remains dominated by the upper castes. Out of the 223 MLAs, 122 MLAs belong to the dominant and upper castes: 50 Lingayats, 53 Vokkaligas, 11 Brahmins, 3 Vaishyas, 2 Jains, 2 Kodavas. The only positive change is that this time the assembly has 11 Muslims, two more than the previous assembly and two Christians. The highest number of Muslims, that is 17, were in the 1978 assembly, and the highest number of women were in the 1962 Assembly.

Interestingly, this election also suggests that though corruption was an important issue in many constituencies, in places where caste affinities or loyalties of other kinds were at play, such as Shimoga and Mumbai Karnataka (where Yeddyurappa still commands sympathy) voters did not consider it a major issue. There Yeddyurappa was successful in playing the martyr stabbed by his fellow partymen. Thus KJP not only won six seats but also stood second in 35 constituencies. A survey done by The Times of India and the non-governmental organisation Daksh, conducted prior to the elections in Karnataka, suggests that for voters from the most backward regions corruption was not a big issue unless it had a direct impact on their daily lives.


No NaMo

The most interesting aspect of the 2013 results is the dynamics of Hindutva politics in Karnataka. Is the apparent defeat of the Hindutva forces a temporary phenomenon? Can this be construed as an anti-Hindutva vote?

A preliminary analysis of the voting behavior suggests that after the BJP came to power in 2008, there emerged a conflict of interest within the Sangh Parivar. The authoritarian attitude of the Parivar and its inability to accommodate conflicting interests resulted in the moving away of substantial groups like the Bunts and Mogaveera communities. Hence it can be said that, at least in the short term, the Hindutva agenda has got a beating. This begs the question as to whether the fault-lines in Indian society – of castes and their specific interests ‒ makes the implementation of the Hindutva agenda difficult.

Another factor is the high concentration of minorities, especially Muslims, in coastal Karnataka. They are not only economically independent and enterprising, but are also becoming politically assertive, unlike Gujarat. Mangalore is teeming with private educational institutions, attracting increasing number of youth to the region. Moral policing and strictures on how to behave are incompatible with the growing urban values there. What compulsion does this phenomenon impose on the Hindutva forces to thrive in an electoral democracy, how they will try to resolve these contradictions remains an open question, but there seems no easy way out for the rightwing.

This election also highlighted the negligible impact of Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi's appeal in Karnataka. Interestingly, the BJP lost heavily, instead of gaining, in all the places that Modi campaigned in. This may be due to the greater polarisation of minority votes against the party after his visit. So what use will Modi be to the BJP in states like Karnataka, and what impact would it have on his prospects of becoming the prime minister? Karnataka had sent 19 BJP members of Parliament (MPs) to the Lok Sabha in the 2009 general elections. If the current vote patterns are replicated in the coming general elections, the BJP will get only two MPs from this state. This underlines the fact that these elections have not only hurt the BJP in Karnataka, they perhaps will also grievously dent its national ambitions.


1.Yeddyurappa was asked to step down from the chief minister's post following the corruption charges on an assurance that he would be rehabilitated at the earliest and would be given the party president’s post. The promise till then had not been fulfilled.

2.Interestingly, the think tank of the BJP had decided to concentrate on Mumbai Karnataka, Bangalore Urban, and the Coastal Karnataka regions from where they expected a high number of seats. Thus to galvanise the workers and mobilise the votes they even convinced the reluctant Narendra Modi to visit Bangalore, Mangalore and Belgaum. But that the result was terrible is another story.

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