No Govt Has Been Re-Elected in Karnataka Since 1985. Can the BJP Buck the Trend?

As the state heads to polls in May, the BJP may face headwinds due to corruption allegations and its overreliance on communal polarisation. For Congress, its AHINDA strategy may work, but it is beset by internal strife. The JDS may still retain its domination in the Old Mysuru region.

With a state election due in Karnataka by May, it is time to examine long-standing realities in the state, recent trends, key issues, and a few uncertainties.

The first thing to notice is that it is extremely difficult for state governments to win re-election in Karnataka. It last happened in 1985, 37 years ago. Ruling parties have been ousted at seven consecutive elections. Even those that had governed effectively were rejected. This is partly explained by the presence of three significant parties in the fray since the 1990s which makes it hard for any single party to win a majority of seats. But it also owes much to the fact that Karnataka’s voters are discerning, demanding, and impatient.

There are important variations in the geographical distribution of votes for the three parties. The support for Congress is spread evenly across the state. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) votes are mainly concentrated in northern and central districts – partly because the party relies heavily on Lingayat support, and the 12th century Veerashaiva movement which was mainly in those areas. The Janata Dal-Secular (JDS) votes are concentrated in southern districts (old Mysuru) where Vokkaliga voters are preponderant. As a result, even when Congress attracts more votes, other parties may win more seats. For example, in the 2004 state election, Congress gained 7% more votes than the BJP, but the BJP won 14 more seats than Congress.

We must also consider the social underpinnings of Karnataka’s politics. Two clusters of castes – the Lingayats and Vokkaligas – traditionally dominated village society thanks to their land holdings – although in recent decades, caste hierarchies have been challenged. Until 1972, those two groups used their local pre-eminence to dominate state politics.

But D. Devaraj Urs (chief minister, 1972-1980) broke their dominance and changed the electoral rules by mobilising disadvantaged groups who outnumber Lingayats and Vokkaligas. Those two landed groups have continued to gain more election tickets and more political influence than their numerical strength would justify. But they cannot dominate any longer as they did before 1972. Since then, to win elections, parties must also cultivate disadvantaged groups which have become very politically aware.

We occasionally hear that Lingayats and Vokkaligas are ‘majority communities’, which is a false claim. Here are the statistics on the composition of society in the state (numbers vary in different surveys):

Community Percentage in state population
Lingayats 14-17%
Vokkaligas 11-12%
Brahmins 3.5%
OBCs 23%
Scheduled Castes (Dalits) 15-17%
Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) 5-7%
Muslims 11-16%

We must look a little more closely at the contrasting social bases of the three main parties. Many Vokkaligas back the JDS, and most Lingayats have supported BJP since the early 2000s. The BJP also attracts support from ritually left-hand Dalits. The right-hand group tends to back Congress. (In South India, right/left divisions exist within castes at all levels of the traditional hierarchy. In Karnataka specifically, Madigas are categorised as left-hand Dalits, and Holeya as right-hand Dalits)

New Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge addresses the ceremony for presentation of certificate of election to him, at AICC Headquarters in New Delhi, October 26, 2022. Photo: PTI/Vijay Verma

The election of Mallikarjun Kharge, a Karnataka Dalit leader, as national Congress president is unlikely to change that since his support mainly comes from caste fellows in the right-hand group. But as we shall see, he offers the party a different advantage.

Congress, under the leadership of Siddaramaiah (an OBC, former chief minister and current leader of the opposition) has pursued an AHINDA strategy, appealing to OBCs, Dalits and Muslims. The party hopes that D.K. Shivakumar, who now heads the Pradesh Congress Committee, will attract votes from his fellow Vokkaligas, mainly at the expense of the JDS.

What might hurt or help the BJP?

The BJP government may be damaged by perceptions of corruption. Narendra Modi accused Siddaramaiah’s earlier Congress state government of extorting 10% kickbacks from contractors.  But, in July 2021, an association of major Karnataka contractors wrote to the Prime Minister to say that the BJP was demanding 40%.

After a year in which some of them were harassed and no action was taken, they protested again in August of 2022. Associations representing 13,000 schools have alleged that education department officials demanded bribes for routine procedures. Last August, a Karnataka high court judge said, “Nowadays, in government offices, corruption has become rampant and no file will be moved without any bribe.”

We must be careful about the impact of this issue in the coming election. Many of those allegations focus on corruption at higher levels. What is unclear is how much retail corruption has occurred at lower levels – the kind felt by ordinary voters – so that it could influence the election result.

The state government has made various announcements to court popularity: a health insurance card, clinics for the poor, plans for a yatra, etc. It has also unveiled a statue of Kempe Gowda, founder of Bengaluru and an iconic figure among Vokkaligas. It has granted reservations to sections of the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, even though the courts will probably annul them – after the election. The government apparently reckoned that this gesture was worth making. But, opening this can of worms, it has stimulated fresh expressions of discontent from various groups that could actually undercut support for the BJP.

But these are less important than the four main elements of the BJP’s drive for re-election: a massive advantage in campaign funds; its record in delivering goods, services, development and infrastructure; aggressive communal polarisation; and Narendra Modi’s pulling power as a campaigner.

Representational image. BJP supporters at a rally in Amethi. Photo: narendramodi.in

Abundant campaign funds may help the BJP, but here too one must be careful in saying anything conclusively. Contrary to some claims, money seldom wins Indian elections. Since 1980, in national and state elections across the country, roughly 70% of the parties that had more money have lost. However, we must focus on the stupendous advantage that the BJP now enjoys.

Also read: ‘Subaltern Hindutva’ Is Gaining Ground – BJP’s Victories in Vijayapura, Kollegal Are Proof

In the 2019 national election, it had 18 times more money than all other parties combined.  Since then, it has received the overwhelming majority of donations through electoral bonds, so the yawning disparity has increased. The playing field in Indian elections is far from level, and such a massive advantage could produce gains for the BJP in this election too.

One oddity is worth noting. All three main parties give nearly all of their tickets to crorepatis. In 2018, 99% of Congress MLAs were crorepatis, BJP 98%, and JDS 95%. Congress and JDS need rich candidates because those two parties are not well-funded. But, when we turn to the BJP, we encounter a mystery. Why does it also rely on crorepatis when it has more money than other parties? Maybe it wants candidates to fund their own campaigns so that most of the party’s funds are retained and spent by its national leaders – whose appetite for tight top-down control, within and beyond the party, is enormous. But since crorepatis in the Assembly have financial autonomy, they may be difficult to control.

What are we to make of BJP leaders’ second campaign theme: their claim to have delivered goods, services, development and infrastructure? To deliver, the state machinery must be effective, but the BJP government’s record inspires grave doubts. We need to refer only to a comment by Karnataka’s law minister who was caught on tape in August 2022 saying, “There is no functioning government.”

Why? This is partly explained by intense factional conflict between long-term BJP loyalists and defectors who were induced to join the party during the latest Operation Kamala which brought the BJP to power in 2019. As a result, in the words of the eminent analyst Sandeep Shastri, the party is “plagued by disunity, discord and disharmony like nowhere else.”

Here as in other states, Amit Shah has strengthened party operations at the booth level. But at the same time, his radical centralisation of power has weakened the organisation in other ways, as the state-level BJP leaders have said in private. And the organisation was never as strong as in states further north because, during his three decades as leader, B.S. Yediyurappa’s autocratic approach prevented it from developing. This frailty and factional strife within the party undermine the delivery of goods, services, development and infrastructure.

National BJP leaders hope that a new delivery mechanism may compensate for this. They bypass BJP MLAs and the party organisation – weakening it further – by attempting to deliver goods and services through IT systems controlled from the top. But despite claims to the contrary, there is much evidence that the malfunctioning of IT mechanisms has denied vitally important benefits to huge numbers of vulnerable people. It is estimated, for example, that over 40% of India’s population is excluded from the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana free foodgrains scheme.

The BJP’s unease about its delivery record became apparent in a January speech by its state party president. He urged grassroots activists to stress “love jihad” rather than sewage and roads. This indicates that much will depend upon the impact of the third strand in the BJP’s strategy: its recent drive for communal polarisation.

It has sustained this, forcefully and systematically, over many months and it has reached levels seldom seen in other states. The ban on hijabs in schools made international headlines. A video went viral showing a Muslim university student challenging a teacher who had likened him to a Pakistani terrorist. Another Muslim student was thrashed for speaking to a Hindu girl. An anti-conversion bill was passed. Communal riots rocked Hubballi in April 2022, for which the BJP tried rather implausibly to blame the previous Congress government. Muslim traders were banned from operating near Hindu festivals. Hindus were urged not to buy halal meats and even mangoes from Muslims. Attacks occurred on Muslim sellers of watermelons and bananas. People going to temples were told not to hire taxis from non-vegetarians. Protests arose against Tipu Sultan’s mosque at Srirangapatna. Banners praising Nathuram Godse were carried in the Ganapati processions in Shivamogga and Tumakuru. School textbooks were saffronised and plans were announced to paint 7,500 classrooms saffron, etc. Christians also suffered numerous attacks which, to cause maximum offence, surged during the Christmas season.

This headlong pursuit of hard Hindutva was driven by BJP officials appointed by national leaders whose intentions were clear from earlier appointments. When a ministerial post in New Delhi opened up for a Karnataka MP, they chose not a Lingayat or a Vokkaliga, but a wildly extreme Brahmin, Ananth Kumar Hegde. Then they selected another incendiary Brahmin MP from Bengaluru South, Tejasvi Surya, to head the BJP’s national youth wing.

Can communal polarisation gain broad popular support in Karnataka and win the BJP many votes?  There must be serious doubts. Communalism has never found great traction in the state, apart from the small coastal area which is socially eccentric. And even on the coast, an earlier surge in Hindu extremism backfired.

When the BJP held power between 2008 and 2013, vigilantes there unleashed a campaign of violence against Muslims and churches. In a July 2012 attack, many young men and women were beaten. On numerous occasions, Hindus and Muslims were assaulted when their only crime was speaking to each other. A fiery communalist speech in Mangalore by Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, intensified tensions. But it was all counterproductive. These events alienated not just minority voters but many Hindus as well. In the 2013 state election, in its supposed stronghold on the coast, the BJP lost an astonishing 14 of 17 seats.

Also read: Focus on Love Jihad, Not Small Issues Like Roads, Drains: BJP Karnataka Chief to Party Workers

 If its more recent effort at communal polarisation proves disappointing, the BJP will have few excuses. Their defeat in the recent Himachal Pradesh election was attributed to the small number of Muslims in that state – just over 2% of the population – who denied the party a plausible target there. In Karnataka, no such explanation will be available.  Muslims constitute between 11% and 16% of the state’s population – close to the national average of 15%.

This polarising drive has created an unexpected headache for the BJP. A group with links to Hindutva extremists in the Sri Ram Sene claims that the BJP state government has done too little to protect Hindus, and intends to contest against the party as independents in as many as 25 constituencies. The BJP could suffer from that rebellion and from another that is unconnected to the communal issue: the emergence of a party recently formed by Janardhana Reddy who, in his days as a mining baron, once backed and funded the BJP. Out of embarrassment over criminal charges that he has long faced, the BJP has shunned him. He now threatens to contest against it in northeastern districts where he has influence in numerous constituencies.

Finally, in a spectacular irony, the tables have been turned on the BJP’s communalist campaign in Karnataka by none other than Narendra Modi.  In what appears to be an attempt to facilitate his and India’s bid to serve as a vishwa guru, in mid-January, he suddenly instructed the BJP’s national executive committee to offer minorities sympathetic treatment. More specifically, he also stressed the need for such actions in talks about the coming Karnataka election with Yediyurappa who then passed the word to party leaders in the state, only some of whom have stopped polarising.

This is welcome news for Yediyurappa. He has long sought to reassure Karnataka’s Muslims that they will be protected and has been dismayed enough by the recent hard-line communalist wave in the state to call for moderation. But Modi’s abrupt reversal of direction imperils whatever gains the party might have made from the aggressive polarising of recent years. We must also wonder whether Muslims and Christians will warm to the BJP’s new charm offensive, after many months of humiliation and abuse. And BJP activists in Karnataka who have cheerfully brutalised minorities may feel betrayed as Modi pulls the rug from under them for his own personal reasons – to cultivate a statesmanlike image as a vishwa guru.

The Modi factor

Since there are doubts about the first three elements of the BJP’s election strategy, a great deal will depend on the last one: the Prime Minister’s campaigning. He is already, overwhelming, the main focus of attention from the party – and he has reinforced that himself. At a large rally in Mangalore, he made no reference to chief minister Bommai who has struggled to manage the dilemmas faced by the BJP. Modi’s speech was all about Modi.

Efforts to foster his personality cult have few parallels anywhere in the world. Two large teams constantly monitor media content. Editors are warned about critical reports and are told which glowing stories on Modi to reissue. His picture or label appears on bags of fertiliser, documents on vaccinations, cash transfers, crop insurance, subsidized food, etc.

BJP supporters hold posters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as they wait at the venue of PMs rally after it was canceled, amid rain in Ferozepur, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. Photo: PTI

Senior BJP leaders offer him extravagant anthems of praise. One stated that “God has sent him as his representative” and another called him “God’s gift to India”. Then claims escalated: Modi “has traces of God in him”, he “is the incarnation of God”, and even that he is the “leader of the gods”.

The Prime Minister wants to make the most of this in state elections. He recently said in Himachal Pradesh that “there is no need to consider local candidates: every vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party was, in effect, a vote for Modi.”

But this does not always work. The BJP lost in Himachal. And since 2014, it has fallen short – often well short – of majorities in numerous state elections including in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Goa, and Odisha. It was badly beaten in Delhi and West Bengal.

More specifically, Modi’s campaigning in the Karnataka state elections has not always benefited the BJP. In 2013, in assembly segments where he addressed rallies, the BJP’s vote share declined when compared to the previous election, and its seat total there fell from 18 to 12.

In responding to Modi’s campaigning, Congress leaders have devised a tactic once used effectively not against the BJP but against them. In the December 1984 Lok Sabha election, Congress swept Karnataka on a sympathy wave for Rajiv Gandhi, soon after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Only nine weeks later, the Janata Party which had governed Karnataka well under Ramakrishna Hegde, faced Congress again in a state election. Hegde stressed one simple message: if Congress won, Rajiv Gandhi would not become Karnataka’s chief minister. The state’s sophisticated voters re-elected Janata with a massive swing. Congress leaders can now stress that Modi will remain in his post in New Delhi.

The prospects for Congress

The quality of Congress state election campaigns in Karnataka has varied greatly over the last 30 years. The High Command’s choices of leaders for the state party have often been dire.  Janardhana Poojary, whom Rajiv Gandhi appointed to head to Pradesh Congress Committee, was a disaster. After him, a highly competent leader substantially revived the organisation. But later – in 2003 – Poojary was inexplicably put in charge again. The High Command did not understand that he was incompetent.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with KPCC president D. K. Shivakumar and former Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah, during the latter’s 75th birthday celebrations, in Davangere, Karnataka, August 3, 2022. Photo: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak

Their selections of leaders to oversee state election campaigns were similarly wayward. They did not see that Prithviraj Chavan and Madhusudan Mistry would both have done great damage in that role if state-level Congressmen had not carefully prevented them from exercising much influence. After causing the party serious problems at one state election, Chavan was imposed for a second time. At another election – which Congress won despite him – Mistry was promoted for what the High Command mistakenly saw as his brilliant performance.

This time, things may be different. Mallikarjun Kharge may have the authority to prevent this sort of thing, although there is discontent within the state Congress about the party general secretary who has been given charge of the state. If Kharge can minimise the problem, then that – and not his appeal among all sections of Karnataka’s Dalits – will be his important contribution to this election. Others in the High Command appear to be more helpful than in earlier years.  Congress is likely to follow the winning approach used in Himachal Pradesh at Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s urging: effective ground-level work, informed by multiple surveys, focused on swing seats, with a reliable war room linked to the media.

They are already condemning the BJP government’s non-fulfillment of most manifesto promises, allegations of corruption, etc – while offering special provisions for women voters who will have a separate party manifesto. Most reports on their preparations have been positive, although one perceptive senior Karnataka Congressman has privately expressed worries to this writer.

Congress enters this campaign with two quite different leaders: Siddaramaiah, former chief minister and now leader of the opposition; and D.K. Shivakumar, who heads the Pradesh Congress Committee. As noted above, they appeal to voters in contrasting ways.

Also read: Karnataka: Rahul Gandhi Sounds the Poll Bugle, but Infighting Remains a Concern

Siddaramaiah reaches out to disadvantaged groups with an AHINDA strategy while Shivakumar appeals to his fellow Vokkaligas, many of whom have been alienated by the AHINDA message.  Congress needs to minimise the dissonance between these two themes, and between followers of these two leaders – neither of whom is being projected as the next chief minister. Tensions between these two groups are a reality, but so far, Congress has kept them largely in check.

To ease this problem, Congress plans to adopt a tactic that it used in 1999, when it was troubled by the rivalry among multiple leaders. All prominent figures in the party will gather in a bus and tour the state extensively, in a show of unity.

Several questions remain. Will the attempt to draw Vokkaliga voters away from the JDS succeed?  Will the AHINDA theme enable Congress first to gain substantial support from OBCs who are a fragmented voting bloc; and second to attract Muslim voters despite rival candidates nominated by Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM in 13 constituencies and by the assertive Muslim organisation, the Social Democratic Party of India, in 100?  And how much damage will be done by the factional conflict between supporters of Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar?

The outlook for the Janata Dal-Secular

Finally, we must consider the JDS. It is beset by over-centralised, dictatorial leadership within its organisation, and an increased focus on H.D. Deve Gowda’s family. At the coming election, an eighth relative, his daughter-in-law, may be added to the candidates’ list. These problems have caused discontent in the organisation, triggering exits to Congress and the BJP by some prominent figures. The JDS suffered lost deposits in Assembly by-elections last year, with more woe in more recent Legislative Council elections.

Former Prime Minister Deve Gowda Credit: PTI

It is unwise, however, to write the party off. This is seen by some as Deve Gowda’s last election, and his emotional pleas for votes may attract more support from Vokkaligas than Shivakumar’s appeal to them for Congress. And as noted, some Vokkaligas resent Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA emphasis.  So the JDS may not do too badly. That would be bad news for Congress.

Some reports have claimed that the BJP and the JDS – both fearing a Congress surge – may agree to put up weak candidates against each other in some places. That might help the JDS and cost Congress seats. But more recently, Amit Shah and other BJP leaders have decided to make a major push for seats in southern districts (the old Mysuru region), the main JDS base. They have ruled out any deal with the JDS while voicing their contempt for it. That party’s leader, H.D. Kumaraswamy, responded caustically: “You’ve looted the state and used that money to buy MLAs”, adding that Amit Shah was the reincarnation of Joseph Goebbels.

Some see this as a sly ploy by Shah. By stressing the antipathy between the two parties, he may hope that Muslim voters will be more willing to vote for the JDS than when it appeared that it and the BJP were collaborating. Such a swing by Muslims would damage the BJP’s main adversary, Congress. That might help the BJP to improve on its poor 2018 total of only 22 seats out of 89 in the old Mysuru region.

A new entrant, the Aam Aadmi Party, also seeks to make headway. If it succeeds, it will undermine support for Congress, but the evidence so far suggests that it will struggle to make headway in rural areas where elections are decided.

Who will win? 

Consider Imran Qureshi’s comments on political arithmetic. The state assembly has long had 224 seats. A majority is of course 113, but to be safe, a party needs around 120. The BJP can count on winning at least 60 to 80 seats; Congress at least 80 to 90; and the JDS around 25. Congress has on occasion crossed 120, but the BJP has never won a majority. Its best showings have been 110 (in 2008) and 104 (in 2018).

So to take power, the BJP has twice (2008 and 2019) relied on inducing defections from Congress and/or the JD-S – Operations Kamala. That has triggered factional infighting in the BJP between long-term loyalists and defectors, and has helped to deny BJP governments re-election. It is a significant problem now for the BJP, in the wake of the 2019 operation, which brought numerous turncoats into the party.

The BJP’s own private polls indicate that the outlook for it – as one of its national-level leaders put it – is “worrying”. Two surveys by others send the same message.

Last June, an internal opinion poll for Congress gave it 130 seats in the Assembly where a majority is 113. Much more recently, another predicted the following result:

Party Seats
Congress 108-114
BJP 65-75
Janata Dal (Secular) 24-34

One of that poll’s findings is grim for the BJP. It is expected to win only 34 to 39 seats in the crucial rural constituencies in northern and central districts – as opposed to 64 to 67 for Congress. A solid showing for Congress is also predicted in Bengaluru and in the old Mysuru (southern) region although in the latter, the JDS may perform reasonably well.

There will of course be more polls, of varying reliability. Plenty of uncertainties remain.

James Manor is Emeritus Professor, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, UK.

Edited by Vikram Mukka