Battle for Karnataka

Final Call in Karnataka: A Wave or a Goodbye?

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The BJP bets on Modi magic and caste arithmetic to beat a popular chief minister

LAST WEEK, THE dusty northern district of Bijapur witnessed a crucial confrontation when two national leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, descended here in a final attempt to write over the palimpsest of the voter’s mind. Their rallies, conducted days before Karnataka goes to the polls, tapped into Bijapur’s two worlds—one whose allegiance is shifting from an intransigent High Command to an empowered Siddaramaiah-led Congress, and another that is looking to hitch its wagon to the BJP’s Hindutva-plus-development juggernaut. Addressing the crowd in Sarawad near Bijapur, now Vijayapura, a part of the Bombay-Karnataka region, Modi seemed anxious to end speculation of a possible hung House with the JD(S) playing kingmaker. The BJP will come to power and the Congress is already dreaming up excuses, thundered Modi, in the same confident tone that the people of Vijayapura remember from his campaign speech of 2014 where he had stressed on the three Ds--demographic dividend, democracy and demand--that render India unique. The BJP has since won a succession of Assembly elections and a victory in Karnataka will be a big fillip, with Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh soon headed for polls. For the Congress, whose recalcitrant Chief Minister enjoys a higher approval rating than that of its prime ministerial candidate, successfully defending its citadel in the south could inspire party leaders to beaver away at its campaign for the Lok Sabha elections next year.

Returning to campaigning after two years to address a rally in Vijayapura, Sonia Gandhi tore into Modi’s dramatic oratory and “intolerance” and raised the flag of the pending Lokpal Bill to set up an anti-graft watchdog. However, going by the nearly-identical manifestos, promising free mangalsutras, restoration of Lokayukta, three-phase power and over Rs 1 lakh crore for irrigation projects, it is hard to tell the Congress from the BJP. The face-off in Bijapur has set the tone for an election without a clear wave in favour of either national party. Journalists and analysts who had been touring the state’s 30 districts hoping to get a kinesthetic sense of the verdict have thrown up their hands, but they will be keenly watching Bombay-Karnataka and Hyderabad-Karnataka, together accounting for 81 seats, that could well be the tie-breaker in a close contest. “The Bombay-Karnataka districts are a matter of prestige for the BJP and all the leaders are campaigning together, stronger than ever before,” says Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly and Hubli-Dharwad Central MLA Jagadish Shettar. “The Krishna Basin projects have not progressed as promised and the Congress’ move to divide Veerashaivas and Lingayats is not going to sit well with voters here.”

Bijapur remained loyal to the Congress all the way until 2008, when the BJP reaped its first gains south of the Vindhyas. The erstwhile capital of the Adil Shahi dynasty that was annexed by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the district is home to several towns, including Vijayapura, Talikota and Muddebihal, with sizeable Muslim populations. The undivided district, before Bagalkot was carved out of it, was a Congress fortress watched over by former chief ministers S Nijalingappa, SR Kanthi and BD Jatti, all three of them Lingayats. This is, after all, Lingayat heartland, the fountainhead of the egalitarian philosophy of Basaveshwara, which has become an election imperative with the Siddaramaiah government recommending separate religion status, under Section 2(d) of the Karnataka State Minorities Commission Act, for the community, entailing special privileges under Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution. The sub-castes within Lingayats are divided over the issue and the Congress has been accused of further sectioning them up.

In 2008, Bombay-Karnataka saw a BJP wave, with the party winning 11 seats in Belgaum, seven in Bagalkot, six in Dharwad, five each in Haveri and Bijapur and four in Gadag. But the tables turned in 2013, with the BJP winning eight seats in Belgaum, two in Dharwad and one each in Bijapur, Bagalkot and Haveri, and ending up with a tally of zero in Gadag. This time around, the BJP hopes that a mix of Lingayat politics with BS Yeddyurappa at the helm and Dalit power play can help bag more seats. In 2016, Ramesh Jigajinagi, a senior Dalit leader, former Ramakrishna Hegde loyalist and the MP representing the constituency in Parliament five times in a row, was elevated to Union minister of state for drinking water and sanitation in a move that is now being seen as strategic. Besides, by fielding Valmiki influencer B Sriramulu from Badami in Bagalkot against Chief Minister Siddaramaiah— the former minister and Gali Janardhana Reddy confidante is also contesting from Molakalmuru in Chitradurga, billed as the state’s most backward taluk—the BJP has announced its intention to rip pieces off the Congress’ carefully cultivated Ahinda votebank. “Modiji spoke in Jamakhandi about how the Congress should learn patriotism from the Mudhol dogs of this district. But BJP workers are the real hounds in search of justice— our booth-level teams have filled out more Form 6s and talked to more Hindu families than any Congress team,” says Aravinda Hanumanthappa, a 42-year-old full-time BJP worker from Halakurki, near Badami. As the sun sets behind the sandstone hills, Hanumanthappa cycles to the Kuruba homes in the village and talks about “rashtravaad”. “The tribal votes are guaranteed, we don’t worry about those,” he says, adding that Siddaramaiah’s lieutenant here, former minister Satish Jarkiholi, will find it hard to match Sriramulu’s charm offensive.

At a rally in Harpanahalli, Ballari, one of the six districts constituting Hyderabad-Karnataka, brought under Article 371(J) of the Constitution granting special status to the backward region, Jarkiholi shares the stage with Siddaramaiah, Minister for Social Welfare H Anjaneya, Congress court jester and MLC CM Ibrahim and incumbent MLA and candidate from Harpanahalli MP Ravindra, who is pitted against the BJP’s Gali Karunakara Reddy. The Chief Minister and Ibrahim—“We were the engine and the gearbox of the JD(S); how will the gaadi run now?”—are the life of the party, scoring ‘swabhimana’ points by ridiculing Yeddyurappa for touching Modi’s feet, advising the Prime Minister in pidgin Hindi to do “kaam ki baat” and holding aloft a goat as a sign of Kuruba pride. The crowd braves the summer sun to soak in Siddaramaiah’s air of popular authority. But Jarkiholi seems thoughtful onstage, perhaps because of the BJP’s widening social lens. While the dog whistle of Hindutva has turned into a bullhorn ahead of the election, the BJP is also looking beyond its traditional Lingayat- Brahmin votebank to attract disgruntled OBC, SC and ST communities.

In the neighbouring district of Chitradurga, at the end of a day of hectic campaigning, we meet minister and district incharge H Anjaneya while he catches a breath at a motorbike service centre. A rebellion is brewing in the region among a section of Dalits who have been have been demanding special reservation benefits. A 2012 report report by the Justice AJ Sadashiva Inquiry Commission had recommended redestributing benefits equitably by classifying 101 SCs into the broad umbrellas of ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘touchable’ and other SC communities. The report recommended allotment of 6 per cent reservation to the left or the Madiga community, which is the most populous, 5 per cent to the right or the Chaluvadi community, 3 per cent to touchables like Bovis and Lambanis and one per cent to the others. In the run-up to the polls, the BJP has slowly sidled up to communities nursing an animus against the Siddaramaiah government for not implementing the report. Anjaneya stifles a yawn, but he knows the discontent could be a cause for concern. “Some of the SC/ST vote will split, I admit, but in return, we will cut into their Lingayat votes,” he says. “Even if we had recommended the Sadashiva Ayoga report to the Centre, they would have sat on it for years. We are taking concrete steps on the ground to ensure the community stays with us. We have constituted a development board for Madigas and created a channel to provide them financial assistance. Madiga votes matter in 150-plus constituencies, so we have done everything we can—from reaching out to safai karamcharis to helping agricultural labourers,” he says. Anjaneya seems to have prevailed upon the community’s spiritual leader, Basavamurthy Madara Chennaiah Swami, the head of an influential Madiga math in Chitradurga, to decline to contest against him on a BJP ticket.

“This #KarnatakaElection2018 the mission is to defeat anti-Development & communal BJP & opportunist JDS, who are working together” - Siddaramaiah, Karnataka Chief Minister on Twitter

“The Madigas and the Chaluvadis are like step-brothers who have reluctantly come together to ensure good tidings reach us all,” says the swami, seated under a portrait of Basavanna. “Anjaneya is the secretary of this math and he visits once a day to ensure he has my support, but I know he will speak in favour of his party once he is with his partymen. Our community has been struggling for special reservation for 15 years now. We are over 33 lakh strong. Naturally, there is some disillusionment with the Congress, although we have traditionally stood by the party,” he says. When Amit Shah called on him, local papers hailed Chennaiah Swami as the Yogi Adityanath of Karnataka, but he laughs off speculation about contesting the Lok Sabha polls next year. “In 2013, the Congress wave was there—we thought we could influence the party to field G Parameshwar, a Dalit, as its chief ministerial candidate, but he lost his seat,” the swami says. “But this does not mean I have my hopes pinned on the BJP.” On a recent visit to Chitradurga, Shah, perhaps acting on the advice of Sriramulu, garlanded the statues of Madakari Nayaka, the last ruler of Chitradurga, and Onake Obavva, a woman who fought Hyder Ali’s marauding army armed with a pestle, but did not pay his respects to Ambedkar—a move that was interpreted as a slight to the intellectually emancipated SC community, the swami says.

Driving southwest, the parched skin of Chitradurga makes way for the rolling curves of the Western Ghats. In Shimoga, caste and religion are persistent anxieties for both the Congress and the BJP. Forty-seven of the 224 incumbent MLAs are Lingayats, and Siddaramaiah, despite his Ahinda bias, cannot afford to alienate the community, especially in the stronghold of Yeddyurappa, who is contesting from the safety of Shikaripura. Yeddyurappa’s protege-turned-adversary KS Eshwarappa, a senior OBC leader and former deputy chief minister, is a nervous man, as though the ignominy of the 2013 polls, where he finished fourth in the race, is still fresh in his mind. “I am not a Kuruba leader,” says the 69-year-old, in a somewhat offhand way, on a short drive from a Brahmin community event in town, where he quoted Sanskrit verses and channelled Hindutva, to an engagement with slum dwellers. “I don’t think caste will play a major role in this election. Hindutva—the protection of Hindus and cows—these are the main issues,” he says. The odds are piled high against him, with Muslims constituting the majority in Shimoga city (55,000), followed by SC/ST voters (40,000), Lingayats (35,000) and Brahmins (30,000). Kurubas number less than 20,000 and Vokkaligas 15,000. The incumbent MLA and Congress candidate KB Prasanna Kumar, a Brahmin, beat the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) candidate S Rudregowda in the last election, and a united BJP was expected to field the runner-up this time. However, the leadership in Delhi proposed Eshwarappa’s name. “We do not want to play into the Congress’ narrative of upper caste versus lower castes and minorities,” says Eshwarappa. “We celebrate Kanakadasa Jayanti. Our government was the first to sanction financial aid for maths engaged in social good. The Kaginele math (a major Kuruba math that has unwaveringly stood by Siddaramaiah) was among the beneficiaries.” Sidelined within the BJP, Eshwarappa, who is credited with taking the party from four to 40 seats in the 1994 polls, had launched an outfit named after Kittur Rani Chennamma’s lieutenant Sangolli Rayanna to consolidate the OBC vote and to mould himself, an RSS man, as a popular Kuruba leader to rival Siddaramaiah. Amit Shah subsequently talked him into dissolving the outfit, but second-rung leaders who left the BJP to follow Eshwarappa now find themselves at a loose end.

“Normally we do not get directly involved in Assembly polls. This election is a semi-final for the Parliamentary elections. There is a lot at stake and it was decided the RSS machinery should be roped in to ensure a BJP win” - T Pattabhiram, RSS leader for Shimoga district

At a morning meeting in Shimoga aimed at Lingayat voters, Eshwarappa shares the stage with Yeddyurappa and Rudregowda in a gesture of unity, hoping to consolidate the KJP-BJP-Rayanna Brigade votes to bag a 40 per cent vote share in the district. “If the BJP comes to power, will you be CM for the full term?” a supporter asks Yeddyurappa. “Absolutely, for a full five years,” says Yeddyurappa, with a conviction belying speculation that he may soon be retired and replaced by a younger firebrand leader. Yeddyurappa, who was known first as a friend of the farmer before he became the BJP’s Lingayat face, briefly touches upon the issues of irrigation projects, farm loan waivers and regularisation of ‘bagair hukum’ cultivation—over 400,000 farmers, occupying and cultivating small plots of government land, have petitioned the government for regularisation, only to be met with extensions of the deadline to apply for it. For the rest of the speech, he appears to dwell within the bubble of his anti- Congress messaging. “The problem is that the BJP is in the game only in 150-160 seats—the remaining it can’t hope to win. Which means, to cross the magic mark of 100, it needs to perform extremely well,” says a local BJP leader. “The infighting within the party is worrying.”

Mattur, a village by the banks of the Tunga river, seven km from Shimoga, is one of the last places in India where a handful of residents can converse in Sanskrit. A third of the 300 households are Brahmin, says T Pattabhiram, the RSS Pranth Boudhdhik Pramukh for Shimoga district, and a senior Parivar stategist, shirtless after attending a family wedding. “We do not campaign for any leader, not even for Modi. While we work for the BJP ahead of Lok Sabha elections, normally we do not get directly involved in Assembly polls. This election is a semi-final for the Parliamentary polls. There is a lot at stake and it was decided the RSS machinery should be roped in to ensure the BJP wins,” Pattabhiram says, in a freewheeling conversation in the central courtyard of his 300-year-old ancestral home. A long-time colleague of Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa, it was Pattabhiram who first got them together about 10 months ago in an attempt at reconciliation, but the meeting, which took place at his house, did not yield immediate results. “Everything is not completely okay between them, but they are working together with Shah’s guidance,” Pattabhiram says. “Over 1,000 RSS workers are campaigning for the BJP, day in and day out, talking about national issues. Shimoga is an RSS bastion and we won’t fail the BJP here.” The BJP’s ground game indeed appears solid across the state, with the party’s seniormost leaders calling on resident welfare associations in middle class urban pockets and grassroots workers pitching to every single voter.

If the BJP faces a backlash for its raging Hindutva and for fielding tainted candidates that an upstanding party would not touch with a barge pole, the Congress is accused of leaning on rich profligates. “There is no other way. Electoral politics in Karnataka is a formula where you enter the appropriate caste and political party, do public works and outreach, and spend at least Rs 20 crore per candidate,” says HP Manjunath, the two-time Congress MLA from Hunsur who is seeking a third term. Campaigning in Manuganahalli, 25 km from Mysore on the Mangalore-Mysore road, Manjunath says the Vokkaliga-dominated village of about 1,100 has traditionally voted for the JD(S). But the crowd is warm and welcoming as Manjunath cuts across the village to address voters at the Maramma temple. He does not mention Siddaramaiah’s welfare schemes, yet, when he talks about filling up the local tanks that have been dry for three decades, people applaud as if on cue. Old-timers in Manuganahalli remember D Devaraj Urs, the original champion of backward classes, who represented Hunsur for six terms. “Other than a few pro-JD(S) pockets, Hunsur has been a Congress bastion that has set aside caste to vote for the party. The 1994 election was the only time the BJP won here,” says MC Srinivas, a 62-year-old paddy farmer. “And now it looks like Manjunath might become the first MLA after Urs to represent us thrice in a row.” In the 2013 polls, Manjunath won by a margin of over 40,000 votes—“twice the margin of the Chief Minister in Varuna,” Srinivas points out.

Siddaramaiah’s rapid rise, first within the JD(S) ranks and later as a Congress leader, is a matter of pure chance, says GT Deve Gowda, veteran JD(S) leader and his friend-turned-bête noire. Sitting back in a hotel room suite after a raucous roadshow in Hinakal, Mysore, Gowda, 68, dubs Siddaramaiah “the number one lucky person in Karnataka politics”. “He got it all handed to him on a platter. There was no struggle. I fought for Siddaramaiah and made Kumaranna and Deve Gowda recognise him as a leader. But being deputy CM was not enough for him. He would keep saying, ‘I must become CM at least once’,” says Gowda, bitterly. “Ahinda emerged as a strategy to consolidate the anti-Vokkaliga vote. It was the offshoot of Siddaramaiah’s anger against HD Deve Gowda.” In 1994, GT Deve Gowda was a staunch supporter of Siddaramaiah and even ran his election campaign from his home in Jayalakshmipuram for 15 days. He rooted for Siddaramaiah when other Vokkaligas did not consider him a tall leader, but when there was a fallout between the Gowdas and the Kuruba leader in 2005, his personal secretary put him in touch with Ahmad Patel and negotiated his move to the Congress. “He is an opportunist and will be exposed this election,” says GT Deve Gowda. “They call me an underdog, but I know all his tricks. He is afraid of a backlash here, which is why he is trying his luck from Badami as well.”

As metrics of communal intolerance surge under a Sangh Parivar-and-SFI onslaught in the polarised districts of Karnataka, and the JD(S) looks to corner a chunk of the 40-plus Vokkaliga- dominant constituencies, Siddaramaiah cuts a lonely figure, trying to make history and undo some of it at the same time.