Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

SPECIAL REPORT: THE KARNATAKA 'ELECTION ECLIPSE'

The last triumph in Karnataka gave the BJP a template for expanding into new geographies. Five years later, the party has lost the fight even before the electoral battle has started.

Who would have thought it would turn out this way. In the summer of 2008, the BJP was bang in the middle of its impossible and wrenching generational change, from the Vajpayee-Advani era to the next one. Factionalism was intense; inner-party warfare was acquiring the dimensions of an existential crisis. In this gloomy atmosphere, Karnataka gave the party the best gift it had got since its election to office in New Delhi in 1998. A near-outright victory in a southern Indian state was, after all, about as momentous for the BJP as coming to power in the national capital.


By forming a government in Bengaluru, the BJP did more than just breach the geographical boundaries of northern and western India that contained it. It also gave itself a template for expanding into new geographies. The party’s early growth in Karnataka had been triggered by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the saffron surge of the 1990s. Yet, the victory in 2008 was of a different nature and not just due to the Sangh network in the state. Rather, it was because of a strong state leader, BS Yeddyurappa, and the unstinted support of his Lingayat community for the BJP.

The religio-political appeal of the early BJP had been complemented by a crafty caste coalition, led by the Lingayats, but actually comprising a spectrum of traditional upper and backward castes. Individually too, there was sympathy for Yeddyurappa, a political veteran who had helped build the BJP from almost zero in the state. He had been betrayed, his adherents said, by HD Kumaraswamy and the Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S).

Kumaraswamy and his father, HD Deve Gowda, had formed a coalition with the BJP in 2006. Kumaraswamy was named chief minister and agreed to hand over the job to his deputy, Yeddyurappa, on an agreed date. The JD(S) reneged and the BJP was left with much public sympathy. In contrast, the Congress was in free fall. SM Krishna, the chief minister between 1999 and 2004, was ageing. When he came back to lead the Congress’ campaign in 2008, it was clear that this one-time Vokkaliga strongman was now confined to sectional support in the Old Mysore area and among the elites in Bengaluru.

Indeed, it was speculated that a confused Congress would slip irretrievably in Karnataka, and that Yeddyurappa and the BJP could keep it in permanent low-level equilibrium: with about a third of the vote, but just not enough to make a serious bid for office.

How things change. Today, the BJP is in much better shape nationally than it was in 2008. True, it’s still riddled with factionalism, but the generational change has more or less sorted itself out and the identities of the key leaders of the future have emerged. In contrast, Karnataka has seen the party committing suicide. Virtually everything that could go wrong has — three chief ministers in five years, corruption charges, the distancing of the party from sections of its core Lingayat base, dissension and, finally, a breakaway group lead by its one-time folk hero.

As Karnataka readies to vote in April- May, the BJP is gripped by defeatism. One senior leader in New Delhi said quite bluntly that the motivation was to “keep the government going and complete a full five-year term”. This meant resources and pressures had been used to prevent at least two ministers from the state Cabinet and a few MLAs, all of whom owed their loyalty to Yeddyurappa, from resigning. Anti-Yeddyurappa mavericks were also being activated within the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), the party he now leads.

“The government will not fall,” said a party insider in Bengaluru, “that much has been ensured. Elections will be held only in May.” However, even he was not willing to bet on Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar winning the re-election.

The trend has been apparent for some time now. In November 2012, the Congress is believed to have carried out a private opinion poll that gave the party 110 seats out of 224 in the state Assembly. In December, local media outlets Suvarna News and Kannada Prabha commissioned an opinion poll that said the Congress was likely to win 115 seats and 37 percent of the popular vote, 10 percent ahead of the BJP.

Now, as the results of the C-Voter opinion poll conducted in January 2013 suggest, that mood is solidifying.

(The poll had a sample size of 4,366 randomly selected respondents across Karnataka this month. Data is weighted to the known demographic profile of the state as per the 2001 Census. Margin of error is +/- 3 percent at the state level and +/- 5 percent at the regional level.)

The poll says the Congress will win 37 percent of the vote and could go up to as many as 133 seats in the Assembly. The BJP, on the other hand, will stop at 28 percent of the popular vote, and could lose as many as 47 of the 110 seats it won in 2008 (that number went up following by-elections). Just how much damage Yeddyurappa has done is clear from the 7 percent vote the KJP seems likely to take away, even though it is projected to win only five seats or 2 percent of the House.

The poll results attest to what political observers in Karnataka say about the divide in the BJP family. Yeddyurappa is set to become the Kalyan Singh of Karnataka. Like the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, he will cripple the party with his rebellion, but reduce himself to a fringe player in state politics. A massive 71 percent of respondents felt Yeddyurappa’s departure would hurt the BJP, though 40 percent felt the damage would be temporary. Perhaps the institution will survive the loss of the individual in the long run. Politics, however, is about the short run, and the next election is looming.

As for the Deve Gowda clan, its vote share remains unchanged. The JD(S) continues to get a fifth of the state’s votes, but is predicted to win only 19 seats. This would suggest that in the Vokkaliga stronghold of Old Mysore, it has lost its traditional battle to the Congress.

What does this potential verdict mean for the BJP? For a party that prides itself on having robust state-level leaders, the BJP went horribly wrong in its handling of Yeddyurappa. The corruption charges against him were embarrassing and land deals that involved some of his family members and close associates did hit the party hard. A few of these deals — essentially discretionary allotments by the executive — were not strictly speaking illegal but were decidedly in bad form. They reflected the harsh truth that the BJP had brought about a change in government in 2008, but not a change in regime.

Nevertheless, Yeddyurappa remained a shrewd and rooted politician. He didn’t want to leave the party and was pursuing a reconciliation. The hard position taken by LK Advani — allegedly on the urging of HN Ananth Kumar, MP from Bangalore South and Yeddyurappa’s local rival — prevented meeting the sulking Lingayat leader midway.

In the final months of 2012, then BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s personal problems, related to his tax controversies, meant no clear-cut negotiation and compromise was possible with Yeddyurappa despite both the rebel and the leadership of the state government being interested. By the time the BJP sorted out its presidential question, it was too late. Yeddyurappa had gone.

Karnataka has had a series of discredited and corrupt governments in recent years. It is worth noting that of the past four governments, the C-Voter poll finds the BJP government since 2008 was rated the worst performing, with 36 percent of the vote. It is telling that the next worst figure is for the 1999-2004 SM Krishna administration, the last time the Congress led a single-party government. It gets a 23 percent negative vote. That memories run so deep is significant. In a sense, the BJP is losing Karnataka much more than the Congress is winning it.

This is borne out by the seemingly contradictory answers to two related questions. Asked which party they considered the least corrupt, 22 percent plumped for the BJP and only 16 percent for the Congress and 15 percent for the JD(S) — though admittedly a plurality, 38 percent, felt all parties were equally corrupt. On the other hand, asked about the principal failure of the BJP government since 2008, a huge 42 percent said “corruption” and only 27 percent — one in four — went for “infighting”.

That aside, 33 percent of respondents — 5 percent more than those who said they would vote for the BJP in a state election — still felt it was “a party with a difference” and better than others. This should provide some crumbs of comfort for the party as it seeks to rebuild itself in a state where its failure has been as spectacular as its rise.

The piquant upshot is for the Congress. The tussle and positioning for the chief minister’s post has already begun in the party, months before the first vote is to be cast. In a television programme in Bengaluru in 2008, political pundits had famously counted 23 prospective chief ministers in the Congress ranks. This time, there seems to be a minimum of five serious contenders.

Siddaramaiah is a former finance minister and currently the Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly. A member of the Kuruba community (traditional shepherds), he is perhaps the last remaining mass leader in the party. However, Siddaramaiah joined the Congress less than 10 years ago, following his split with Deve Gowda and the JD(S). Many in the Congress still consider him a newcomer and an outsider.

Till the late summer of 2012, Siddaramaiah seemed the Congress front-runner and appeared to have only G Parameshwara, the Dalit president of the state Congress unit, as a contender. In October, the octogenarian Krishna stepped down as India’s foreign minister and, despite initial denials, decided to make a comeback in state politics. His return to Karnataka has perturbed Siddaramaiah and Parameshwara and the two have closed ranks, a party source said.

The goal is to prevent Krishna getting a dominant say in ticket distribution. The Bangalore metropolitan area (32 seats) and Old Mysore (73 seats) make up some 45 percent of the state Assembly (224 seats). This is Krishna country, seat of his urban and Vokkaliga base. If he can distribute tickets to his supporters here, he will have a headstart in any possible post-election contest for chief minister.

There are two other names doing the rounds in New Delhi. Labour Minister Mallikarjun Kharge and Minister of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises KH Muniyappa are both Dalits and would fancy their chances. Even so, as one senior party functionary in the capital put it, “Only Krishna has the stature and will be trusted by Sonia Gandhi to be the chief minister of a major state like Karnataka.” At least Siddaramaiah will not agree.

The Congress is looking at Karnataka as its confidence shot. In December 2012, the party snatched Himachal Pradesh from the BJP, but got hammered in Gujarat. In November-December 2013, it faces a tough task in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh (where incumbent BJP governments are better placed than the one in Karnataka), is likely to lose Rajasthan and faces an uphill battle in Delhi, where it has won the previous three elections.

Bang in the middle of this punishing schedule comes Karnataka, a year before the Lok Sabha election of April-May 2014. Should the Congress win this and show it off as a sign of clawing back space lost to the BJP, as well a victory secured due to the BJP’s internal squabbles, poor governance and corruption, it will certainly talk up morale. Having said that, the C-Voter poll also indicates there is disquiet in regard to the UPA government’s performance in New Delhi.

Asked a question on the target of anger and told to name an entity or institution they were most likely to want to change, 20 percent opted for the UPA government, 12 percent for prime minister, 14 percent for the state government and 13 percent for the chief minister. Asked to compare anti-incumbency sentiments, 41 percent said it was higher for the state government and 35 percent said it was higher for the Central government. Only 3 percent put a change of their constituency MP on top of their wish list.

This suggests that while local anti-incumbency should trump national anti-incumbency in the state election, the Congress, even if romps home in Bengaluru, will find the going difficult a year down the line. The disappointment with the UPA government is patent and the BJP could well hope for a turnaround, especially if it resolves its leadership issues.

Asked if they thought a BJP led by Narendra Modi would help the party do well in Karnataka, an astounding 66 percent of respondents said “yes”. Obviously, this will make no difference in a state election, but a national election could see very different results. Karnataka has 28 Lok Sabha seats and the BJP won 19 in 2009. In the normal course, the Congress would be hoping to unseat BJP MPs and win a sizeable number of seats, especially just months after an Assembly election triumph. There is, as it would seem, nothing normal about Indian elections anymore.

There is enough evidence in recent years to support the contention that Indian voters choose differently in national and state elections. Local and regional parties often do better in the latter than the former. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh in 2009, the Congress won 33 of 42 Lok Sabha seats, but only just over half the 294 Vidhan Sabha seats. Karnataka offers a perplexing situation where the voter is so fed up of both the state and the Union governments, he may just vote differently in the two elections — but vote for two different national parties.

That may represent a curious nugget of trivia for the political buff, but for the ordinary citizen of Karnataka, it would be profoundly disturbing. At the beginning of the millennium, this was India’s showpiece state — the new economic power, the IT hot-house, the mining hub and iron exporter of choice. Today, its mining industry has been destroyed by cronyism, corruption and ecological devastation, with good and bad, legal and illegal mining tarred with the same brush and viewed with equal suspicion. The Indian story is holding its own, but no more galloping ahead. Finally, the sleaze and sheer greed of its politicians has made Karnataka a perfect example of all that’s wrong with contemporary Indian governance.

That’s why the state and its voters are angry — angry at the party that let them down in Bengaluru, angry too with the party that let them down in New Delhi. It is an anger that will singe both the BJP and the Congress. It is an anger that speaks for all India.
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