ON COUNTING DAY, as the first leads were crystallising into victories, the saffron wave that swept through Karnataka seemed to cradle Umanath Kotian, an unresisting mouthpiece for Hindutva, in its arms. Contesting from Moodbidri in the coastal district of Dakshina Kannada, Kotian trounced four-time Congress MLA and former minister Abhayachandra Jain by nearly 30,000 votes to open the BJP account in the constituency. The BJP won seven of eight Assembly seats in Dakshina Kannada, and all five seats in the adjoining district of Udupi, reasserting its might in a region that first came under its wing in 1983 but went the Congress way in 2013. Kotian promptly dedicated his victory to the BJP leadership and to Prashant Poojari, the 29-year-old Bajrang Dal activist whose murder on October 9th, 2015, attributed to communal grudges, rocked the coast and remoulded the crust of Hindu society in Karnataka. The BJP’s tally of 104 in this year’s Assembly elections, with major gains in central, Malnad, coastal and Bombay-Karnataka districts, is as much a result of hortatory campaigning by booth-level workers and Sangh Parivar activists, as it is a testament to the cult of Narendra Modi, whose rallies quickened the pulse of the state in the final days before the polls.
On the morning of May 17th, as sullen Congress MLAs were getting ready to march to Vidhana Soudha from a resort on the southern fringes of Bangalore to protest Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala’s decision to invite the BJP to form the next government in Karnataka, BS Yeddyurappa took oath as Chief Minister with the confidence of someone who had outmanoeuvred his opponents. The previous evening, the post-poll Congress-JD(S) combine had been celebrating its shimmering, glass-thin edge of nine seats over the BJP, which had emerged as the single largest party for the third time in the state, with 104 seats in a house of 224, 222 of which had gone to the polls on May 12th. The JD(S), under HD Kumaraswamy, seemed to be the nucleus of this crafty new political order, and looked all set to usurp the democratic prerogative with just 37 MLAs. Rivals turned partners, the Congress and the JD(S) had even petitioned the Supreme Court late on Wednesday night in a bid to stop the BJP from forming the government. But the BJP, not content with a ‘moral win’, snatched the victory from right under their noses. With two weeks ahead of them to wrangle a majority, Yeddyurappa, the architect of ‘Operation Lotus’ in the wake of the 2008 elections when the BJP had fallen three short of the halfway mark, and the party’s backroom boys are busy trying to ensure a Congress- mukt Karnataka.
On the morning of May 17th, BS Yeddyurappa took oath as Chief Minister with the confidence of someone who had outmanoeuvred his opponents
At the Congress legislature party meeting on May 16th attended by most of its winning MLAs, the mood was far from happy. Outgoing Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, sources say, was on the verge of tears over the Congress’ inability to form a monolithic government despite polling a higher vote share (38 per cent as against the BJP’s 36.2), and even more so, for losing his Ahinda shirt along the way. The ultimate futility of playing on the insecurities of underprivileged communities seemed to dawn on the Congress hero as he heaved his last sigh. “He feels let down. All his welfare schemes, Anna Bhagya and Indira Canteens, have amounted to nothing in the end,” says B Nagendra, a mining baron who won on a Congress ticket from Ballari. Supporting a controversial proposal to lure the Lingayats with a separate minority religion had been a calculated risk, but the government’s welfare schemes and pro-poor image should have sufficed to attract OBC and SC/ST votes. And yet, despite no palpable anti-incumbency, 16 Cabinet ministers lost their seats in what can only be interpreted as a verdict against complacency.
“The Congress made many bad decisions under Siddaramaiah, and he shot himself in the foot by contesting in Chamundeshwari, where he has no base,” says GT Deve Gowda, the JD(S) challenger who cannot stop smiling after vanquishing the Kuruba leader by a margin of over 36,000 votes. “I was expecting to win with a 25,000-vote margin, but Siddaramaiah’s negative campaign against the JD(S) made it easier for me.” In the event of a Congress-JD(S) coalition, Gowda, who, ironically, ran a vigorous campaign for Siddaramaiah when the latter was a JD(S) leader, is likely to be conferred a ministerial berth. “All personal issues aside, the JD(S) is ready to work with a Siddaramaiah-led Congress. Despite all his shortcomings, he is the only mass leader for the party,” Gowda says. Old enmity, it is said, is stronger than new unity. Siddaramaiah and Kumaraswamy may appear to paper over their differences in order to edge out the BJP, but sources in the Congress say the outgoing chief minister will not take kindly to being sidelined, and that his supporters may incite a rebellion within the ranks.
“The people believed in our message of protecting Hindus and working for disadvantaged castes. Many SC and ST communities have realised the Congress was favouring OBCs over them” - Sriramulu, BJP MLA from Molakalmuru
THE CONGRESS, IN any case, was a divided house without a value proposition, says BJP leader B Sriramulu, the man of the moment in the north-central districts where the party has won big by consolidating Lingayat and Nayaka votes. “The people believed in our message of protecting Hindus and working for disadvantaged castes. Many SC and ST communities have realised the Congress was favouring OBCs over them. Siddaramaiah, by sidelining SC-ST leaders within the party, has dug his own grave,” says Sriramulu, over breakfast—poori, aam ras and Betageri chutney—at party leader Mahantesh Mamadapur’s residence in Badami, Bagalkot district. Glued to his iPhone for Election Commission updates, he declines a serving of potato bhaji—“I gave up onion and garlic 10 years ago. I used to drink a lot back then”—and appears unfazed although trailing by 500 votes in Badami against Chief Minister Siddaramaiah at last count. Concern begins to knit his thick brows as he makes his way to the Banashankari temple for a puja, accompanied by wife Bhagyalakshmi and a horde of supporters. He would win the Molakalmuru seat in Chitradurga by a comfortable margin, while losing Badami by just 1,696 votes—lower than the NOTA count of 2,007, and among the slimmest margins in this election. He has more cause for worry, however: his associates, the Reddy brothers of Ballari, managed to win just three of the nine seats in the district under their purview. “The Congress has been running a vicious campaign of maligning BJP leaders in Ballari as corrupt. We have suffered a setback. I am going to meet independents and other MLAs to try and make up for this loss,” Sriramulu tells me as he leaves the counting centre in Bagalkot. His tone of self-assurance when he arrived in the AM by chopper in a cloud of red dust has a more provisional feel to it now as early trends predicting a BJP majority have morphed into what promises to be a virulent battle for power.
“Siddaramaiah feels let down. All his welfare schemes, Anna Bhagya and Indira Canteens, have amounted to nothing in the end” - B Nagendra, Congress MLA from Ballari
There is enough reason, however, for the BJP to celebrate. In Bombay-Karnataka, a decisive region comprising 50 seats, the party reaped considerable gains, winning 30 and reducing the Congress from a tally of 31 in 2013 to 17. In Bagalkot district, under which Badami falls, the BJP lost just two out of seven seats. In the central Karnataka district of Chitradurga, where Sriramulu has been elected from Molakalmuru, the party bagged five out of six seats. Ironically, senior Dalit leader and incumbent minister for Social Welfare, H Anjaneya, lost by an embarrassingly large margin in Holalkere. Even more surprisingly, in neighbouring Davanagere, where the BJP had no presence, it won six out of eight seats.
The ground outside the Bagalkot counting centre is stained the colour of the blooming gulmohars that line the road from Badami to Bagalkot. Drunken revelry prevails among BJP supporters even as Congress workers conduct feeble fuschia-smudged celebrations in Badami, where, despite the JD(S) fielding a Lingayat to split the BJP’s vote, Siddaramaiah barely scraped through. We go looking for answers in Muttalageri, a Kuruba village 7km from town. “Kurubas and Muslims voted for Siddaramaiah, but despite ST leader Satish Jarkiholi managing the campaign, the tribal votes went to Sriramulu,” says Arif B Mullah, a 26-year- old electrician, agricultural worker and Siddaramaiah fan. “Somewhere down the line, the Congress came to be seen as a Kuruba-and-Muslim party.”
“The Congress made many bad decisions under Siddaramaiah and he shot himself in the foot by contesting in Chamundeshwari, where he has no base” - GT Deve Gowda, JD(S) MLA
Just seven Muslim candidates have emerged victorious—down from 11 in 2013—in the Assembly polls this year, all of them from the Congress. The JD(S), which fielded eight Muslims, is perplexed at its losses despite Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) offering its support to the party. “We expected Muslims to back us, but Siddaramaiah has emerged as a champion of Muslims,” says GT Deve Gowda. “We may have won close to 45 seats had we been able to attract Muslims. But in politics, everyone cannot drive the bus. For us, Vokkaligas are the force propelling us forward.”
“Lingayats have made it clear that they won’t back a divisive chief minister. The BJP sailed through thanks to welfare works, the promise of development and Prime Minister Modi’s intense campaigning” - Aravind Bellad, BJP MLA from Hubli-Dharwad West
Lingayat and Brahmin dominance and communal polarisation worked to favour the BJP in districts like Shimoga, where the BJP won six of seven seats for the first time, and Uttara Kannada, represented in Parliament by firebrand Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde, who had been instructed to lay low towards the fag end of campaigning in response to repeated allegations of hate speech against him. Much of the BJP’s success story this time has been ghost-written by the RSS, which had swung into action months ahead of electioneering. According to Vishweshwar Bhat, editor-in-chief of Vishwavani Daily, a Kannada newspaper, the BJP followed a clear strategy where the triptych of Modi, Amit Shah and Yeddyurappa dominated the campaign, with local leaders largely restricted to campaigning in their respective regions. “Senior leaders like Ananth Kumar and Ramesh Jigajinagi played backroom roles. Jagadish Shettar passed up an opportunity to establish himself as a mass Lingayat leader by campaigning only in Hubli-Dharwad. DV Sadananda Gowda’s campaign did not cross the boundaries of Bangalore Urban. The Modi-Shah-BSY juggernaut stole the show, but in many constituencies, such as Bhatkal in Uttara Kannada where the BJP candidate won despite the large number of Muslim votes in the constituency, the victories were made possible purely by grassroots work,” he says.
“We stand corrected. All calculations went awry for the Congress. The BJP was seen as favouring the Bunts over the Billavas and the Mogaveeras, who we assumed would vote in favour of the Congress, but this did not happen” - BV Seetharam, editor of Karavali Ale
The Congress managed to retain most of its seats in Bengaluru, where polling was abysmally low in many constituencies, and in Hyderabad-Karnataka, where it won 21 out of 40 seats, as against 23 in 2013. What it did not expect was a rout in coastal Karnataka, with ministers Ramanath Rai and Pramod Madhwaraj suffering humiliating defeats in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts, respectively. “We, too, stand corrected,” says BV Seetharam, editor of Karavali Ale, a Mangalore newspaper. “All calculations went awry for the Congress. The BJP was seen as favouring the Bunts over the Billavas and the Mogaveeras, who we assumed would vote in favour of the Congress, but this did not happen. Had the Congress fielded fresh candidates instead of opportunistic incumbents like Vinay Kumar Sorake, Moiuddin Bawa and Pramod Madhwaraj, it may have fared better. Besides, the Congress government failed to address the simmering issue of communal killings.”
Lingayats largely voted in favour of the BJP, with the Congress’ nugatory efforts to divide and poach their votes only serving to further alienate Hindus. “Lingayats have made it clear that they won’t back a divisive chief minister,” says Aravind Bellad, the Hubli-Dharwad West MLA who improved upon his margin of 2013 margin of 11,182 votes by securing 40,487 more votes than his Congress rival. “The BJP, on the other hand, sailed through thanks to welfare works, the promise of development and Prime Minister Modi’s intense campaigning,” Bellad says. Notably, Minister for Geology and Mines Vinay Kulkarni, a Panchamsali Lingayat from Dharwad and a top leader of the Congress-backed Lingayat agitation, lost by a margin of over 20,000 votes.
“The Modi-Shah-BSY juggernaut stole the show, but in many constituencies, such as Bhatkal in Uttara Kannada, where the BJP won despite the large number of Muslim votes in the constituency, the victories were made possible purely by grassroots work” - Vishweshwar Bhat, editor-in-chief of Vishwavani Daily
What is even more telling is how the Ahinda vote fractured as marginalised communities vacillated towards the BJP. The lack of parity in reservations and political representation among the SCs of Karnataka, broadly classified into ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘touchable’ and others, led to a chunk of the ‘left’ votes leaving the Congress camp in strategic seats. Out of 34 seats reserved for SCs, the BJP won 16 and the Congress 12, with the JD(S) bagging the rest. In 2013, the BJP had managed to win just seven SC seats, with the Congress sweeping 17 of them. In the coming days, as TV reporters get busy tracking the venality of the resort politics in store, the Congress will want to keep its MLAs safe from the clutches of the BJP, but not without wishing that it had fortified its votebank against a saffron onslaught.