The defeat of the BJP in the Karnataka assembly elections has been a cause of joy and relief – not only for marginalised sections of the state but also for those who were eager to see a small success in pushing back the systematic majoritarian onslaught under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. It has also created confusion and temporary chaos in the state BJP.
Karnataka, under the BJP led by B.S. Bommai, had been comparable only to Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh in terms of alienating and humiliating Muslims, Christians and Dalits in social, religious and political domains.
The unprecedented corruption, lack of governance, the vanity and pomp of the ministers, total collapse of the administration, among others, created a strong anti-incumbency wave. Even though this was not captured completely by the media, the BJP and the RSS had a sense of it. Hence it employed the prime minister and the home minister as full-time pracharaks. Despite this, as an editorial in the RSS mouthpiece Organiser confessed after the results:
“Without strong leadership and effective delivery at the regional level, Prime Minister Modi’s charisma and Hindutva as an ideological glue would not be sufficient. The positive factors, Hindutva ideology and PM Modi’s leadership, are genuine assets for the BJP when the State-level governance is effective. First time since Prime Minister Modi took the reins at the Centre, the BJP had to defend the corruption charges in an assembly election.”
But can the BJP’s electoral defeat be termed as the political defeat of Hindutva? Will the Congress’s victory be considered a vote for secularism, as some enthusiastic liberals are claiming? What is the nature of the BJP’s defeat of BJP and the Congress’s victory? Has the Karnataka Congress been transformed to wage a war against Hindutva through its ‘secular and welfarist’ governance? What do the first 50 days of Congress government suggest?
While civil society initiatives with the sole purpose of defeating the BJP during the elections were unique and a positive development, can it be termed the emergence of the fifth estate? What has been the reason behind the chronic decline of the left and democratic forces in the state, electorally and politically? Given the predicament of the people’s movements in the state, how to understand the positive intervention and impact of some civil society collectives during the elections and its uncritical overtures towards the Congress before and after the elections?
These are some of the serious questions that need to be pondered upon, at least, after a period of justified celebrations and understandable exaggerations.
In retrospect, one can identify the following reasons as the causes of the BJP’s defeat:
- The communal, corrupt and inefficient BJP government exceeded the palatable limits of the public in all three areas.
- The price rise, inflation and declining living standard of the poor, during and after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with no palpable help from the government.
- The strategic and polarised voting of the Muslim community, led by religious and social leadership, as well as the Dalit community’s tactical voting in the Congress’s favour. Especially, the Banjaras/Lambanis and Madigas, who aligned with the BJP in a big way during the last elections, seem to have voted with vengeance against it on the issue of reclassification of internal reservation of Scheduled Castes, although both the communities have mutually opposite stands on the issue. There was also a small dip, not as big as made out in the press, in the BJP’s traditional vote base of Lingayats due to the denial of tickets to veteran leaders of the community.
- The unusually clever and smart campaign by the Congress and its assurance of guarantees which cashed in on seething anti-incumbency
- The failure of the other secular contenders – like the Janata Dal (Secular) [JD(S)], Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or the predominantly Muslim-based parties like the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) – in attracting anti-BJP votes which went to the Congress in bulk.
While these are fundamental factors for the BJP’s defeat, there were several civil society initiatives at the state and local levels like Eddelu Karnataka, Bahutva and many others. Eddelu Karnataka campaigned in selected constituencies and through social media against the BJP. It even successfully persuaded some marginal players from dividing the anti-BJP votes, through the mediation of religious leaders. Many leading intellectuals and progressive writers actively campaigned against the BJP and its politics and appealed to vote against it. All these efforts complemented the above fundamental factors in defeating the BJP.
Communalism and Hindutva-related issues were not made electoral issues by the opposition parties at all.
The Congress obtained 42.9% of the vote share and won 135 of the 224 seats, a rise of 5% since the 2018 elections. The BJP got 36% of the votes, losing a mere 0.2% of its vote share but 40 seats. The biggest loss was for the JD(S), whose vote share was reduced by 6% to 13.3%. Its tally declined by 18 seats. The JD(S)’s loss could be attributed to the split in Vokkaliga votes and the polarisation of Muslim votes.
The chronic decline of the Left
The most worrying outcome in this election is the pathetic electoral performance of the Left and democratic parties, which is a reflection of a larger trend in the reduced influence of people’s movements in the state. It also marks the decline of a credible ideological-political challenge to Hindutva.
To start with, the Communist Party of India (CPI) contested in seven constituencies and obtained around 7,000 votes while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) contested in 4 constituencies and obtained 23,000 Votes. Together, the left parties obtained only a little more than 10% of the total NOTA votes polled in the state! Even the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) could gather only half the number of total NOTA votes. The total NOTA votes were 2.70 lakh.
Another disturbing trend is that the BJP has increased its vote share many times in the erstwhile strong bases of the Left parties. For example, in the Bagepalli constituency which had elected a CPI(M) candidate earlier, the Left party got 19,000 votes. Even though the BJP also lost in this constituency, its tally of votes rose from 4,000 to 62,000 – three times more than the CPI(M). Even in the constituencies where it used to lose the deposit, it has gained more votes in comparison.
In the Mudigere constituency, where the CPI has a three-decade-long history of mobilising coffee workers, it got only 2,785 votes whereas the BJP candidate – who lost to the Congress by a small margin – obtained 49,000 votes. In Kolar Gold Field, the historical battlefield of Dalits and mining workers, which was also a bastion of Left and Ambedkarite politics, the CPI obtained 900 votes and the CPI(M) 1,100. Though Congress won the seat, the BJP managed to get 30,000 votes.
In fact, in the last few elections, the combined vote share of the CPI and the CPI(M) in the state has not reached six digits.
Even though one can not make a one-to-one equation between the electoral performance and the social influence of a party, the continuous decline in the electoral performance of a party is definitely an indicator of its declining social-political influence as well.
Apart from this, the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), which has a glorious history of farmers’ movement in the country, won only one seat. In that seat, Melukote in Mandya district, the Sangha had the Congress’s support. But in all other constituencies, it failed to get even 1% of the polled votes. But again, in most of those constituencies, even though the BJP lost, it increased its vote share many times compared to its own performance in 2018.
On the other hand, there were hardly a few state-level people’s mobilisations in the last decade that could break the boundary of “Freedom Park” (the designated site for demonstrations) which also says volumes about the declining strength of such movements.
Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai. Photo: Twitter/@BSBommai
BJP lost, but did Hindutva?
In spite of all odds, the BJP’s vote share remained intact at 36% votes, almost the same as it had achieved in previous elections. In fact, in absolute numbers, it has received 1.40 crore votes this time which is 7 lakh more than 2018.
It lost around 3.2% votes in the Lingayat-dominated Kittur Karnataka and 2.8% in the Hyderabad Karnataka region. Its biggest loss was in central Karnataka, where the strategic voting of Banjaras, Dalits and Muslims cost it 8% of votes. On the other hand, it gained 5% in the Vokkaliga-dominated old Mysore area for the first time, and around 6% in Bangalore city.
Also Read: Why Bengaluru Voted for the BJP When Karnataka Voted It Out
If the lower turnout in Bangalore city is attributed to middle-class apathy, then whatever voting the city witnessed should be attributed to the poor of the city. The constituency-wise analysis also infers that in Bangalore, the BJP is slowly increasing its social base among the poor for multiple reasons, which should be a warning for the secular camp.
There are two other disturbing trends in the BJP’s vote base. In all communal flash points like Udupi, Srirangapatna, Bijapur and Shimoga, the BJP has either increased its vote share many times or the margin of victory. Second, though it has not made many gains in terms of seats in traditionally non-BJP areas like southern Karnataka, it has increased its vote share in all those constituencies.
In fact, the electoral history of the BJP makes it clear that its vote share has been consistently increasing since 1989. It was 4.14% in 1989, 16.99% in 1994 elections, 20.69 in 1999, 28.33% in 2004, 33.86 in 2008, 36% in 2018 and the same in 2023.
Even when the BJP fails to win elections, it consolidates its social base – unlike other parties. The strategy is to increase its social influence through relentless cultural, religious and ideological initiatives. No political party contends with it in these domains. Rather, many non-BJP leaders are their clients in this field. Later, its social influence is organised and consolidated as a Hindutva social base by different organisations of the Sangh parivar. This process goes on throughout the year, during and in between the elections.
Thus, the electoral preference of the BJP voter is normally more political and ideological – especially among the non-Dalit and non-minority voters. Thus It is hard to substantiate that a one-time and very brief interaction with non-BJP civil society actors could convince the undecided non-Dalit, non-minority voter to vote against it and hence their claim about their reach and impact.
This could have been, and had been challenged, and defeated earlier in the state when the grassroots level people’s movements, backed by Left and progressive ideology, were present among the masses. The lack of such roots has also contributed to the sustenance of the BJP’s social bases in spite of many odds.
Congress victory on loose ground
As explained earlier, even though the Congress could get more seats due to the first past the poll system, the victory does not have a sound social or political grounding. The rise of 5% vote share is especially due to the strategic voting of Muslims, the conditional voting of Dalits and the contractual voting of the poor over promises like free rice.
Apart from the Muslims and the Dalits, the other Congress voters might not be against the BJP either politically or ideologically. In fact, of the 52 constituencies where the margin of victory was less than 5%, the Congress won 37 seats with slim margins.
The Congress’s success is contractual, conditional and not political. It is dependent on the success of the delivery of its five promises without taxing the people indirectly.
Governance-challenges and continuities
But the last fifty days of the Siddaramaiah government, with D.K. Shivakumar as his deputy, do not instil confidence. While the Centre and the BJP are continuously throwing obstacles in the implementation of its five promises, the Congress government does not have many alternatives within its neoliberal economic framework other than taxing the people immediately or in the near future for mobilising the additional Rs 59,000 crore to implement the promises.
There are reports that the finance department has issued circulars to all the departments to come up with the projects and programmes that could be shunned to finance the party’s guarantees.
In some interviews, the chief minister himself has hinted at maximising tax collection, taxing certain goods and capping administrative expenditure as solutions. There are also reports that suggest increasing state revenues by hiking property tax, even at the village level – which is unprecedented.
The Bangalore Urban District contributes 36% of the state GDP with its corporate-friendly service sector and the software industry. So to increase tax revenue, the government may have to make neoliberal concessions and transfer public resources to the corporate service sector in the name of “development”. These measures, in the long run, will result in a decline in government jobs and destitution of the poor.
On the other hand, deputy CM Shivakumar has expressed his strong resolve to bulldoze people’s resistance and implement policies that he deems necessary for the development and comfort of car-owning citizens of the city.
D.K. Shivakumar, Thaawar Chand Gehlot and Siddaramaiah. Photo: Twitter/@DKShivakumar
There are also reports that officers tainted with corruption, and those who were wielding plum posts during the BJP regime have remained in office – raising questions about the change of governance.
While these are early trends showing which way the economic wind is blowing, on the front of fighting Hindutva, the government is sending mixed messages. Though the Siddaramaiah government has resolved to withdraw the anti-conversion law, introduce the recitation of the preamble of the constitution daily in the schools, it has continued to peddle soft Hindutva in other areas.
In a recent development, speaker U.T. Khadar, a senior MLA of the Congress party, held a three-day workshop for the newly elected MLAs and invited known Hindutva votaries like Virendra Hegde, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Karjagi to give motivational speeches.
Senior cabinet minister G. Parameshwar did homams and sought the blessings of the Udupi seer, who is notorious for his aggressive Hindutva stand and assured him that there would be no ban on the Bajrang Dal.
Even though the Congress had promised to remove the Hindutva-inspired corrections made by the Bommai government, it has been carried out with major compromises and the Congress government is already backtracking on rejecting BJP’s National Education Policy and arguing for retaining the good aspects of the NEP.
Shivakumar has also been canvassing his allegiance to astrology and reverence for Sanskrit relentlessly since assuming power.
In a recent and popular TV show on Kannada Zee TV, Shivakumar said that he believes and follows the wisdom in a Sanskrit shloka which declares that women, no matter if she is one’s mother, wife or daughter, should always be under constant supervision of a male member.
The danger of conceding opposition space to the BJP
These neo-liberal and soft-Hindutva policies of the Congress party are bound to generate dissatisfaction and discontent among the people, which the BJP will take advantage of. The saffron party is better oiled and rooted than the Congress and other parties as well as civil society groups, which is reflected in its consistent increase in vote share.
Unless the neoliberal economic framework is broken with at least genuine welfarist, if not socialist, policies; and the Hindutva social-cultural framework is broken with constitutional secularism, if not with much egalitarian vision, the BJP will bounce back on the tide of real and cultivated anti-incumbency by further polarising the society with aggressive communal agenda.
The danger of Congress-isation
It is only through strong, deep-rooted people’s movements with a vision for substantial democracy that such an eventuality could be successfully confronted. But the chronic decline of secular democratic forces in the state has led to their pathetic dependence on the Congress party and its government to fight the fascist forces.
In the bargain, some among these forces are attributing secular-socialist qualities to the Congress party, which it has already started betraying. Some civil society groups are advocating fighting the BJP by cooperating and coordinating with the Congress. This strategy would concede the opposition space completely to the BJP, thereby inadvertently helping it to portray itself as a credible alternative and bounce back.
No amount of election-time civil society interventions would substitute the ground-level mass mobilisation, organisation and agitation of the people’s movement. While the liberal world is euphoric about the BJP’s defeat and is celebrating it just by looking at it superficially, the essence of the defeat has many unpleasant and dangerous continuities.
Still, if the pro-people forces use the available opportunities to resurrect the powerful and militant peoples movement that the state witnessed in the 80s and the 90s, the state can successfully confront the Hindutva challenge. But for that, the left and democratic forces need to depend on the people and not the Congress party.
Shivasundar is a columnist.