Karnataka Assembly elections 2018: Why Siddaramaiah has an edge
With both Rahul Gandhi and Yeddyurappa relegated to the background, it's a direct fight between the Congress CM and Modi.
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With a little more than a month to go for the Karnataka polls - one of the most-awaited electoral battles this year - political fights are heating up in the southern state. And while there hangs a certain cautious optimism in the Congress camp, the saffron party seems to be fumbling to find a definitive narrative to take on chief minister Siddaramaiah’s regional sub-nationalism, populist image, unwavering hold on his loyal voter base and deft political management.
With Narendra Modi’s aura of invincibility now looking to fade and the grand old party attempting to find its mojo back, the Karnataka elections in all likelihood will set the tone for assembly polls in four more states (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Mizoram) ahead of the grand battle in 2019.
And going by the current optics and political developments, the Congress seems to be on a sound footing. And this optimism is not unfounded. The first signs of this were seen in the 2016 zilla panchayat elections. The Congress secured 46.88 per cent of the votes and won 498 zilla panchayat seats and 1,709 taluk panchayat seats while the BJP won 406 and 1,362 respectively.
A pre-election survey done by the C-Fore, gave the Congress a comfortable majority with 43 per cent vote share, and the BJP with 32 per cent vote share. And while the Congress has reshaped itself as a "regional" outfit under Siddaramaiah, prodding regional nationalism and forming a rainbow coalition of the backward, Muslims, Dalits (popularly called as AHINDA group), along with a section of Lingayats, the BJP under Yeddurappa looks more like a spent force with no definitive narrative and marred by political infighting.
Siddaramaiah versus Modi
As the battle is shaping up, it is clear it will be a Siddaramaiah versus Modi battle, with both Rahul Gandhi and Yeddyurappa relegated to the background. And if that happens, it will be the biggest shot in the arm for Siddaramaiah. In this battle, Siddaramaiah will in all probability not just be able to cut short Yeddyurappa's chances, but may also succeed in projecting himself as the tallest leader in the state.
Yeddyurappa is the strongest leader that the BJP has in the state, but he is more busy fighting battles against his one-time friend and leader of the Opposition in the legislative council, KS Eshwarappa, than focussing on the coming elections, thus taking a section of the loyal Lingayat vote base away from the BJP.
Yeddyurappa’s projection as the CM face by the BJP has also brought back the ghosts of the mining scam that plagued the BJP during its tenure between 2008 and 2013. With the Congress on an electorally sound footing, Rahul Gandhi can use this in his favour to weaken Modi's image of an anti-corruption crusader.
In five years, Siddaramaiah has been riding on the socialism plank, speaking the language of the dispossessed and the marginalised. And while he may not have done anything radical, or brought about any major advancements in policy, he has been able to develop his own brand of socialism. He has often claimed that almost 90 per cent of the state’s populace is governed by one welfare scheme or the other. A special mention has been made of Anna Bhagya, which aims at a hunger-free Karnataka by providing free rice and subsidised oil, lentils, salt and sugar to each BPL family.
Official statistics indicate that almost 50 per cent of the state population is a beneficiary of the scheme. In a Siddaramaiah versus Modi battle, his pro-poor schemes will be his main weapon.
The many cultural wars
Karnataka saw its biggest political development on March 19, when a marathon Cabinet meeting approved a seven-member panel recommendation to recognise Lingayat as a separate religion. To what extent Siddaramaiah sees this as a core political strategy, is unclear, but he has surely set the cat among the pigeons with this one move.
Lingayat forms a major vote bank of the BJP, and in one fell swoop, Siddaramaiah has halted the battle-ready forces of the BJP from marching ahead. The BJP for now is on the back foot, spending time meeting the seers over the Lingayat issue, making all attempts to not let the vote base slip through.
Not just that, with this move, Siddaramaiah has caused dismay across political spectrum. The move has challenged the core of the Hindutva ideology, which sees Hinduism as a monolithic entity, rather than an agglomeration of theological and schismatic offshoots. Moreover, Siddaramaiah has also been vocal about the polarising agenda of Hindutva as practiced by the BJP, and the more he speaks, the more he draws the saffron party into a cultural debate, and thus drawing them away from presenting an alternative agenda to the state.
So he is precisely, beating anti-incumbency using his opponent’s move. Siddaramaiah has assiduously built his AHINDA (a Kannada acronym for backward classes, Dalits and minorities) vote bank and has tried hard to retain it throughout his term. The BJP has not been able to make a dent in his loyal vote bank. Recognising the importance of cultural identities, his government recognised 30 jayantis, including the Tipu Jayanti, to appease different caste groups.
Siddaramaiah has taken pragmatic steps to de-alienate these caste groups - be it through giving leaders of respective caste groups important portfolios, making special budgetary allocations, or by forming separate boards to look into development of backward castes.
Siddaramaiah may not be a Dakshinapateshwara (king of the South) like Devraj Urs, but he has so far been able to deftly manage the expectations of various caste groups, or at least made an earnest attempt to do so.
The recent controversy of cabinet minister Anant Hegde comparing Dalits with street dogs has further consolidated the Dalit support to Siddaramaiah.
The south Indian pride
In the past two years, Siddaramaiah has fashioned himself as a regional satrap, and pulled together the lousy Congress cadre. He is countering every move of the BJP with his own "Kannadiga pride".
If endorsing the demand of a state flag and use of Kannada in Metro stations instead of Hindi was the start of stirring the emotive waters, his recent comments on tax injustice and the "North versus South divide" (since the constitution of the 15th Finance Commission) could be seen as an extension of projecting himself as the mascot of Kannadiga pride and justice.
His espousal of regional identity is learnt to have caused some discomfort among the party high command, but his methods of using regional sub-nationalism along with nationalistic fervour has won him a loyal following in the state.
The Hindutva war
With the poll date drawing nearer (May 12), Karnataka is also witnessing a rise in Hindutva-centric forces. BJP president Amit Shah gave a clear signal of this when he called Siddaramaiah "not pro-AHINDA but AHindu (anti-Hindu)", to which the latter replied that he has a "Ram" in his name.
Shah took it a step further by saying that jihadis are having a free run in Karnataka over deaths of members of Hindu fringe groups. The Lingayat tussle has further upped the Hindu war in the state. And the Congress being almost certain of the Muslim votes, has started practicing its brand of soft-Hindutva, with Rahul Gandhi continuing his temple spree.
Although Siddaramaiah’s socialism is still to be put to test, he has found a following from the progressive sections of the society like the Left-leaning activists, intellectuals, writers, members of the farmers’ movement and Dalit activists. This momentum has only increased since journalist Gauri Lankesh’s murder, widely accepted to be by alleged members of Hindu activists. This group feels that he is sincere in his commitment to fight fascist forces in Karnataka. His image as a progressive leader was bolstered after the passing of the Karnataka Prevention and Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices and Black Magic Bill, 2017, or the Anti-Superstition Bill, passed despite strong opposition from the BJP.
Can JD(S) turn the tables?
The Modi-Shah duo is known for pulling rabbits out of hats, and one such rabbit in Karnataka seems to be the JD(S), which after bagging some 20-30 seats could play the kingmaker. Deve Gowda's dislike for Siddaramaiah is well known, and this alone could make him befriend the BJP in a post-poll alliance.
Thus, if the Congress has to retain power in the state, it needs to go miles and win the majority. The current political climate of the state calls for well-calibrated moves that would involve not just the task of mobilising people on the ground, but also setting the electoral agenda. The Congress can retain this momentum, without letting it fall prey to Shah’s impulses.
Karnataka could be that one state where the Congress might succeed in showcasing its socialism and secularism as an antithesis to BJP’s Hindutva. An election win in Karnataka will make the Congress a natural claimant to lead an anti-BJP force in the run-up to 2019 Lok Sabha polls.