From 1996 to 2014, Karnataka used to be the state that consistently voted against the national trend. If the Congress came to power at the Centre, Karnataka would have voted for the Janata parties or for the BJP. If the BJP came to power, Karnataka would have voted Congress.
In 2014, Karnataka joined the national bandwagon to vote for Narendra Modi. And 2019 has seen full integration, with the saffron party sweeping the state, leading to BJP winning an astonishing 25 of the state’s 28 LS seats with very narrow margins in Chamarajanagar (where the Congress’s Dalit strongman R Dhruvanarayan lost to his former mentor V Srinivas Prasad).
While the rest of the South has been nearly immune to the Modi wave in India, there are multiple factors that have been in play for the sweep of Karnataka. Up until 2014, the BJP’s grip on the state was purely through caste - they had the support of the powerful Lingayat community in North Karnataka, which has voted in any strong anti-Congress party right from the early 1990s, thanks to a blunder by then Congress president Rajiv Gandhi.
He announced the removal of the tallest Lingayat leader of that time, an ailing Veerendra Patil, from the post of Karnataka CM. Patil had failed to control riots in Davanagere over the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue following then BJP president LK Advani’s rath yatra in Karnataka. The Lingayat community was furious that Rajiv chose to do this without even giving Patil the courtesy of being informed directly. Rajiv casually told a couple of senior journalists at the Bengaluru airport that the CM would be changed and left for New Delhi.
That mistake caused the Lingayat base to shift entirely to Patil’s close friend Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party, who later moved with his party Lok Shakti to join hands with the BJP. Once Hegde, a Brahmin, lost political relevance, the Lingayats shifted lock, stock and barrel, to a man from their own community - BS Yeddyurappa of the BJP. And since then, as a Congress leader once put it, “A Lingayat who does not support the BJP is not a Lingayat at all.”
The 2019 election, however, is not just this kettle of fish. For the first time in Karnataka, caste has not mattered at all. A state that is chock full of other backward castes and a huge number of SCs and STs has put aside all its caste differences to vote for Hindutva - the militant, polarizing form of Hinduism that Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah have perfected as a political weapon. The genesis can be traced to the same riots that caused Patil to lose his seat. The Congress response, then, has possibly also resulted in the Karnataka situation now.
The Congress-JD(S) combine in Karnataka can blame itself for a lot of things. Some candidates were the wrong choices and there was a lack of coordination that could have been anticipated. But no politician or political analyst in Karnataka could have seen the cross-caste integration that Hindutva achieved in a state that has consistently called itself ‘tolerant, inclusive and secular.’
There have been no major riots in Karnataka for several decades, though the communal situation in Karnataka’s coast has been a matter of concern for the minority communities and the moderate Hindu there for quite some time. But as former CM Siddaramaiah said repeatedly during the 2018 assembly polls, “Karnataka is the land of Basavanna (whom the Lingayats consider as their patron saint) who preached tolerance and equality to all.”
This perception clearly changes now, as the BJP and PM Modi’s election campaign had no fig leaves of economic or social development. It was an outright appeal to muscular Hindutva that has achieved unprecedented results. Even BJP leaders are stunned at the sweep the party has achieved. As a party leader put it, “The RSS which usually gets its poll numbers bang on target, told us we would increase our Karnataka tally from 17 to 18 or 20. But we did not anticipate getting 26 out of 28.”
The rout of the Congress-JD(S) camp also suggests another point that has slipped under everyone’s radar. The people of Karnataka gave 104 seats to the BJP in the 2018 assembly elections against 80 to the Congress and 38 to the JD(S). The BJP could not form government as the other two joined hands, gaining them further public sympathy. Besides this, the alliance government performed way below par, with CM HD Kumaraswamy not living up to the enormous expectations that sympathy for him had generated. The Congress’s constant bickering led by former CM Siddaramaiah also did not help the cause of the combine.
The last-minute papering of cracks between the alliance partners through joint campaigns failed to convince and even angered party workers and supporters in several constituencies. It also showed a clear pattern that triangular fights went against the BJP, but a two-party situation benefits them - another trend that has reflected the national one.
Views expressed are the author's own.
Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for 26 years.