On 7 December 2017, Karnataka’s chief minister, the Congress leader Siddaramaiah, addressed an event in the Uttara Kannada district marking the inauguration of several public-works programmes by the state government. “They accuse us of being anti-Hindu. Are we not Hindus?” he asked the audience. “My name is Siddarama. My name too has bhagwan Ram’s name. We are the devotees of Lord Rama and Hanuman. … The real Hindu is one who loves all religions. You judge who the real Hindus are. Us or BJP leaders?”
Then, the minister for public works in Siddaramaiah’s government, HC Mahadevappa, took the stage and also declared his allegiance to Hinduism. And soon after, the medium- and large-scale industries minister, RV Deshpande, informed the audience that he too was a devout Hindu. “By birth, I am a Hindu,” Deshpande said. “All other people are my bandhu”—brothers.
Siddaramaiah and his ministers’ scramble to prove their Hindu credentials surprised many in the state. For years, the chief minister had embraced the moniker of an “ahinda” leader—a Kannada term that is an acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits.
Siddaramaiah’s comments seemed to be in sync with the speculation that the Congress will again adopt a “soft Hindutva” strategy to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party in the upcoming state-assembly election. The Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, had made several highly publicised visits to temples in Gujarat ahead of the recent polls in that state, and had also talked about his religious affiliations. Congress leaders have said that Gandhi will be seen temple-hopping during the campaign in Karnataka too.
The fact that Siddaramaiah and his fellow ministers took the initiative early on is an indication of how much the party is depending on its state leadership to win this election. The contrary is the case with the BJP, whose state leadership has looked weak, and cannot bank merely on the history of anti-incumbency. The BJP’s campaign will have to rely heavily on Modi’s enduring popularity and the party’s Hindutva rhetoric. The Congress’s soft Hindutva approach is an attempt to neutralise the BJP’s pitch.
Karnataka’s voters have been famous for alternating parties in every election since 1985. However, this anti-incumbency is more nuanced than meets the eye. In 2013, the BJP went to polls after five years of lacklustre rule marred by corruption, sleaze, dissidence and countless incidents of moral policing by fringe elements of the Sangh Parivar. Although the BJP expectedly lost the election, a closer reading of the results suggests that voters did not decisively choose the Congress. The party won the election not so much because people overwhelmingly voted in favour of it, but rather, because of a three-way split in the expected BJP vote caused by the presence of the Karnataka Janata Party, or KJP, floated by the former BJP chief minister BS Yeddyurappa, and the Badavara Shramikara Raitara Congress, or BSR Congress, led by the former BJP state minister B Sriramulu. In the 120 constituencies where the Congress won, the combined votes polled by the BJP and the two splinter parties far exceeded the votes polled by the Congress. The BJP’s vote-share declined by roughly 13 percent, from 34 percent in 2008 to 20 percent in 2013. But the reduction in the BJP’s vote share was nearly just as much as the combined vote-share of the KJP and BSR Congress. The KJP polled 10 percent and the BSRC secured 2.7 percent of votes.
Similarly, in 2004, the Congress government led by SM Krishna went to the polls on the back of a good performance in government, but lost nevertheless. The BJP emerged as the single largest party, but was short of a majority in the 224-member assembly. The party had to wait until 2008 to come to power on its own, after elections were held follwing a spell of governor’s rule, precipitated by the fall of the BJP’s coalition government, formed with the support of the former prime minister, HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular). If this trend is any indication, then even if voters deliver a harsh verdict against the Congress this time, one cannot take it for granted that their alternative choice will be the BJP. The presence of the JD(S), which has strong pockets of support in parts of Vokkaliga-dominated southern Karnataka, further complicates matters for the two main contenders.
The BJP’s state leadership, represented by its chief-ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa, does not look strong. Yeddyurappa no longer wields the kind of clout he enjoyed within and outside the party in 2008, when he led it to victory. Corruption charges, which he continues to fight in the courts, and the stigma of having been the first chief minister in the state to go to jail, have tarnished his image among voters. He has lost the respect of the party rank-and-file because of his desertion of the BJP in the previous election. Yet the BJP decided to project him as its chief-ministerial candidate, considering him the unchallenged leader of the powerful Lingayat community, whose votes are crucial for it. However, in a strange twist to the tale, he is no longer seen as the pivot around which all Lingayats will rally. A faction of the community has launched a movement demanding the status of a separate minority religious group for the Lingayats. While the Congress has pledged its moral support to the cause, the BJP is in a bind, as it cannot back any effort to break Hindu unity. Although it is not yet clear how this agitation is going to affect the election, those who support the movement have been questioning the BJP and Yeddyurappa over their silence on the issue. This means it is no longer a foregone conclusion that the Lingayats will vote en masse for the BJP and Yeddyurappa. Meanwhile, the dissent within the party is refusing to die down. Media reports said that the recent parivarthana yathra that Yeddyurappa took out across the state, as a prelude to the election campaign, witnessed a poor turnout, mainly because of the infighting in the party, which came to the fore in many places where Yeddyurappa addressed public meetings. In Bidar, for example, two factions put up separate stages, forcing him to address the crowds from both.
With no strong state leadership to steer the campaign, no big issues to attack the government on and no assured Lingayat vote bank, the BJP’s election strategy seems to revolve entirely around Modi and Hindutva. Amit Shah, the BJP president, has been making repeated visits to the state to galvanise the cadre for booth-level work. For the task of communal polarisation, the party has roped in Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, Adityanath. During the two rallies he has addressed in the state so far, his speeches focussed primarily on religious issues. The party has declared that the UP chief minister is going to be one of its star campaigners. Union minister, Anant Kumar Hegde, a five-time member of the Lok Sabha from the Uttara Kannada constituency, has attacked the “minority-appeasement” politics of the Congress. He did not stop his provocative speeches even after he was made to apologise in parliament for his recent disparaging remarks on secularists. The state’s coastal belt, consisting of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada districts, has seen a series of communally motivated murders over the past five years. Although both Hindus and Muslims have been victims of communal tension, the BJP has accused the Congress of siding with the Muslims and carrying out a massacre of the Hindus.
To build on this groundwork, Modi is slated to address a series of rallies, starting in the last week of January. His popularity, illustrated by the BJP’s victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, would definitely help the BJP. In that election, just a year after the BJP’s rout in the Karnataka assembly polls, the party won 17 of the 28 seats in the state. Demonetisation and GST do not seem to have dented Modi’s image much.
However, in Karnataka, Modi will be up against a powerful state leader in Siddaramaiah. When he assumed office as chief minister five years ago, Siddaramaiah already had the image of an able administrator. The media often characterised him as a “bureaucratic politician,” which meant he was good at governance but weak as a political strategist. But five years down the line, the perception appears to be on the verge of a reversal. Siddaramaiah’s administration seems to have nothing spectacular to boast of, but his record as a politician has surprised many. He dealt a big blow to the JD(S) by poaching seven of its MLAs. He also managed well the insider-outsider conflict within the Congress—between original partymen and those who joined the Congress from other parties. Although he joined the Congress in 2006 from the JD(S), he has emerged as the unchallenged leader of the party in Karnataka. Siddaramaiah has assiduously tried to cultivate the support of the Other Backward Classes and the state’s minorities by significantly increasing the budget of the social-welfare department.
The Congress has also been playing the regional card in order to counter the BJP’s nationalist agenda. A water dispute over the Mahadayi River between Karnataka and BJP-ruled Goa has become an election issue. Modi’s unwillingness to intervene in the dispute has been held up as an example of how the prime minister and the BJP have been discriminating against Karnataka. The Congress is also repeatedly reminding voters that Modi has done nothing to help Karnataka in its longtime feud with neighbouring Tamil Nadu over sharing the Kaveri River’s water. It has also tried to whip up pro-Kannada sentiment by proposing a separate flag for Karnataka, and resisting the use of Hindi in government communication in the state. The Congress is using the BJP’s silence on these issues to argue that Karnataka’s interests are not safe under the BJP, and that the latter pursues a nationalist agenda at the cost of the states. But, being a national party, the Congress has obvious limitations in its attempts to play up regional identity politics and language issues.
At the moment, it appears that Siddaramaiah’s leadership and an alternative version of Hindutva are the two main weapons in the Congress armoury that could halt the Modi juggernaut. In all likelihood, therefore, the Congress’s new electoral strategy of inclusive Hindutva is going to have its first real litmus test in the upcoming Karnataka election.
Narayana A is an associate professor with the school of policy and governance, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He writes on issues of politics and governance in both Kannada and English.