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Last Updated : May 14, 2018 09:50 PM IST | Source:

Podcast | Karnataka Elections 2018: A crucial moment for Indian politics, and for more reasons than one

The Congress is desperately trying to regain its hold on the state, which has not seen the party in power win the assembly elections in over three decades.

Moneycontrol News @moneycontrolcom

The Karnataka elections in May 2018 could well be the pivotal moment in Indian politics. The Congress party, which is in power, is desperate to hold on in the one big state that it governs. Punjab, you say? Nope. Punjab is a mere 13 Lok Sabha seats. The other Congress ruled state is Mizoram, which has one lok sabha seat. It’s plain to see that this is a fight for survival for the grand old party of India.

So will we see Narendra Modi and Amit Shah take another big step towards their dream of a Congress-mukt-bharat? Even a veteran like SM Krishna deserted the Congress party and moved to the BJP. Or will we see the clever Siddaramaiah pull another rabbit out of the hat and deliver a decisive counter punch to the BJP machine? As Karnataka’s 224-seat assembly is go to the polls, May 2018 has all the makings of an acrimonious election and no punches are being pulled.

But first, the comical side of this election. In just the last one day, Rs 1.13 crore in cash, and sarees, 38 sewing machines, 568 sarees, 139 liters of alcohol, 160 laptops were seized from various parts of Karnataka. These were allegedly going to be distributed to voters. Did I say comical?  I meant tragi-comic.

But my favorite – pressure cookers worth 1.56 crores, and bearing Karnataka’s woman congress chief Lakshmi Hebbalkar's pictures were seized from Belgaum.

Pressure cooker pretty much sums up the situation in the run up to May. Also, any idea on how I can get in on that laptop action?

The election narrative and the clichés:

The Karnataka elections in May 2018 might just be the political event of the year. Almost four years to the day from when Narendra Modi won the general election in 2014, the state with the Lotus as its official flower (yes, that’s an actual thing – the Lotus is Karnataka’s official state flower) is hoping to emerge, much like the Lotus itself, from the mud. Most of that mud is from the incessant digging up of roads in Bengaluru. True story.

As someone who lives in Bengaluru, I’m not sure where Kannadigas, usually a genial sort, stand on the spectrum of anti-north Indian rhetoric, but it certainly seems to be a plank that, ironically, one national party is playing up. That conundrum typifies the upcoming election.

Serving chief minister Siddaramaiah has unleashed a charm offensive in the last week including interviews about his taste in sports. How that helps in a state with high farmer suicide rates is anyone’s guess. The fact is, Siddaramaiah is facing a stacked deck – in the last 35 years, no CM has regained office in Karnataka. The last one to do so was Ramakrishna Hegde in 1985. That is 13 chief ministers ago. Well, 12 if you discount Yedyurappa’s second term.

Cliche #1:Destiny’s child. 

But the odds do favour him in one way. He is the first Karnataka CM in 40 years to complete a full 5 year term. Let’s put that in perspective. Karnataka was formed in 1956. It has had 22 chief ministers since then. The only time a chief minister completed a full term  was in 1977, when Devraj Urs finished a full term and was reelected. It’s another story altogether that he didn’t complete his second term. Are you seeing the pattern yet? Ramakrishna hedge, as we mentioned earlier, became CM in 1983 and 1988 but never completed a full term. I know what you’re thinking…it’s crazy! What a waste of time and money o keep electing and pulling down govts. Maybe that’s why Siddaramaiah dug up all the roads and slowed down all the traffic? That way, his rivals are as late to meetings as the rest of us are. Voila, 5 year term.

Alright, that joke is as bad as the roads in this city. So sue me.

Anyway, that data point establishes that Siddaramaiah is a strong candidate for reelection. The man does have keen instincts. An interesting tidbit – Siddaramaiah  started his career as an anti-Congress politician. He served as a minister under Ramakrishna Hegde, SR Bommai, JH Patel. And he gained a higher profile and learnt the ropes serving as the deputy of veteran politician HD Deve Gowda. Yes, that deve gowda – the man who snoozed while serving as the prime minister. Sick of the family politics of the Janata Dal and the Gowda family, he joined the Congress party in 2006. There’s an irony somewhere around here. I can almost feel it.

Cliché #2: Winds of change

The Congress party won a clear majority in Karnataka’s 2013 elections. Party veterans like Mallikarjun Kharge and Parameshwara were overlooked by the party’s high command which showed faith in the upstart Siddaramaiah for the post of Chief Minister. Not one to shy away, Siddaramaiah brushed aside all criticism of being an outsider and installed many of his older Janata Dal comrades, who had followed him into the Congress party, as ministers in his cabinet. Talk about brazen!

Interestingly, this worked out well for the upstart from Janata Dal. He was seen as autonomous while the old guard in the party was seen as too dependent on the high command. Karnataka finally had a CM who knew his mind, it seemed.

A brief revisit to Cliché number one here. Destiny’s child. As the Narendra Modi juggernaut took a chokehold of politics in India, and the Congress continually ceded space and influence, Siddaramaiah’s importance seemed to grow. Why?  Karnataka is  what you’d call a large state, politically speaking. It contributes substantially in terms of GDP, almost 8%, as well as in terms of Lok Sabha seats – 28 seats. Reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, Karnataka is the final bargaining chip that the Congress party holds. Analysts have predicted that it could well be a death knell for the Congress if it loses Karnataka.

And there lies the importance of Mr Siddaramaiah.

Cliché #3: Skin in the game or where the rubber meets the road

Fine, this is not so much a cliché as it is a very popular meme. But, mark my words, it will become a cliché. There are enough followers of Nicholas Nassim Taleb‘s ‘skin in the game’ theory for iot to gain critical mass sooner rather than later.

Anyway, on to the Karnataka elections. Skin in the game is where Siddaramaiah, the protagonist in the elections, is running circles around what looks like a clueless, New Delhi-driven BJP as well his other regional opponents. All the jokes about the local Congress party leaders asking for Rahul Gandhi to be kept out of any major campaigning seem to be actually true! And this is where it gets a little messy. Or where the rubber meets the road. At this point, we will take a glimpse at the serious side of the upcoming elections.

The Karnataka election has a strong element of identity politics. Or, if you’re on the other side of the aisle, parochialism. There has been a marked increase in the use of Kannada, the language, as an issue of identity and assertiveness. News reports have noted that the calls for Kannadiga pride are not particularly new or innovative. Remember Vatal Nagraj? The veteran politician has been proipgating Kannada primacy for over 20 years now. Then there are outfits like the Kannada Rakshana Vedike, who are considered fringe elements but have made their presence felt on the ground more than once.

This time around, however, the movement has gained traction among groups of forward-thinking young adults – working professionals who have taken time out of their schedules to form collectives like Banavasi Balaga and Kannada Grahakara Koota to drive home their message.

So what is their message? Centre stage for the Kannada language. This constituency has gained in influence and brought about some visible changes on the ground. For instance, Bengaluru’s international airport gave in to their demands and started displaying flight information in Kannada. Railway tickets now have information printed in Kannada on trains within the state. Even international; airlines like Lufthansa, British Airways and Dragon Air started announcements in Kannada in Bengaluru-bound flights. Let me say that again – an airline names after a Dragon has announcements in Kannada. Sure, that’s only for flights headed to Bengaluru. But that’s quite a comedown for something named Dragon, what say?

The cleverest show of power that this nouveau-Kannada brigade put on  was during the Rajya Sabha elections. Venkaiah Naidu, now vice president of India, and man with a penchant for cringe worthy acronyms, he who said MODI stands for Maker Of Developed India, was standing for election from Karnataka. The new guys started a campaign, VenkayyaSakayya, meaning Enough of Venkayya. Like most things witty and catchy, it went viral and he had to be replaced with Nirmala Sitharaman, the current defence minister. You read that right, they ran a hashtag that forced the largest political party in India to change their political candidate.

And here comes in Siddaramaiah’s keen political instinct. As the language campaign gained momentum, the activists questioned the legitimacy of Hindi name boards on metro stations in Bengaluru. Siddaramaiah’s government lost no time cashing in on this momentum and pulled the boards down. If you travel on the Bengaluru metro today, you’ll hear announcements in two languages – English and Kannada.

The state govt then pitched for 100% reservation in jobs for Kannadigas in the private sector companies excepting for the IT/BT sector. 100% reservation for locals. Another salvo from Siddaramaiah is the use of Kannada in passports issued in Karnataka. The govt also took up the issue of making Kannada a compulsory subject for kids in classes one to ten in ICSE, CBSE and state syllabus schools. With no legal hurdle to the issue, it was made mandatory. Notch up another win for the sons of the soil.

Cliché #4: All’s fair in love and war.

Matters reached a head when the Karnataka govt decided to propose a new state flag. Now, Karnataka has had an unofficial flag since 1974, after the state was renamed Karnataka from its earlier name Mysore. A yellow and red flag that is popular around the state. But, technically, no state in India besides J&K has an official flag. What’s an official flag? It’s a flag that is hoisted alongside India’s national flag.

There were reports that the Congress high command was not happy with this development. Siddaramaiah defended this as being in the spirit of federalism that is enshrined in the constitution. He tweeted, “From a union of States, we are evolving into a federation of States. Therefore, I do not think the demand for greater federal autonomy and recognition of regional identity are inconsistent with our nation.” Siddaramiah went on to appoint an expert committee that would design the flag. So did they go ahead with an official state flag? You bet. The end result was a red and yellow flag a two-headed eagle, the Ganda-Berunda.  Remember we spoke about brazenness?  The state govt has started using this flag in its advertisements despite receiving no official nod from the centre.

These moves have paid rich dividends for the master tactician Siddaramaiah. Ground reports indicate he has won widespread admiration from Kannadigas as well as the political support of his former party the Janata Dal (Secular). There’s something to be said for the dexterity and astuteness of a politician who has commanded the support of his rivals and ex-allies.

But that’s not even the ace that the shrewd siddaramaiah played. We’ve been hearing about the Lingayat issue for a couple of weeks now. And how this has outsmarted the opposition. The main thrust of the issue is this:

Lingayats are a sect that follows the teachings of a religious reformer named Basavanna in the 12th century AD. While they worship the god Shiva, they diverge from mainstream Hindu religion in their rejection of the authority of the Vedas, the caste system, and beliefs such as reincarnation and karma.

More pertinent to Karnataka’s politics, Lingayats are about 20% of the state’s population.

There seem to be reports that Siddaramaiah has created a schism within Lingayats and Veerashaivas in Karnataka by proclaiming that Lingayats follow a separate religion. This is not borne out by facts.

This is all a bit confusing, so let’s try simplifying it.
So, Basavanna - social reformer, 12th century. Many of his followers believe they followed a new religion. But a minority amongst them also claim they belong to a more ancient Shaivite tradition, which they describe as Veerashiavas. And these two factions disagree with each other on the origins. One claims Basavanna founded a new religion. The other claims he was a reformer. And there lies the crux.
The Lingayat community has traditionally backed Yediyurappa, who is lingayat himself. It is the reason he is important to the BJP despite his tainted past. Yeddyurappa, in fact, broke away from the BJP in 2013, formed a new party, the Karnataka Janata Paksha, or the KJP and 10% of the votes. Which landed the Congress in power.

Yeddyurappa returned to his old party, the BJP, around the time of the 2014 elections and is now being projected as the party’s chief ministerial candidate for the May elections. In fact, he is the only declared candidate for the upcoming elections.

Always alive to opportunities, Siddaramaiah seized on this issue. He appointed an ‘expert committee’, that submitted a report in two months regarding the status of a minority religion for Lingayats.

While the BJP, clueless about the rapidly evolving events on the ground, dithered, the Siddaramaiah cabinet went ahead and approved the expert committee’s report. That leaves the decision with the Centre. And that, my friends, is skin in the game.
This was a political master stroke. Or an unmitigated disaster. The Congress party will either get back to power with a big win. Or the opportunism could backfire badly.

The arithmetic that Siddaramaiah is counting on is this: if half of the Lingayat population votes for him, he will have broken a 33-year-old jinx and come back to power.

While the election has turned somewhat ugly, with the talk of natives and Hindi imposition, the Karnataka election, if it succeeds, is likely to become the template for an entire generation of politics. And that’s what has everyone glued to their seats.

It’s all very Game of Thrones, isn’t it? Makes my head spin. Care to hazard a guess?

Catch the latest news, views and analysis on Karnataka Assembly Elections 2018
First Published on Apr 3, 2018 08:47 pm
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