“Why should I go back to vote?” asks Umesh, a 37-year-old worker from Koppal, an arid district in north Karnataka. “I have been around long enough to know that no politicians want us to come up. We are meant to be the labour class for the rest of Karnataka.”
Standing at a labour chowk in Mangalore, a small-but-wealthy port city in southern Karnataka, it is a hard argument to refute. Every day, hundreds of workers from districts in northern Karnataka – Bagalkot, Bijapur, Gulbarga, Raichur, Bidar, Koppal, Bellary and others – line up to find daily wage work at chowks in Mangalore, Mysore, and Bangalore.
While the wealthier southern half of Karnataka went to vote on April 18, the poorer northern parts are scheduled to vote on April 23. These districts – known collectively as ‘Bombay’ and ‘Hyderabad’ Karnataka depending on whether they fell within the Bombay Presidency or the Nizam’s Sultanate before the formation of linguistic states – represent a number of interesting contrasts in terms of discourse from the rest of Karnataka.
Umesh’s disenchantment is not a one off case. Over the last two Lok Sabha elections, North Karnataka has recorded significantly less voter turnout than the rest of the state – and, paradoxically, is comparable in this regard only to the state’s wealthiest constituencies in Bangalore.
The three lowest turnout constituencies are all reserved – Bijapur (SC), Gulbarga (SC) and Raichur (ST). Part of the reason for this is that large sections of the population here work as migrant daily wage labour – so going back to their home districts to vote would cost them.
“Leaders usually compensate the bus fares only for those from their caste or area, who they know would surely vote for them”, says Hemanth, a worker from Bagalkot. “For everybody else there is no point going. Only our elders who live back home go and vote because it costs nothing”.
The point that Hemanth gestures towards is the fact that North Karnataka shows a high degree of clientelism. The influence of leaders is largely related to networks of patronage, and this is part of the reason that the two national parties are the leading political forces here: their ability to out-spend and out-muscle any semblance of alternate politics. Vote banks in the region are thus secure and loyal, and vote on local considerations.
“I don’t know who is good or bad for the country, or who has done good work. I know that Yeddyurappa stood by us through everything during the Almatti [dam on the river Krishna] problems, and for that I trust him,” says Yogesh from Bagalkot.
“Some people may vote because Indira Gandhi helped them and some people may vote because they were in the Sangha [RSS], but most people vote because they trust Yeddyurappa, or Kharge, or the religious leader of their mutt”.
Given that the powerful Lingayat community is widely present in these parts, the BJP relies heavily on the influence of B.S. Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat. Among the small but significant ST vote base, the BJP’s B. Sriramulu remains a strong local leader.
The Congress, meanwhile, is dependent on senior Dalit leader Mallikarjun Kharge, who contests from Kalaburgi.
The ace up the Congress’ sleeve this time round in North Karnataka, however, is its alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular).
While the JD(S) is largely an electoral force in south Karnataka, there is evidence to suggest that it sometimes plays the role of spoiler in other parts of the state – owing largely to its ability to leverage local networks because it is seen as the largest regional party in Karnataka.
In the 2018 Karnataka assembly election, no less than 25 seats in North Karnataka were won by the BJP where the JD(S) had a vote share that was higher than the margin between the BJP and the Congress. This is aside from the six seats that the party themselves won in the northern parts of the state.
The 2014 Lok Sabha elections were an anomaly in the region, with both turnouts and margins for the BJP increasing dramatically as part of the Modi wave. But looking at turnout trends in the southern part of the state, there is reason to believe that this election will look more similar to the 2009 contest. Back then, the JDS played spoiler for the Congress in three key constituencies of Koppal, Uttara Kannada and Davangere.
Unlike Southern Karnataka, where other considerations may make the alliance’s co-operation less smooth, the Congress would expect a near perfect transfer of these crucial swing votes to their candidates in North Karnataka, setting the region up for a close clash.
The Muslim question
Another crucial element in the electoral arithmetic will be that of the Muslim vote. The large numbers of migrant labour from these districts that come to southern Karnataka for work are for the most part Dalit and OBC Hindus. The northern districts of Karnataka have a high percentage of Muslim population – most of whom, crucially, live and work in the region and will go to vote there unlike other population groups.
During the assembly elections in the state last year, Karnataka’s Muslims had begun to express that the national picture was changing and that there was a greater need to strategically oppose the BJP – as opposed to earlier when their votes would split in the state between the JDS and the Congress. “We must ensure at all costs that our Karnataka does not become like UP – where such communalism is common,” explained a Muslim rice trader in Honnali town of Davangere district, back in 2018. This time around, the urgency is even more acute.
“I am actually not against Yeddyurappa”, says Jaffer, a mechanic in Shimoga – Yeddyurappa’s home district.
“To be honest with you, he has developed Shimoga. This has created opportunities for my family and children. Whether I agree with him or not, if you have a CM candidate or strong politician from your area, you are likely to gain from it. But this time I cannot support him. This is a national election, and this is now a life and death question. He may be a good man, but we cannot have the BJP one more time at the Centre,” he said.
For a number of reasons, one can say that North Karnataka looks to be headed for a tight electoral contest with potentially low voter turnouts. The 2014 election saw the BJP win 17 of the state’s 28 seats to the Congress’ seven, while the 2009 contest saw a more or less similar result with 19 to the BJP and six to the Congress.
How much of this can be attributed to the inflexibility of patronage politics and the spoiler effects created by the first past the post system, only time will tell. North Karnataka may be one of the few regions of the country which will see a straight contest between the BJP and the Congress, but which will be decided almost entirely by local factors and not national rhetoric (with the possible exception of the Muslim vote).
The region’s 14 seats will nonetheless be invaluable to both major parties – both for the sheer number as well as the legitimacy of having a firm foothold in South India.
Pranav Kuttaiah is a research assistant at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.