For the first time in the history of Karnataka two arch rivals – the Congress and JD(S) have formed an alliance to contest the Lok Sabha elections together. Their goal – to regain the territories the parties have lost to the BJP over the last two decades.
Considered a fortress of the Congress party once, Karnataka has over the years has leaned largely towards the BJP. With the alliance facing such a crucial battle in April this year – is breaking into the BJP fortress an uphill task?
To understand the nuances of the political battle ahead, it is necessary to look back at how Karnataka has voted in the past and the reason why a state, which voted for the Congress has shifted its loyalties over a period of time.
The gradual erosion of the Congress stronghold
Throughout the Nehru era and for most years during Indira Gandhi’s Prime Ministership, Karnataka had remained a steadfast bastion of the Congress party. During this 36-year-old reign (1952-1989), the Congress’ political machine remained undefeated in Karnataka except for a few shake ups.
Cracks first began to appear in the Congress in Karnataka when a coalition led by the Janata Party gained a slim majority and installed Ramkrishna Hegde as Karnataka's first non-Congress Chief Minister in 1983. However, the Janata Party disintegrated into many factions and only the JD(S) - led by HD Deve Gowda remains. The party is known as a sub-regional one in Karnataka with prominence only in Hassan, Mandya, parts of Mysuru and Chamaraganagar areas. The presence of the JD(S) has led to splitting of Congress votes in some of its south Karnataka strongholds, which has only benefited the BJP in the long run.
In the 1989 Parliamentary elections, the Congress party won 27 of the 28 seats, whilst the Janata Party one a single seat in Karnataka.
It was after 1991 that the BJP began making a foray into the politics of Karnataka. In the 1991 Lok Sabha Election, the BJP won four seats and managed to make inroads into some of the Congress’ important constituencies. The BJP winning four seats was a significant step for the party, especially as it had no presence in Karnataka and had not won a single seat in 1989. The BJP had managed to win in Bidar, Tumakuru, Bengaluru South and Mangaluru constituencies – which the party would go on to retain and guard over the years.
Although 1991 was seen as a baby step, the party’s leadership in the state (BS Yeddyurappa and the late Ananth Kumar) had already devised a plan to foment the political scenario and gain more ground. The answer was simple – win over the Lingayat community.
Why winning over the Lingayats helped BJP
The BJP’s rise in Karnataka began during the 1994 state Assembly Elections when it won 40 out of 224 seats. Two years later, in the 1996 Parliamentary polls, the BJP had won over three other Congress bastions Davangere, Kanara and Dharwad North, in addition to the four it won in 1991.
“After the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, the BJP was able to make an entry into state politics by working the Hindutva agenda in Mangaluru and Kanara areas. This was also the time when the Lingayat population were disgruntled with the Congress and the BJP had was portraying BS Yeddyurappa as the state’s Lingayat figure in politics. The BJP began its campaign of how the Congress was a party of feudal leaders, who did not care about Lingayat or Hindus in general but only wanted to appease the Vokkaliga and minority voters,” political analyst Mahadev Prakash says.
The BJP’s agenda of polarization worked, especially among the Lingayat community as they were disappointed with the way Rajiv Gandhi had handled Veerendra Patil’s illness. In 1989, Veerendra Patil was Chief Minister and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee President. Patil’s popularity among Lingayats had ensured a sweeping victory for the Congress in the Lingayat belt – Mumbai-Karnataka and Hyderabad-Karnataka. In 1990, Veerendra Patil’s health had declined after he suffered a stroke. At the time, there were communal clashes in Chamarajanagar and Davangere as well. Rajiv Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister had visited Karnataka to take stock of the situation. The leader had also met with Veerendra Patil to enquire about his health. While returning to the national capital, Rajiv Gandhi made an announcement at the Bengaluru airport (HAL) that in a couple of days, Karnataka would get a new Chief Minister.
“This came as a shock to Patil. He was not informed of the decision and neither was he consulted while the next CM was appointed. Two days later Rajiv Gandhi announced that S Bangarappa would be the CM of Karnataka and ever since the Lingayat community has never forgiven the Congress,” Mahadev Prakash adds.
The BJP’s steady rise
In the 1998 Parliamentary Election, the BJP won 13 Lok Sabha segments in Karnataka, a first for the party. It managed to break into several Congress strongholds including Gulbarga (Kalaburgi), Kanakpura, Mysuru-Kodagu, Udupi, Chikkamagaluru, Shivamogga and Belagavi. In the 1999 Lok Sabha Election, the BJP won seven segments – Bidar, Davangere, Bengaluru South, Mangaluru, Chikkamagaluru, Dharwad North and Bijapur, where it had already established dominance.
It was the 2004 Lok Sabha Election which saw the lotus bloom in several parts of the state although the mood was for the UPA in the rest of country. The BJP won 18 out of the 28 segments in Karnataka in 2004. The verdict in 2009 was no different. While India voted for the UPA once again, the BJP gained more ground in Karnataka, winning 19 seats.
In 2014, the Modi wave swept Karnataka as well, with the BJP winning 17 seats, effectively conquering the Congress’ fortress.
“Hindutva and the anti-feudal votes went to the BJP ever since Lingayat leaders were sidelined in the Congress. Lingayats view the Vokkaligas as the land-owning dominant caste, which enslaves people and discriminates against the low castes. The Dalits, Adivasis and the minorities, which have very less social and political representation see the Vokkaligas as the enemy. The BJP effectively used this sentiment to its advantage and strengthened their position in the northern and central parts of Karnataka,” says Mahadev Prakash.
Will the Congress-JD(S) coalition regain their lost territories?
Political party insiders believe that the Congress’ national leadership entered into an alliance with the JD(S) in order to consolidate votes, which were being split due to a three-way contest. “They want to mobilise both Congress and JD(S) votes. The idea seems good on paper but many in the party fear it will reduce the Congress to nothing in Karnataka,” a Congress source said.
JD(S) has a strong presence in the Vokkaliga belt – Hassan, parts of Mandya and parts of Mysuru and Chamarajanagar.
Congress sources say that the party, which banked on the Dalit, Adivasi, OBC and minority votes in the Old Mysuru region, would not benefit from the alliance with JD(S), which is seen as a Vokkaliga party.
“If the Congress gives five tickets to JD(S) in old Mysuru region, then the party will be finished. The votes, which Congress is banking on in order to consolidate support against BJP will be futile. Instead of voting for us, the voters will vote against us and BJP will benefit from it,” the Congress source added.
With these threats looming over the Congress, the party workers are now in a fix regarding campaigning for the JD(S) candidates in their strongholds. Congress party workers in Mandya have openly supported the JD(S) candidate Nikhil Gowda's rival Sumalatha. The situation is the same in other Congress strongholds as well and the party is struggling to quell the internal rebellion.