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Karnataka campaign trail: Rajdeep Sardesai lists 10 key takeaways

The 2018 Assembly elections could easily confound any pundit or pollster.

 |  Breaking Views  |   Long-form |   10-05-2018
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Ten days in Karnataka over two extended trips still leaves you with the stamp of an "election tourist" but then that is my professional hazard, so here are my 10 takeaways of an election that could still end up confounding every pundit and pollster.

1) Karnataka is a mirror cracked

No two state elections are ever the same but in Karnataka, we have several elections taking place within the same state. As you travel from north to south, as I did, you are stunned by how quickly issues change as does the wondrous landscape. If water scarcity and the Mahadeyi river water sharing is a major issue in the Mumbai-Karnataka region of the north, then a distinct communal polarisation can be seen in the coastal belt. While south Karnataka farmers along the Cauvery basin still agonisingly recall two years of consecutive drought even while in Bengaluru, familiar cribs over crumbling infrastructure echo across middle-class colonies. Regional splits, income divides, rural urban fault-lines, Karnataka is a state lacking a pan-Karnataka narrative.

2) Vote for caste while casting your vote

The one factor that unites Karnataka is caste. The Hindi heartland can take some satisfaction that it isn't just north India where caste arithmetic counts, the caste equations are just as embedded in the Kannadiga psyche. If the Vokkaliga Lingayat dominant caste equation has been a constant narrative in recent elections, this time it is the backward caste, Dalit, Muslim social engineering (AHINDA) strategy of chief minister Siddaramaiah that has created ripples. The priestly Veershaiva Lingayat versus "other" Lingayats, "left" versus "right" Dalits, Karnataka is trapped in a maze of caste identities. Dalits in particular hold the key in 2018: If there is a wider Dalit consolidation, then it could change political equations.

3) Money talks, so do mutts

Karnataka's politics has seen a unique alignment of caste and community with cash and crime. The wealthy and powerful mutts (or religious seminaries) have their pockets of influence so do the even more cash rich politicians with their criminal records. While the media attention has been on the Reddy brothers - the mining barons of Bellary - the truth is that crime and corruption are great political equalisers in Karnataka.

If the BJP has the Reddys, the Congress too has its fair share of netas who have been on the wrong side of the law. Corruption in Karnataka is perhaps more "de-centralised": Almost every MLAs assets have dramatically increased when in power. (I did encounter an exception though: A Mangalore based MLA JL Lobo, a retired government servant, who actually appears a role model of financial integrity). And yes, most of the "criminal" netas are expected to win easily.

4) Siddaramaiah and the return of the regional satrap

There was a time when state politics were fought by all powerful regional "bosses". Indira Gandhi's imperious "high command" culture in the 1970s destroyed the idea of "independent" chief ministers in national parties, paving the way for the rise of regional party assertion.

Ironically, one of those Congress chief ministers harshly dealt with by Mrs Gandhi was Karnataka's original backward caste hero Devraj Urs. Now, Siddaramaiah is attempting an Urs 2.0 brand of backward caste assertion and virtually running this election on his own pro-poor image.

This is a rooted politician who has come up from taluka-level battles: He is on first name basis with virtually every sarpanch he meets. Politics for him is a "take no prisoners" style "kushti": from waving the flag of Kannadiga sub nationalism to dividing castes to a slew of freebie schemes, Siddaramaiah has been a neta on steroids in the last 18 months. Win or lose, he has provided a template for the revival of netas who seek to break away from the Delhi durbar. Speaking in English does him disservice. Listen to him in Kannada and you realise how disconnected the English-speaking elite are from "real" India. And yes, if he does win, he owes a debt not to Basavanna, the Lingayat icon, but to NTR and MGR/Jayalalithaa, towering southern India politicians who realised early enough that cheap food for the poor is a route to power, this could well be the "Anna bhagya" or cheap rice election.

5) Yeddyurappa as BJP CM a mistake?

Well, yes and no. If Siddaramiah is almost a local folk hero, Yeddyurappa too once was an iconic figure, especially for the Lingayats. The past tense is necessary. The BJP leader has seen better days.

At 75, he is tiring and the years of being accused of corruption and even going to jail have taken their toll. He seems like a leader on the edge and flares up easily on the campaign trail, perhaps acutely aware that this is his last chance to return to power. The BJP may have erred in projecting him as their chief ministerial candidate so early - he loses out in the popularity stakes to Siddaramaiah - but the party may have had little choice. BSY is still the BJP's tallest state leader, the Lingayats are still the core of the BJP's vote base, and the Gen-next leadership of the BJP just hasn't taken the next step yet to be seen as credible alternatives.

6) Deve Gowda... life begins at 85

Is there a retirement age for politicians? Well, not if you are Deve Gowda. The former prime minister will turn 85 this month but that hasn't stopped him from criss-crossing the Vokkaliga heartland of the old Mysore region.

He travels only by car because he says choppers make him feel distant from his people. He tells me it is his spartan food habits that keep him going; I rather think it is the hope that his party could be kingmaker, if not king once again, that is driving him.

There is nothing "secular" or idealistic about the Janata Dal Secular. It is now a single caste, single family business enterprise that still has an unshaken base of Vokkaliga shareholders in one corner of the state. The rumours that he is in a secret understanding with the BJP could damage the crucial "plus" vote of the JDS amongst Muslims and lead to a decline in seats. What will Gowda do on May 15? Only Gowda and sons have an answer. My sense is he will prefer anyone who makes his son the chief minister, even if for a short duration: "putra-moh" remains an Indian ailment.

7) Narendra Modi is a pan-Indian leader, Shah a field general

Yes, the BJP is primarily a party of north and west India, a party locked into a Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan worldview. But as the victory in Tripura showed, this is a party in expansionist mode that can adjust to any challenge. Crossing the Vindhyas has been a bridge too far in the past, but in Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP have a duo whose ambition is boundless. Backed by a well organised and committed RSS cadre, this is independent India's most effective and ruthless election machine.

If the BJP wins in Karnataka, huge credit will go to the manner in which the party under Shah has worked yet again at astute and rigorous booth level management; if it loses, it will be back in five years, to try again even harder.

In Modi, the party has a leader who has become a cult figure, a feel-good guru rolled into a political demagogue, who can instantly connect with his audiences. There doesn't seem to be a Modi "wave" outside of pockets of urban Karnataka - the emotional bond you see in a UP or a Gujarat is missing in the rural heartland here - but he is still by some distance the most popular national leader, especially among the young and the more urbanised audiences. In a Lok Sabha election in Karnataka, Modi's appeal would give the BJP a distinct edge; in a Vidhan Sabha election where local factors are more pronounced, Modi's ability to get the BJP to punch above its weight and rise above caste and sub regional divides is more uncertain.

8) Rahul Gandhi: Work in progress

In school, there are marks given for effort and those given for general proficiency. For sheer effort, Rahul Gandhi deserves the highest marks in Karnataka. He pitched his tent here as early as February with his Jan Aashirwad yatra. He may still not be a natural instinctive politician and, at times, it almost appears as if he is trying too hard (his "mutt-hopping" in Karnataka example makes him look like an imitative neta). His public speaking skills have improved but will never match up to Mr Modi's histrionics.

A presidential-style contest with Mr Modi in a multimedia age would be a walkover but at least he is now slowly carving out an image as a leader who is willing to listen to voices other than his own. His best work in Karnataka has been outside the campaign trail - giving Siddaramaiah a relatively free hand in ticket allocation and managing factions within the state Congress. He now needs to find a narrative that appeals to a young, aspirational India that seeks merit above lineage.

9) The NOTA election

Is this the best Karnataka has to offer? Travelling across this beautiful state, it seems as if the election fever has been more in the media and TV studios than on the ground. No politician or party truly enthuses the Karnataka electorate nor is there visible anti-incumbency anger.

There is a status quoist nature to the political choices on offer, leaders who have been tried and tested and, mostly failed. "We are a so-so state in politics" is how one voter in Hubli aptly put it. If the Royal Challengers Bangalore has suffered because of an embarrassment of riches, the Karnataka political league is marked with a bankruptcy of talent. If the state is still marching forward, it is because its civil society remains energetic and progressive.

Politics in states like Karnataka is a backward sector and will remain so for a while unless the cash driven political economy of elections changes.

10) The 50-50 elections... so who will win Karnataka?

The general view is Karnataka is a "too close to call" election, one that is likely to throw up a hung Assembly in an age of clear verdicts (I am told resorts are already being booked for potential "deal making" post elections).

As an old Karnataka hand tells me: Congress will not go below 80, the BJP will not be below 65, the JDS will not be below 30, the balance 50 marginal seats will decide the eventual power play.

My own sense is that one of the two national parties will be close to a majority. If the Congress has a slight edge, it is simply because it has a wider social base and a more trusted local face.

The BJP, realistically, is in the fight in about 170 seats and needs a high strike rate to get a majority. The Congress needs Deve Gowda's vote share to decline and the backward caste coalition to stay intact. Turnout holds the key. If the BJP can succeed in its last mile push to get its supporters to come out in large numbers, then it remains in with a chance. But it's the poor and lower income groups, rural and urban, who usually brave the summer heat to cast their vote who may well decide the final verdict. One last thing: we haven't had a "super over" in the IPL this year; maybe Karnataka with all its political twists and turns will provide us with one!

(The post first appeared on the author's blog)

Also read: Why BJP is looking to win Karnataka Assembly polls

Writer

Rajdeep Sardesai Rajdeep Sardesai @sardesairajdeep

Journalist, author: 2014: The Election That Changed India. When not chained to the news, watch sport, read, write, sleep and enjoy family holidays.

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