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Politics of Defections and BJP Strategy in Karnataka

Valerian Rodrigues (valerianrodrigues@yahoo.com) was former national fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.

Defection and re-election of the members of the legislative assembly in Karnataka is part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s larger strategy in the state. This strategy aims to broad-base the party across castes and communities and ensure its autonomy from being dependent on any of them. In the face of this strategy, the Congress has the challenge of defining its social identity.

If you employ a moral yardstick, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka will find it difficult to wriggle itself out from charges of inducing elected representatives belonging to the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Janata Dal (Secular)—JD(s) to defect, welcome them to its fold and ensure that most of them get re-elected as its members. Apart from much pelf and goodies that the latter have allegedly received, they have also been promised berths in the state cabinet. Moral considerations apart, political ambitions of many loyal BJP leaders have been thwarted in the process and they were made to campaign for candidates who were their bitter rivals a few months ago. Why did the BJP resort to this adventure when it was, unquestionably, the pre-eminent party in the country? Is it meant to merely satisfy the chief ministerial aspirations of a septuagenarian leader, B S Yediyurappa, as the media speculated, or to recraft the party, and the future of the state in a new direction?

Resurrecting Defecting Legislators

Following the resignation of 17 legislators belonging to the INC and JD(s), and thereby losing its majority in the legislative assembly, the coalition government in Karnataka with H D Kumaraswamy as chief minister was forced to resign on 23 July 2019. The coalition was in power for slightly over a year following the assembly elections in May 2018. The then speaker of the assembly, K R Ramesh Kumar, disqualified these legislators invoking the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution and ruled that they cannot contest the elections during the remaining period of the assembly. The Supreme Court, however, while upholding the disqualifications of the defectors, decided that there is no bar in their contesting the elections again. Following this judgment the defectors immediately joined the BJP, and in the assembly elections held in 15 constituencies, on 5 December 2019, 13 of them contested as BJP candidates, when a year earlier they were elected on INC or JD(s) tickets. Eleven of them won assuring a majority in the assembly to the BJP government in the state led by B S Yediyurappa that had come to power following the resignation of the INC and JD(s) coalition government.

The BJP justified its action on grounds of being the largest party in the legislative assembly (it had won 105 seats in a house of 224), and the unstable and incompatible nature of the post-electoral coalition of the INC and JD(s). The defectors, who were all aspirants of a ministerial berth in the coalition government but failed to secure the same, justified their crossover of the floor in the name of development of their respective constituencies. The spokespersons of the coalition government charged the defectors of violating the trust that their respective constituencies, as well as their parties, had reposed in them. There were many civil society groups that played on the polysemy of the term anarha in Kannada which means disqualified as well as unsuitable. They felt that constitutional morality was thrown to the winds in this trade-off for power and pelf. Amidst such contentions, the BJP deftly pursued its shrewd political strategising, directing the voters’ choice by employing the enormous resources at its command, while the INC and the JD(s), going their separate ways, played their jugaad politics by assembling the crumbs.

Caste and Leader-centric Politics

If we take a longer view, there was no major ideological current that acted as the cementing bond for carving out Karnataka as a separate state that the non-Brahmin, the self-respect, and the left movements played for the formation of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala respectively. In the former, that role was played by swaying caste-blocs that were unique to the region. Apart from it, the only bond that emotively rallied people into a fold was linguistic affinity revolving around Kannada. It was the rationale for the unification movement that led to carving out Karnataka as a separate state, and this linguistic bond has reasserted itself subsequently begetting a phalanx of Kannada-promoting institutions. At the same time, it is to be noted, that it is a precarious bond as only two-thirds of the population of the state considers it as their mother tongue.

Pubic reasoning in the state has tried to shore up other props to this linguistic bond: The 12th century social reform movement of Basava, the breathtaking literary output it churned known as Vachana sahitya, and the egalitarianism it avowed found a long echo in this regard. But, the majority of the population in the state do not subscribe to the institutionalised expression of this movement as embodied in the Lingayat–Veerashaiva religion; there is a major divide between the Lingayat reading of the religion and that of the Veerashaivas, and scholarly controversy has not diminished on the “modernist” construction that the Basava Vachana tradition was subjected to in the first half of the 20th century (Boratti 2002).

In recent years, several leading writers in Kannada have argued that pluralism is a characteristic marker of Karnataka identity.1 Against such a portrayal, it should be said that this pluralism was not in conversation, and if it did, its boundaries were limited and thin. It did not have the inherent strength to constitute the public that a modern polity called for. While certain major Kannada literary figures such as K V Puttappa (Kuvempu) weaves pluralism centrally into his writings he was too caught in the Upanishadic ideal of unity of being. The impact of the anti-colonial movement in the state was primarily confined to the north-western and coastal region of the state and was thin in the relatively prosperous and well-governed Mysore Princely state and the sprawling north-eastern part of the state that was part of the Nizam’s Hyderabad state. In this context what stood out was caste and caste-blocs, and political leadership was deeply bound with it. Dominant caste leaders, therefore, held their sway over political power in the state or an aspiring leader had to closely bond himself with a numerous caste or caste-bloc. Even those leaders such as Devaraj Urs who as chief minister of the state (1972–79) employed state power to wring a few radical measures and brought the non-dominant castes and communities politically to the forefront had to employ caste as the primary unit of his mobilisation and reforms.

The BJP Strategy

From 2008, in the last three assembly elections, the BJP has secured around 30%–36% of the votes2 and the INC around 35%–38% in the state. During the same period, the JD(s) support has hovered between 18% and 20%. The proportion of votes that these parties have secured in the Lok Sabha elections, however, has been much at variance in comparison to the assembly elections. Whatever level it might be, the caste-grid plays a major role in apportioning voter support. The rise of the BJP in the state as a major political force from the 1990s has been on account of two factors: First, the support that came to be extended to it by the dominant Lingayat–Veerashaiva community with B S Yediyurappa as its towering leader and second, the growing influence of Hindutva bodies in the state and their claim to speak for all Hindus. The second factor brought to the BJP scattered support among segments of the Vokkaligas, another dominant caste in the state, certain strata of service castes, segments of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (STs), and urban middles classes. The second factor also reinforced its support base in the Lingayat–Veerashaiva community.

Together, these two factors proved to be an attractive pole to those who wanted to move away from the INC and Janata Dal in the state. But the last three assembly elections show that the party has reached a logjam in terms of its voter support and caste–community support. The Hindutva bodies striving to forge Hindu unity also realised the precariousness of resting themselves primarily on caste anchor. The 2013 assembly elections demonstrated the vulnerability of the BJP when an important leader such as B S Yediyurappa walked out of the party.3 In this context, the party has been striving towards a twofold objective that is clearly paradoxical: First, strengthen its base among other castes and communities; and second, free the party from being beholden to any particular caste and ensure its relative autonomy.

The members of the assembly which the BJP persuaded to defect fell within the grand plan of the BJP. They were from a mix of castes: Brahmins, Lingayat–Veerashaivas belonging to certain specified sub-castes, Vokkaligas, Kurubas, minor backward castes, and STs. They hailed from certain regions that are crucial for the BJP to entrench itself and undercut its rival parties. Besides, most of the defectors it chose to patronise were leaders with a distinct social support base of their own, and had the capacity to tilt the scale in the electoral arena. These defectors also had much at stake, either in terms of assets or electoral prospects, if their decision to defect did not ensure, immediately, the survival of the BJP government and in the long term, enhance the prospects of the party. By carefully weeding out the legislators it chose to defect to its fold, the party wanted to ensure that the consolidation of the platform of backward castes and minorities that Siddaramaiah, the Congress leader and former chief minister, was pursuing for long did not snowball.

By broadbasing the party in several, and electorally strategic, castes and communities, the BJP conjectures that it would be able to distance itself from being beholden to a particular caste, and in this case, the Lingayat–Veerashaivas. This would also ensure that it is not held hostage by a particular caste leader and would retain its autonomy. The success of such a strategy would also enable it to make inroads in the deeply entrenched caste thickets, particularly in southern India.

The Future of Congress and JD(S)

The former Mysore Princely state region, the southern part of Karnataka, in which Bengaluru too is located, sends more members to the legislative assembly of the state in comparison to the northern part of the state. While in the northern part the Lingayat–Veerashaivas are the pre-eminent caste–community, in the southern part the Vokkaligas have an edge over it. The JD(s) has its social base in the southern part and in most of the constituencies there the electoral competition in the last two decades has been between the Congress and the JD(s). The BJP strategy is aimed to reorder caste equations in the region in such a way that it does not have to play second fiddle to its rivals there. The defections that it spearheaded were aimed to subserve this purpose: First, among the defectors there were key leaders of the Vokkaliga and the Kuruba castes (Siddaramaiah hails from the latter). The social support they steered for the party was expected to tilt the balance between the BJP on the one hand and the INC and JD(s) on the other. Second, significant sections of the Vokkaligas have come to identify themselves with the Sangh Parivar bodies in recent years. The BJP’s unfolding strategy aims to reinforce this tendency, and undercut the advantage JD(s) enjoys among the Vokkaligas.4 Third, by weaning away a significant section of the leadership hailing from the Kurubas, a numerous backward caste across Karnataka, it aims to weaken leaders like Siddaramaiah, who have worked hard to consolidate the backward castes in the state.

This strategy of the BJP is in tune with the wider socio-religious developments in the state. The Vokkaligas, a dominant caste formation, emerged by regrouping numerous peasant communities, in early 20th century and commandeered the political space in southern Karnataka. These communities had their local deities, but were also under the influence of the Nath traditions, with Kalabhairava as the principal deity. At the same time, these communities, in varying measures, had some access to the great Brahminical sites of Sringeri, Melkote and Udupi. In the last 40 years, the local deities are brought within the fold of the Hindu pantheon by the Sangh organisations, or caste members are inspired to do so by them, and renovation of these sites and ritual purification has been undertaken. The Adichunchanagiri Math is the principal religious site of the Vokkaligas, and the late Swami Balagangadhar greatly expanded its scope by building a phalanx of social and educational institutions. In recent years the Sangh organisations have made strenuous attempts to establish a religious camaraderie between Swami Nirmalananda, the current head of the Math, and Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, as the latter was the head of the Gorakhnath Math of Gorakhpur, one of the principal sites of the Nath traditions in India. The visits of Swami Vivekananda to the Mysore Palace brought a considerable section of elite Vokkaligas under his influence, and Ramakrishna Mission has been highly influential among them. K V Puttappa, the litterateur par excellence of Kannada, hailed from this community, and was profoundly influenced by Swami Vivekananda. The Sangh Parivar organisations have tapped these influences and developments and have established their strong foothold among the Vokkaligas.

Social Base of the INC

In Karnataka, the INC was a catch-all party, and being so reproduced socio-economic dominance. Devaraj Urs attempted to recraft the INC to provide a level-playing field to all castes and communities in the 1970s. It proved to be a short-lived experiment, eventually leading to the broad-basing of the political elite in the state. It was the rivalry between the different strata of political elite that dominated the political space in the state subsequently, and this rivalry led to the Lingayat–Veerashaivas regrouping themselves under the BJP banner and the Vokkaligas veering around the JD(s). In 2005, Siddaramaiah broke away from the JD(s), and after joining the INC attempted to revive the imaginary of Devaraj Urs, to form a political bloc of backward castes, Dalits and minority communities as the future of the INC in the state. For many Congressmen, with roots in social alliances of the past, and particularly belonging to the leading strata of Lingayat–Veerashaivas and the Vokkaligas such a strategy was not acceptable. They still harped on the INC acting as a catch-all party. Siddaramaiah realised well that such a strategy is no longer possible in Karnataka given the way the BJP had positioned itself. He patronised the Lingayats who wanted to declare the Lingayat sect as a separate religion. He was also not in favour of the Congress–JD(s) alliance, knowing well the drift in the Vokkaliga fold. While they were shrewd political moves, they stirred the religious and caste susceptibilities of many Congressmen. Today, the Congress party in the state has reached an impasse holding on to crumbs but without any clarity with regard to its strategic course of action.5

In Conclusion

The resignation of a key set of legislators from the INC and JD(s) coalition government and ensuring that most of them get re-elected as BJP legislators fell in line with the BJP’s grand strategy for the state. That strategy aims to broad-base the party across castes and communities and ensure its autonomy from being dependent on any of them. Several developments within the Vokkaliga caste-bloc in the last 40 years have made significant sections of it favourably disposed to the BJP. Given such a setting, in the deeply caste-ridden political space of Karnataka, the language of constitutional morality against defections came a cropper. The two seats that the INC won against the 15 contested had little to
do with the electorate’s moral angst against defections. Following the victory of the defectors under its aegis, the BJP in Karnataka is much stronger than its numbers in the assembly. It has effectively reduced the JD(s) into a paper tiger. The INC is a divided house, torn between retaining itself as a catch-all party on the one hand and taking on a decisive partnership with backward castes, Dalits and minorities on the other. The overt play of caste in the state does not mean that other factors, particularly economic, are unimportant. But they largely play in and through the caste grid.

Notes

1 Some of the major Kannada writers avowing this strand of thought are U R Ananthamurthy, Rahmat Tarikere and Rajendra Chenni.

2 In 2013 assembly elections B S Yediyurappa had broken away from the BJP and had formed his own party, Karnataka Janata Paksha. Together they had secured about 30% of the votes.

3 In this election the BJP secured 19.9% of the popular votes and 40 seats in the assembly, and the two breakaway parties from it, Yediyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Paksha secured 9.8% and six seats and another breakaway party, Badavara Shoshitara Raithara Congress Party (BSRCP) led by Sriramulu, secured 2.7% votes and
four seats.

4 While the Lingayat–Veerashaivas and Vokkaligas, very consciously, trouped into the Janata Dal in the 1980s, to erode the political scaffolding of castes and communities forged by Devaraj Urs, this alliance of dominant castes drifted apart in the 1990s. The Lingayat–Veerashaivas joined hands with the BJP, and the Vokkaligas regrouped under the JD(S), under the leadership of Deve Gowda.

5 Therefore, hardly any significant leader of the Congress from the Lingayat–Veerashaivas or the Vokkaligas or those who are closely associated with them campaigned in the elections. Leaders hailing from Dalit castes such as Mallikarjun Kharge and G Parameshwara are beholden to the Lingayat–Veerashaivas and Vokkaligas, respectively.

Reference

Boratti, V M (2012): The Discovery of the Vachanas: Halakatti and the Medieval Kannada Literature in Colonial Karnataka, Hampi: Kannada University–Prasaranga.

Updated On : 3rd Jan, 2020

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