Karnataka May Not Provide a Roadmap to the 2019 Elections

Karnataka poses some unique problems for both the BJP and Congress. So the result there will provide some insight into the next Lok Sabha election – but only some. 

As Karnataka voters head to the polls, the outcome remains uncertain. Most opinion polls foresee a hung state assembly, but one by C-Fore predicts a Congress victory. Reliable reporters on the ground also see real promise for the Congress, and a CSDS-Lokniti poll found a modest swing towards the party in April. The Congress has a substantial lead in Hyderabad Karnataka, and small leads in Bombay Karnataka, central districts, Bengaluru and on the coast. It trails only in the southern districts, although it has gained slightly on its main rival there – the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S)).    

The Congress, however, faces three problems. No Karnataka government has been re-elected since 1985. Congress voters are evenly spread across the state, while support for other parties is more concentrated – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has more support in northern and central districts, and the south leans towards the JD(S). The Congress government has also seen three or even four years of drought in different parts of the state. These three realities, plus several others, are particular to Karnataka. So the result there will provide some insight into the next Lok Sabha election – but only some. 

A late April survey by CSDS-Lokniti tells us more about these three problems. First, it uncovered a classic Karnataka paradox. Over 70% of those polled expressed satisfaction with the state government, but oddly, 47% do not want it back in power. 

Second, while Congress may suffer from the even spread of its support across the state, it may still win some close contests owing to a split in the anti-incumbency sentiment. Fifty-three percent of those who oppose the Congress will vote for the BJP, while 34% support the JD(S).

Third, the state government’s strenuous work to minimise damage from droughts has helped the Congress gain sizeable leads, in the CSDS-Lokniti survey, over both rival parties among farmers and other rural dwellers. 

Other state government efforts pose more problems for Modi. His speeches have stressed development – a crucial issue for voters. But they trust the Congress more than the BJP to deliver it, according to the CSDS-Lokniti survey. Three years ago, Karnataka’s Congress leaders worried about poor roads and the supply of water and power, but determined action since then has won popular approval on all three issues. To make matters worse for the BJP, chief minister Siddaramaiah’s flagship welfare programme Anna Bhagya has reached four-fifths of the population. For welfare benefits, four times more voters credit the state government than New Delhi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public rally in Karnataka. Credit: PTI

The various opinion surveys were conducted before Modi had begun making speeches – he may trigger a BJP surge. The polls show that he is popular in Karnataka. But the chief minister trails him by only 4% and leads the BJP’s candidate for that post, B.S. Yeddyurappa, by a hefty 12%.     

Siddaramaiah vs Modi

Siddaramaiah has tested the prime minister in another important way. Modi has maintained the upper hand since 2014, thanks to his ability to retain the political initiative. He introduces new programmes amid great pageantry. He serves up hyper-nationalism and seeks to incorporate national icons: Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, even Ram Manohar Lohia and B.R. Ambedkar. Then, before his opponents can respond, he moves swiftly on to yet another theme, forcing them to play catch up. But on several occasions, Siddaramaiah has adroitly reversed this trend by promoting a regional identity with a new state flag, preferring Kannada, stoking the Lingayat/Veerashaiva controversy, etc. This will help the Congress, but it will be much harder for opposition parties in diverse regions to replicate during the Lok Sabha election.          

The CSDS-Lokniti poll reveals a surprising departure from a well-established all-India trend towards a strong constituency-level anti-incumbency. The survey found little discontent with sitting legislators – which could help the Congress. The party has far more MLAs than its rival parties and has renominated around 90% of them. Congress can also take heart from that poll’s discovery that 46% of voters will base their decisions on the candidates, against 39% who will focus on parties and only 12% on chief ministerial candidates.        

Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah during a roadshow ahead of Karnataka assembly elections. Credit: PTI

We may – or may not – see realignments of two numerically powerful social groups at this election. One has hit the headlines: the Lingayats/Veerashaiva, who have solidly supported the BJP in northern districts, where they are mainly concentrated. By entertaining demands from for a minority status – which implies that they are not Hindus, a major problem for the BJP – Siddaramaiah may have attracted some of them. He has won support from some minor swamijis. Dependable analysts in northern districts either doubt that this issue will affect voting decisions or even predict a Lingayat reaction against the Congress. But Siddaramaiah has long stressed that his pro-poor AHINDA programmes are inspired by Basavanna, the Lingayat icon whose portrait he has placed in every government office, and many poorer Lingayats have benefited from them. That may limit any reaction.

The Dalit vote

Less familiar is a potential swing among the Dalit voters. In south India, castes at all levels in the old hierarchies are divided by a right-hand/left-hand ritual split. In Karnataka, ‘right hand touchable’ Dalits have tended to back Congress while those in the ‘left hand untouchable’ group have mostly backed the BJP. The latest CSDS-Lokniti poll found that Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA initiatives have a strong appeal among poorer groups. They may wean some left-hand Dalits away from the BJP, some of whom are angry about abuses against Dalits in other regions and the controversial comments by a Union minister, Anantkumar Hegde, that the BJP has come to power to “change the constitution” – which Dalits see as a threat to reservations. Left-hand Dalits are concentrated in northern and central districts where Karnataka elections are mostly decided. If many turn to Congress, the BJP’s main opponent there, this could have a major impact.             

Nine months ago, Congress strategists were worried about the Hindu Right’s influence on social media, which may swing a state election here for the first time. Congress assembled a team to tackle the problem, and by mid-2017, had made some headway on Twitter and Facebook. But they were struggling with WhatsApp, where caustic communal and anti-Congress comments were often being inserted into discussion groups that had first gained popularity by focusing on actors and athletes. The CSDS-Lokniti survey suggests that this team has turned things around, since Congress now has an edge among social media users.        

Hung assembly

If a hung assembly emerges, the bargaining that follows may be difficult and unseemly. The BJP’s own polling suggests no overall majority, and its reactions have been confused. Since they might have to negotiate with the JD(S), BJP leaders have recently paid compliments to its chief, H.D. Deve Gowda, but Modi has also claimed that the JD(S) has a secret pact with Congress. 

Curiously, this echoes Rahul Gandhi’s complaint that the JD(S) is in cahoots with the BJP. He may be right since the BJP appears to have chosen weak candidates where the JD(S) might deprive Congress of seats. If the JD(S) holds the balance of power, H.D. Kumaraswamy appears to favour a pact with the BJP, but Deve Gowda (his father) threatens to disown his son if he goes that way. If the Congress wins a large minority of seats, the JD(S) just might ally with it, but it would demand that Siddaramaiah, who defected from the JD(S), step aside – a potential deal breaker. If there is a deadlock, we might even see Karnataka’s first minority government. That could lead to another, early state election.       

Rahul Gandhi (centre) waves to the crowd before addressing an election campaign rally ahead of the Karnataka state assembly elections. Credit: Reuters

Rahul Gandhi (centre) waves to the crowd before addressing an election campaign rally ahead of the Karnataka state assembly elections. Credit: Reuters

Beyond Karnataka

If we look beyond issues that are particular to Karnataka, four trends from this election will surely re-emerge at the Lok Sabha election. Modi and Amit Shah will exercise tight, centralised control over the campaign. They will rely heavily on bombastic accusations and caustic denunciations of rivals. They will place great faith in mere pageantry and political theatrics. And communal polarisation will be stressed. All four pose potential dangers to the BJP – in Karnataka and across most of India   

Radical centralisation has been evident for over a year in the state. Shah has turned it to good effect by systematically strengthening the BJP’s weak organisation. Every assembly segment – and in some areas, every street – has been carefully cultivated, although the Congress organisation is also strong. But centralisation also did some damage. Shah ignored reliable political intelligence from state BJP leaders who have become demoralised. Some with solid sub-regional bases were cast aside because they were too independent-minded.

Shah’s deafness to advice from state-level BJP leaders contributed to the party’s defeat in Bihar and it has also damaged it in Karnataka, which brings us to the second problem for the BJP. Shah and Modi clearly believe that fake allegations can win over the state’s sophisticated voters. In Bihar, Modi claimed that his rivals would take reservations from Dalits and Adivasis and give them to ‘a certain community’ – a claim that few believed. In Karnataka, he has stressed corruption – for which Yeddyurappa, his candidate for chief minister, is most famous. The CSDS-Lokniti survey found that 44% see the BJP as most corrupt, versus 41% for Congress. Modi has said that Congress has offered “goon” government in Karnataka, while others have spoken of “goonda raj”, “chaos” and “lawlessness” in the state. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Karnataka BJP CM candidate B.S. Yeddyurappa. Credit: PTI

Adityanath claimed that the state government is harbouring jihadis. A Union minister charged it with “hobnobbing with terror groups”. These accusations are false, and most voters know that. So do many BJP leaders and activists in the state who are disheartened by these tactics.

Theatrics, abuse have their limit

Many voters are also puzzled by what Congress Lok Sabha leader Mallikarjun Kharge rightly describes as Modi’s habit of character assassination. In Karnataka, it has degenerated into name calling. It may have helped in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, but it flopped in Bihar when Modi likened Lalu to ‘Shaitan (Satan)’. Nor is it likely that Karnataka’s discerning voters will believe that Siddaramaiah is a “terrorist”, as one BJP MP has claimed. Few will warm up to BJP leaders’ insulting names for the chief minister – “Siddaravana”, “Mulla Siddaramaiah” and “Sultan Siddaramaiah”. That last label refers to Tipu Sultan who, according to surveys, is seen by many voters as a heroic native son.          

Modi’s naïve, misplaced faith in theatrics is apparent in his surprise that Dalits are unimpressed by his many acts of homage to Ambedkar – and that they are more influenced by events like the Una beatings, Bhima Koregaon, attacks on Dalits in BJP-ruled Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, etc. Right-hand Dalits in Mysuru heckled Shah about that inept suggestion by Hegde that reservations might be scrapped. BJP leaders in more northerly districts have expressed fears that over 35% of left-hand Dalits may react to that comment by abandoning their party, although recent surveys suggest that their anxieties may be exaggerated.  This is important because left-hand Dalit votes were what helped the BJP to win 23 of 36 reserved seats at the last state election. Dalit distrust of mere acts of homage could also cost the party seats in the Lok Sabha election.     

Communal card

BJP leaders have made unprecedented efforts at communal polarisation, a theme that will surely re-emerge at the Lok Sabha election. In December, Shah was heard urging BJP activists in Mysuru to mount raucous communalist demonstrations that would gain attention by forcing the police to intervene to maintain order, as a video featuring a BJP MP claimed. Since then, the party’s campaign has ramped up its polarising rhetoric. 

However, communal campaigning has found little traction here or anywhere outside Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. It flopped in Bihar, as BJP leaders there acknowledge. In Karnataka, communalism has never been popular outside the small coastal region, and recent opinion polls reconfirm that. They even suggest that it has not worked in the coast, a traditional BJP stronghold, where Congress has a small lead. The Congress target there is roughly half the seats, but it may do better. 

The polarising has largely been left to Shah, Adityanath and others so that Modi can claim plausible deniability. But in a speech on the coast, forgetting that his communalist rhetoric there consolidated opposition to the BJP in 2013, the prime minister exaggerated the number of Hindutva activists killed – ignoring their numerous lethal attacks on Muslims and the state government’s energetic efforts to arrest culprits on both sides.  

If the BJP does well in Karnataka, it will be despite these trends, not because of them. The same is likely to be true across most of India at the Lok Sabha election.

There is one last reason that we should not read too much into this result. In Karnataka, the BJP has not been in power, so it could blame problems on the incumbent Congress government. In the parliamentary election, the BJP will be the incumbent in most states – and more vulnerable to discontent over Modi’s unkept promises. 

Most crucial is the failure to create jobs. Polling in Karnataka found that people trust Congress more than the BJP to assist the ‘youth’. Other tall promises include pledges to deposit Rs 15 lakh from funds retrieved from overseas in every bank account, and to make farmers rich, about which Shah was heckled in Karnataka. Next up is “Modicare”, presented as the largest healthcare system, but severely under-funded. Media manipulation has limited popular anger over the damage done by demonetisation, but the vast numbers of people denied government benefits by the headlong pursuit of Aadhaar may make that initiative a ticking time bomb for the BJP.           

James Manor is a professor in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is the author of numerous books including Power, Poverty and Poison: Disaster and Response in an Indian City (1993) on the 1981 illicit liquor disaster in Karnataka.