The people of Karnataka, along with considerable money and muscle power, have delivered the verdict on who will govern for the next five years. Lets face it, the Congress didn’t see it coming – the performance of both the JD(S) and the BJP. Maybe, Congress & JD(S) end up arithmetically forming the govt, but I’m reasonably sure a lot of Congress supporters didn’t see the scale of defeat coming. Rather than harp upon faulty EVMs etc., I would like to take the opportunity to reflect on few other issues that in my humble opinion, deserve some attention – primarily because these will repeat not just in the other assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram but also I believe in the general elections due in 2019. Further, I also believe these issues have relevance outside and beyond elections and any government in power will necessarily have to deal with these intelligently and sensitively.
Corruption as a political issue is dead. It continues to have some performative value but in real terms, it has ceased to matter in politics. The puritanical politics of anti-corruption gained momentum towards the end of UPA 2 and had its moment in the sun with the victory of the BJP in the general elections, and AAP in Delhi. Perhaps this is why BJP supporters seem to reserve a special kind of hatred towards Kejriwal – for both leaders draw from the same reservoir of moral purity. In Karnataka 2018, the national media, the Twitter and Facebook accounts of political parties, the major partisan social media accounts (from both BJP and Congress) highlighted corruption. However, in reality, the BJP, the Congress and the JD(S) fielded candidates who carry the taint of corruption. In such a crucial election, the candidates were chosen purely on ‘winnability’ – which sometimes translated to family members of politicians, or money/muscle power, the right caste and so on. What was missing in the calculus of ‘winnability’ was a ‘clean’ candidate. It was perhaps only AAP, Swaraj India and the parliamentary left parties who fielded clean candidates. Amongst these clean parties, I believe the net tally will be one seat for Swaraj India from Melkote. Paleti, from C-Fore believed that fielding the Reddy family would cost the BJP approximately 2% of the votes. I wonder if this 2% extends outside the urban middle-class pockets? Why did the BJP want Yeddyurappa back, inspite of the ignominy of the only CM candidate to have spent time in jail? Surely, to regain the Lingayat vote base that BJP lost out in 2013. So now are we to believe that Lingayats don’t care about corruption? The same question can be asked in a smaller context as well – for example do Valmikis care about corruption when it comes to Sriramulu in Badami? I think we all know the answer – other factors, including and especially caste, clearly override any concerns about corruption. Otherwise none of the political parties would have fielded candidates like the Reddy family.
Karnataka, demographically is interesting because it has relatively high population of Dalits and Muslims. The BJP seems to have given up on attracting the Muslim vote directly (it has of course tried to fracture the Muslim vote in other ways). The Muslims will vote as a bloc for the Congress, but the impact is partially hampered because the number of Muslim registered voters is very small (compared to the total number of Muslims in Karnataka). However, the BJP has not given up on trying to attract the Dalit vote in spite of its terrible track record on Dalit issues just in the last six months, much less in general. For example, Modi said Dr. Ambedkar is a modern Manu while another BJP politician said he had no problem admitting that Dr. Ambedkar was a Brahmin. Then there were a series of photo-ops with BJP leaders having a meal in Dalit homes (even though many were caught ordering food from outside). Bizarre strategies, when images of OBC and upper caste anger and resentment against Dalits, state-sponsored arrests and violence against Dalits, especially in BJP ruled states, are going viral on WhatsApp. The fact of the matter is that all three parties wooed the Dalits aggressively. The JD(S) has made a pointed effort to woo the Dalit and Muslim vote through partnerships with BSP and AIMIM respectively. The Dalit vote matters because Dalits are close to 20% of the population and therefore have considerable influence, especially if they vote as a united bloc for one party. Thus, for JD(S), wooing the Dalit and the Muslim vote has a twin advantage – fracturing the AHINDA base of the Congress but also accruing that extra vote share that would get the JD(S) victory in crucial seats (especially in the Mysore region) which it lost in 2013 by very narrow margins. For the BJP, it would seem that the objective is to fracture the AHINDA base.
The electoral response of the Congress has been interestingly reminiscent of the 1980s. In the 1980s, the Congress tried different but similar strategies. First they tried meddling with the Ram Mandir issue in Ayodhya in 1986. Then in 1987, the I&B Ministry broadcast Ramayan and Mahabharat, and finally in desperation, Mandal Commission recommendations (from the 30s) was implemented in 1990. Few will remember that Advani’s Rath Yatra heavily banked on the anti-reservation sentiment to build up popular support for Vajpayee government. The rest as they say is history.
This time around, the apparent masterstroke was recognition for the Lingayats. Curiously, they didn’t sell it during the election. Lingayats are also close to 20% of the population, and Congress would hope that granting recognition to Lingayats would fracture the BJP vote base, and pray that a small part of the Lingayats would come to the Congress rather than accrue to the JD(S). However, apart from one or two Lingayat spiritual leaders, most of the leaders accepted recognition silently but refused to be vocal because Lingayats resent being separated from Hindus in terms of daily life practices – going to temples and so on. Very few Lingayat leaders wanted to speak out openly in support of the separation in fearing of antagonizing their base. The BJP on the other hand quietly started speaking of a similar separation and recognition for the Vokkaligas.
In many of the Mysore seats, the Congress also fielded Dasa Vokkaligas to counter the Mullu Vokkaligas of the JD(S). Partly this kind of nuanced caste calculations was done to split the opposition vote base but clearly it has not worked. Modi on the other hand, apart from appealing to the Dalit vote base, has largely stuck to the nationalist development discourse while his partner in crime Yogi Adityanath went on the rampage with the communal discourse ostensibly to consolidate the Hindu vote against Muslims.
In broader terms, these political strategies must be seen in terms of broader social developments against the backdrop of caste. What held Lohiaite politics together in the 70s was a unity of OBC and Dalit voting. After liberalization and reservation, this unity has been broken in stark terms. The Dalit vote has been isolated with disastrous consequences. On the other hand, the OBCs have failed to prosper – obviously because after liberalization, in real terms, wealth accumulation is extremely polarised and a young OBC population has become increasingly militant about wanting protection and resources from the State. This is evident from Lingayats in Karnataka, Marathas in Maharashtra, Patels and Thakurs in Gujarat, Jats in Haryana, Jats and Meena groups in Rajasthan and so on. This anger and resentment from the OBCs has turned back on the Dalit community, and articulated itself in violent anti-Dalit activities – Una onwards.
The typical Congress response, since the 1980s has been to attempt a proliferation of caste based identities in the hope that BJP cannot benefit from a consolidated Hindu vote. However, this strategy has consistently failed in comparison to the unifying call for nationalism, Hindutva, development and so on. The Congress has to seriously introspect its approach to social developments. It cannot keep reacting in fear to the BJP’s attempts to consolidate the Hindu vote. It has three options – try to spin a positive discourse in and through difference of caste identities, a difficult task to say the least. Another option is to try unification but around a different discourse – secularism, constitutionalism and so on. Again, my instinct is that this will not work very well either for it seems too alien to most OBC groups who now find resonance with a broader Hindu identity in a globalized alienating world. The third option is to try and patch together a unification in real material terms of different regional and caste groups. To do this it will have to shed its legacy of the Grand Old Party and climb down from its pedestal. For example, if from the beginning, the Congress had approached the JD(S) for an alliance, we could have seen a different result. Of course, this alliance would have meant that Siddaramaiah would have to step down and JD(S) would need the CM chair and a few other crucial cabinet positions. Perhaps the Congress will now try this for the general elections.
Finally, on the media and communications front, it is clear that even at the best of times, good messaging can swing about 2-3% of the vote. However, today’s results show that it would still have not sufficed. Nonetheless, from what I could see, much of the media strategy revolved around Modi Vs Rahul Gandhi and Yeddyurappa versus Siddaramaiah. There was virtually no messaging around candidates contesting from different seats and on different issues with different caste calculations. In the end, the official twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as the popular partisan accounts have focused too much on the big leaders. There has been no learning from when Rajiv Gandhi’s impact was nullified by a simple maneuver of the Janata Parivar – we have nothing against the PM but ultimately he is the PM, not a CM. In future elections, I would imagine that Congress would do well to stay away from Modi (la Kejriwal), and instead focus on the local candidates and fight a more contextualized and more localised battle. Modi is best defeated by ignoring him. Today, the more one attacks Modi, the more he is successful in spinning it as people victimizing him. On the other hand, he is able to project himself as a driven clean politican working overtime for the country. Of course there are internal contradictions where the objective results of his policies will ultimately become clear to the people but that moment has not come yet. What we have failed to realise is that Modi’s approval ratings are very high, not in spite of but precisely because of his half baked initiatives like demonetisation. So people must stop ridiculing Modi and instead focus on creating a more positive vision for governance. The potential of decentralized peer to peer networks is not to amplify an echo chamber but to enable differentiated yet coordinated strategy. Modi starts to matter less with such strategies.
In the coming few days, the television media especially will spin this result as a Modi wave, assured victory for BJP in 2019 and so on. This is not only a huge exaggeration but deathknell for democracy on multiple levels. Rather than being demoralized, I hope the opposition parties take a rapid but critical appraisal of this election – both on pragmatic issues like use of media and communication tools and strategies, but also on wider societal developments, especially in terms of caste dynamics.