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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 13, March 25, 2023

The upcoming 2023 Assembly Elections in Karnataka: Issues and possible outcome | P. S. Jayaramu

Saturday 25 March 2023


by P. S. Jayaramu

(23rd March 2023)

The upcoming Legislative Assembly elections in Karnataka has kicked up lot of debate in the media and academia within the State if not at the national level. Newspapers and local television channels are devoting far too much space to cover the ensuing elections from the perspective of the Political Parties, the personalities involved, the role of caste and religion, including the ‘sermons’ being issued by Heads of important religious mutts. The focus is also on secularism-communalism debate with the BJP going all out to cash in on the communal polarisation it has steadily unleashed for over an year and the Congress and its leaders opposing the injection of religious-communal overtones to the campaign stressing, rightly too, on the secular orientations of the state electorate. Ironically, the real issues which affect the poor and the middle classes, like price rise, unemployment are not receiving the attention that is due in the hands of the contending parties and their leaders.

Let me examine some of the issues associated with the elections. Firstly, there is much talk about the elections throwing up a majority government by either of the main contenders - the BJP or the Congress Party, with both sides claiming to form a government on their own. The Janata Dal (S), popularly known as JDS, which is the third player in the electoral fray from the times of its origin as the Janata Party in 1983, when it unseated the Congress Party for the first time under Ramakrishna Hegde, campaigning vigorously declaring all the time that it cannot be brushed aside. Its leader and former chief minister Kumaraswamy is confident that the JDS will be a factor in government formation, alluding to the possibility of a fractured mandate. Surveys conducted in recent times by the Congress and the BJP, apart from some independent surveys too, like the Popular Pulse, point to the possibility of a hung assembly leading to the formation of a coalition government, which will put the JDS in the position of Kingmaker, aspiring to be the King, i,e, becoming the Chief Minister! Whichever way the voters will decide, one thing that stands out at the present juncture is that the ruling BJP cannot take it for granted that it will be returned to power, notwithstanding Modi’s and Amit Shah’s repeated visits to the state, in the name of inaugurating some project or the other. In the electoral history of independent India, no Prime Minister has campaigned so incessantly during assembly elections as Narendra Modi has done and is doing. So much, he can be rightly called the BJP’s minister in charge of campaigning across the country.

Secondly, there is the issue of the role of caste in influencing the elections in the state. Karnataka is no exception to the unwritten rule of caste being the predominant consideration in the choice of candidates by the political parties. Leaders of all contending parties go by the population percentage of constituencies while deciding on giving tickets to candidates. They also take into account the support candidates receive from the religious mutts and their heads, called ‘Mathadhipatis’. While the educated electorate may not go by caste considerations in casting their franchaise, majority of the voters, specially in the rural side, do vote on caste lines, lending legitimacy to the dictum that they ‘vote their caste and not cast their votes’ ! The majority communities in the state, the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas, who constitute about 15-16 and 12-13 percentage of the population respectively have retained close to half of the seats in the 224 seats in the State !egislative Assembly. But, it is also a fact that the SC, STs and OBCs put together, constitute an equal and in some places, higher percentage of population of tbe State. In the outgoing 2018 Assembly, there are 58 lingayat MLAs, 42 Vokkaliga MLAs,( 100 put together). Interestingly, their number is exactly matched by 55 SC, ST MLAs and 45 OBC MLAs, (100 ), the rest being shared by the minorities, brahmins and others.

As a recognition of this fact, we see the political parties striving for the votes of not just their community votes, but that of the other social groups too equally importantly. It is this political realism, we need to factor in to understand the strategies formulated by the BJP and the Congress not only in putting up candidates from other communities and striving to woo the voters belonging to those segments. Though the BJP is largely depicted as a Hindu Party, in Karnataka it has reached itself out to the SC, STs, and OBCs too. Comparatively, the Congress Party’s support base among the SC, STs and OBCs, has been shrinking over the years, though its minority support-base has largely remained intact. It is this stark political reality, which may pose obstacles to the Congress from wresting power from the BJP, despite the advantage of the anti-incumbency factor. As for the JDS, its support base is largely among the Vokkaliga community. It is this factor, along with its absence of a pan- Karnataka image which prevents the Party from being a principal contender for power in state politics ever since its inception.

It is relevant to list the issues struggling to attract attention. They range from the larger issues like inflation and rising prices of essential commodities, growing unemployment in the urban and rural areas to problems of water supply, adequate quality education, better roads and health facilities and shortages in seeds and fertiliser supplies to the farmers in the rural side. Urban areas, specially, Bengaluru and some tier 2 cities are craving for better transport, storm water drainage facilities, better garbage clearance and security of women in work places. One of the grievance often expressed by voters include the inaccessibility of elected representatives to put forth their problems. While these issues are seldom attended to meaningfully by the Parties and their leaders, unfortunately, they do not effectively influence the outcome of elections.

In their quest for power or retention of power, the BJP and the Congress are handicapped by growing factionalism. While the Congress is facing the internal tussle for power ( the CM position) by Siddaramaiah and D. K. Shivakumar in the event of the party coming to power, the BJP is faced by the tensions within the party as a result of the sidelining of B. S. Yediyurappa, who is still a significant force within the lingayat community. As for the JDs, it is plagued by desertions resulting from the Gowda family’s stranglehold over the Party. The distribution of tickets by the Party high commands is likely to exacerbate factionalism and possibly, more desertions. What impact such developments would have on the electoral fortunes of the Parties is to be watched in the coming days.

(Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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