Karnataka Elections 2018: Close Encounter

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Karnataka 2018 could be BJP’s grand prelude to India 2019. Can Chief Minister Siddaramaiah contain the force?

ONE OF THE incidental pleasures of attending a rally in poll-bound Karnataka is the predictability of it. Inevitably, the man from Delhi sounds like he is launching into an unrehearsed opening of Othello. All the ingredients of a good act are there: the mild slander, the apocalyptic frenzy, the tone of querulous resentment. But with the Assembly polls less than a month and a half away, exhaustion is setting in, making star campaigners spew laughable gaffes, which are then duly seized and interpreted on social media in grimly ironic terms. BJP President Amit Shah had one such slip of the tongue on his most recent visit to Karnataka, when he inadvertently declared that if there was ever a competition for the most corrupt government, then Yeddyurappa’s—he of course meant Siddaramaiah’s—would come first. Congress President Rahul Gandhi, who has toured the state thrice in the past few months, has slipped up several times, including when he referred to Indira Canteens as ‘Amma’ canteens after the original scheme in Tamil Nadu, and most recently, when the 19th Diwan of Mysore M Visvesvaraya’s name proved tongue-twisting for him in the course of a speech in Chamarajnagar.

The Congress’ local leaders, however, are working harder than ever to make up for the palavering ways of national politicians ahead of the most keenly awaited Assembly election of the year. In sleepy small town cafes in Udupi, Hubli and Chikmagalur, they are making listicles of the state Government’s achievements to pass on to the High Command—if only in the hope of bagging a ticket in the Congress’ combative campaign to retain its last stronghold besides Punjab. As they excavate the past, invoke Kannadiga pride with references to Basava, Kuvempu and Tipu Sultan, and systematically flatten the airy bubbles blown by their rivals, they are also tapping into Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s fan base. “Siddaramaiah is the Virat Kohli of the Congress campaign. He is steamrolling over anyone who stands in the way,” says A Manju, Minister for Sericulture and Animal Husbandry and the Congress MLA from Arkalgud in Hassan, ahead of a massive rally in Hassan on March 21 as part of Gandhi’s Janashirvada Yatra. The stadium is full and raucous, and banners of ‘RG next PM’ flutter tentatively in the background under a crescent moon, away from the action under the floodlights. Gandhi waves to the crowd and does a rerun of his speech from earlier in the day in Chikmagalur, attacking the BJP on farm loan waivers, demonetisation, corruption and playing divisive politics. There is just one major value-add, a salvo he fires at the JD(S), the party’s main rival in the Old Mysore region, which sends 62 members to the 224-member Assembly. Calling the party the “B team of the BJP” with its ‘S’ no longer standing for ‘Secular’ but for the ‘Sangh Parivar’, Gandhi manages to rouse the crowd, but what makes the insult stick is an even sharper jibe by Siddaramaiah, who is hooted and cheered on to the stage, a grizzled rockstar in a white dhoti who must shush the applause to make himself heard. In a region where the Vokkaligas have traditionally voted for the JD(S), leaving the Congress dependent on consolidating the Muslim vote, Siddaramaiah knows it is time to go for the jugular. He dubs JD(S) supremo HD Deve Gowda an opportunist and says he is around in politics only because he craves power for his son. “I am not a chief minister’s son,” he says. “I have known struggle.” “The JD(S) cannot form a government on its own. They say they will consider making a Dalit deputy CM if they come to power. Why this drama? Why don’t they say they will make a Dalit CM?”

A leader on wheels, and the Congress’ most bankable resource today, Siddaramaiah in 2013 pipped Dalit strongman Mallikarjun Kharge, who had long nurtured dreams of heading a Congress government, in an internal secret ballot to become Chief Minister. His community, the Kurubas, an OBC, are only 8 per cent of the population, vis-a-vis Dalits who are 23 per cent, but by reviving former chief minister Devaraj Urs’ AHINDA— the Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits—strategy, Siddaramaiah has been able to consolidate the non-Lingayat, non-Vokkaliga vote for the first time since 1977. If the Congress is re-elected in Karnataka, he will become the first leader since Urs to complete a term and to win a second one. “Siddaramaiah is in a position of strength within the Congress. Whatever the Vokkaliga leaders have against him, they are happy to forget it for another chance at forming the government,” says a senior Vokkaliga leader who shares a love-hate relationship with Siddaramaiah and admits to being “used” by the party. “Kharge and Dr G Parameshwar are not as aggressive and the High Command knows this. Only Siddaramaiah could have accused Modi of lacking the moral fibre to be the Prime Minister of the country.”

Despite the air of provincial ineptness and the spate of desertions to the Congress, the JD(S) is not a force that can be wished away, especially in Hassan, a constituency that is loyal to party chief HD Deve Gowda

THE CONGRESS HAS been looking to consolidate its legacy, inaugurating more programmes and projects in the past year than in the first four years of the government. Indira Canteens, launched only last year, have been sprouting across taluk and district headquarters and accruing goodwill. Siddaramaiah has carefully juggled welfare schemes for the poor, such as Anna Bhagya, Ksheera Bhagya and Arogya Bhagya, and big-ticket infrastructure projects like the solar plant in Tumkur, dubbing it the “eighth wonder of the world”, projecting himself as the complete package. His biases and short temper, though, have not endeared him to senior leaders within the Congress. “Siddaramaiah is like an elephant walking the forest. He will use his power to appease voters who matter to him. He does not have the vision of Devaraj Urs, and certainly does not care for culture and the arts,” says KB Ganapathy, Editor- in-Chief of Star of Mysore, an evening daily.

“He is the tallest leader in the state Congress today. When we won the election in 2013, Siddaramaiah was the natural choice for chief minister. Since then, he has taken everyone along and his rapport with Rahul Gandhi has been very good,” says Dinesh Gundu Rao, the Congress’ Working President in Karnataka, dismissing rumours of factionism. While the BJP campaign in Karnataka leans on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma and Amit Shah’s political mettle, the Congress has been making all the important campaign decisions, including the specifics of Rahul Gandhi’s rallies, right here in Karnataka, says Rao. “I feel bad for leaders of the stature of Yeddyurappa who have to go along with what is decided by Amit Shah. Theirs is a campaign without issues. Shah has called the chief minister anti-Hindu, for instance, because he can’t attack the government on stability and performance. This emotional politics has backfired on them already,” Rao says.

A united BJP under BS Yeddyurappa could, however, take advantage of the simmering tensions within the Congress to reap valuable gains in north Karnataka and along the coast. “The BJP’s national leadership has been wise to focus on these areas, as is evident from Amit Shah’s and Modi’s visits. One must only plough the land that is fertile; no use tilling sandy tracts,” says Ganapathy. The Vokkaliga belt of Old Mysore, a bountiful region lately beset by water woes, is a much- contested land where the JD(S) hopes to win enough seats to form a coalition with either the BJP or the Congress. The day after Siddaramaiah poured invective on Deve Gowda, the octogenarian showed up at the Chamaraja constituency JD(S) meet on Sayyaji Rao Road in Mysore to claim that the chief minister had hurt his sentiments.

“He has become arrogant. Let him not forget where he came from,” Gowda said, of his former right-hand man, sharing the stage with GT Deve Gowda, a senior JD(S) leader who is likely to face off with Siddaramaiah from Chamundeswari Assembly constituency. The tone of the meet, in a half-empty blue-and- white pandal on a street flanked by rain trees in bloom, was one of gloomy nostalgia. A video featuring Gowda’s achievements, including his moment in the sun as prime minister, played shakily like a propaganda film even as a peanut seller evoked more interest from the crowd. Despite the air of provincial ineptness and the spate of desertions to the Congress, the JD(S) is not a force that can be wished away, especially in Hassan, a constituency that is loyal to Gowda. “Only time will tell who will win and who will be wiped out. They came to my place and made fun of me—that is how important I am,” Deve Gowda said on the sidelines of the meet. The Congress has abruptly distanced itself from the JD(S), with whom it has an alliance in the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) council, by refusing to back the latter’s candidate for the Upper House, businessman BM Farooq. The Congress won three seats and the BJP one in the Rajya Sabha biennial election for four seats in Karnataka last week. “Hassan is Vokkaliga heartland, and I thought the Congress had no chance when Rahul Gandhi asked me to contest against Deve Gowda in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls,” says Manju, who got one lakh votes less than Gowda’s five lakh. “But if I could get so many votes, it must mean that it is his weakness and not my strength.”

In the pitched battle for power between the Congress and BJP, communal undercurrents have come to tinge issues impacting social life, such as attacks on rationalists and opposition to interfaith marriages

In north Karnataka, the Congress Government’s decision to back the Lingayats’ demand for a separate religion, coming weeks ahead of the polls, could backfire and benefit the BJP instead, claims Jagadish Shettar, senior BJP leader from Hubli and the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly. “The government is making a desperate attempt to draw an imaginary line between the Lingayats and the Veerashaivas,” he says. “The people are smart enough to see through this. Lingayats have always backed Yeddyurappa and they will continue to do so.”

WHAT IS ALSO true is that in the pitched battle for power between the Congress and the BJP, communal undercurrents have come to tinge issues impacting social life in Karnataka, such as the celebration of Tipu Jayanti, attacks on rationalists and opposition to inter-faith marriages. “As a voting Muslim, I have never felt as used and under threat as during the BJP’s Jana Suraksha Yatre this year,” says Mohammad Anwar, 43, a cycle repair shop owner from Puttur, home town of BJP MP from Udupi-Chikmagalur Shobha Karandlaje, who led the Yatre along with newly inducted Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde. Anwar was injured in a case of stone pelting by a saffron-clad mob, and took shelter in a restaurant, where he hid for hours, fearing for his life. The Puttur Rural Police Station, he alleges, refused to register an FIR. “The Congress MLA did not come to my rescue,” he says, over a phone call from Karwar, to where he relocated earlier this year. In 2013, the BJP managed to win just one Assembly seat in each of the three coastal Lok Sabha constituencies— Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada, which each account for eight Assembly segments, and Udupi district (part of the Udupi-Chikmagalur Lok Sabha constituency), which subsumes five. The following year, however, the BJP’s Nalin Kumar Kateel, then a greenhorn who enjoyed the support of Sangh Parivar veteran Prabhakar Bhat Kalladka, won the Dakshina Kannada Lok Sabha seat, defeating veteran Congressman Janardhan Poojary in what was Poojary’s fourth loss from the constituency. The BJP stands a better chance across all Assembly seats in coastal Karnataka this time, claims Kateel.

Observers say the BJP is especially focused on two Assembly constituencies from Dakshina Kannada—Mangalore and Bantwal—as a matter of ‘Hindu pride’. Mangalore is represented in the Assembly by Minister for Food and Public Distribution UT Khader, and Bantwal by Minister for Forest, Environment and Ecology Ramanath Rai—both secular politicians the BJP wants to oust. In fact, the BJP MLA from Karkala, V Sunil Kumar, recently made headlines when he dubbed the election in Bantwal a battle between Ram and Allah.

“The BJP’s strategy in these parts hinges only on communal politics. Leaders like Kateel, Hegde and Karandlaje go around inciting people to take up arms for Hinduism, but no one bothers talking about the Modi Government’s policies,” says BV Seetharam, editor of Karavali Ale, a Mangalore newspaper, who was arrested for writing against the rampant communal violence in the region. “The people gave the BJP a two-thirds majority in these districts in 2009 but after Yeddyurappa came to power, all they have seen is mischief mongering, so the party fared badly in the last elections,” Seetharam says. “The educated people of coastal Karnataka are ashamed of being branded violent. The Congress, too, must stop playing caste politics or the minority card, as in the case of Margaret Alva, who lost to Hegde from Uttara Kannada in 2009.”

If politics is the art of possibility, Siddaramaiah is dabbing a full palette at the canvas by addressing regional identity, linguistic pride, farm loan waivers, urban development and welfare. “The undercurrent of southern identity, which the Chief Minister feels strongly about and has written about, will work to our advantage,” says Dinesh Gundu Rao. Thirty-four per cent of the state’s population speaks languages other than Kannada, but it is ‘Karnataka pride’ and not ‘Kannada pride’ that Siddaramaiah wants to tap into, Rao says. The past year has also seen the government milk Basavanna’s vachanas to the hilt, referencing them in key campaign speeches by Rahul Gandhi, and using them for subliminal messaging about the completion of a phase of the Metro Rail in Bengaluru. (In 2013, the Congress won only 13 of the 28 seats in Bengaluru while the BJP won 12 and the JD(S) three.) Nudidante nade—practise what you preach—a Basava teaching that was cited by Gandhi over and again on his last visit to Karnataka, has become a hackneyed phrase among Congressmen.

Short of comporting a moustache, Gandhi has been doing everything in his power to lend his voice to Siddaramaiah’s pitch for Karnataka 2018, including campaigning in Chikmagalur, the constituency that elected Indira Gandhi back to the Lok Sabha post-Emergency. As the BJP and the Congress social media teams, corralled in their offices on Bangalore’s leafy avenues, vie for a larger slice of the 1.54 million first-time voter pie, the grown-ups will head out to take the bull by its horns. Yeddyurappa, at 75, will want to find a way to appeal to the young and to exorcise the ghost of corruption that haunted his term in office. He will also be looking to buck Karnataka’s penchant for voting against the national trend and to learn from the BJP’s unexpected loss in the bypolls to Nanjangud and Gundlupet last year. How he wields his influence over the 17 per cent Lingayat vote is likely to determine the course of an election that could be too close to call.