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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 18, 19, April 29 & May 6, 2023 (Double issue)

2023 Karnataka Assembly Elections: Issues and campaign strategies | P. S. Jayaramu

Saturday 29 April 2023, by P S Jayaramu


2nd May, 2023

Electoral fever in Karnataka is reaching a high voltage point with the principal campaigners in all the three contesting Political Parties becoming hyperactive. Elections are often described as the festival of democracy. Yes, it appears like a festival if one looks at the banners and the head gears leaders sport. But, If we go by the negative and highly personalised attacks by senior leaders of Parties against their adverseries, what we see is the ill-will and rancour they have towards each other. The election rhetoric is devoid of serious debates over key issues, depicting the abysmal levels of political culture in operation. Assuming one can probably understand such behaviour at the lower levels, how can one ignore statements of senior leaders like the Congress Party’s national President Mallikarjun Kharge describing Narendra Modi as a poisonous snake and the retort by an aspiring chief ministerial BJP candidate (Basangouda Patil Yatnal), calling Sonia Gandhi a Visha Kanye. Kharge’s son, Priyank Kharge has described Modi as ‘Nalayak’ and sought to emphasise the English translation of it as ‘undeserving’. Such utterances from the political class are truly unfortunate. It is sad that the Election Commission doesn’t initiate any punitive action against such leaders.

Instead of directly attacking the Congress leaders, Prime Minister Modi has reacted by saying that the Congress has the habit of attacking iconic leaders like Dr. B. R. Ambedkar ( which is not true) and Veer Savarkar, in a way elevating himself to their levels! He went on to say that the Congress leaders have attacked him personally 91 times so far, ‘advising’ them not to waste time on the ‘dictionary of abuses’. Modi relies on his recent pet theme of the Congress humiliating its chief ministers in the past, little realising that his statement lacks credibility in view of the BJP high command’s humiliation of its own senior leaders, Jagadish Shettar and Lakshman Savadi, by denying tickets to them without even showing the courtesy of personally informing them about the decision. His criticism that Congress is insulting lingayats is also bereft of reality. Modi is also ridiculing the Janata Dal (S) as the B-team of the Congress. But as JD (S) supremo Deve Gowda says both the BJP and the Congress Party are in touch with him to form a Coalition Government in case of a hung assembly. Modi’s mischievous allegation of 85 percent corruption in the State and his reference to a former Prime Minister acknowledging it is far from the truth. No doubt, Rajiv Gandhi had made a generic reference during his address to an AICC session in Mumbai in 1985 that for every rupee targetted for welfare measures, only 15 paisa reached the beneficiaries, while the rest of the rupee was being eaten away as corruption. He had referred to it as a national phenomenon and bemoaned it.

Let me turn to some of the ‘freebees’ offered by the Political Parties, which Prime Minister Modi describes as part of the ‘revdi culture’. While the debate goes on as to whether freebees are legitimate in democracies to mitigate the sufferings of the poor, especially in view of the rising costs of living, mounting unemployment etc, it is also incumbent on the Political Parties to show how they would raise resources to meet them. The taxpayers should not be made to pay for their freebees. Competitive populism is at play just for the sake of garnering votes.

The BJP manifesto talks of the Uniform Civil Code apart from bringing out a National Register of Citizens (NRC) which are not important state issues. As part of its populist programmes, the manifesto promises three free gas cylinders to a household thrice a year, 1/ 2 litre of milk to BPL families, 10 lakh sites to the homeless, developing tourist spots in the Kalyan Karnataka region, extending health insurance and free check-up facilities for senior citizens, developing cohesive transportation network in Bengaluru etc. Continuing with its Hindutva agenda, it resolves to build a Ram temple, an unnecessary thing, for which the state government wants to spend ₹150 crores. It is a tragedy that the manifesto does not have any specific plans for generating employment, or providing inclusive education to the youth as private educational institutions are mushrooming with education fast becoming a flourishing business. The reference to ‘ease of living’, is a mockery, at a time when living has become unaffordable for the poor and the middle class due to inflation and price rise.

The BJP’s strategy is to woo the electorate on the basis of the Modi Government’s ‘achievements’ by using him as its mascot. Home Minister Amit Shah has gone to the extent of telling the voters that it is not a question of voting a few MLA’s, but of handing over the future of the state to Narendra Modi. Such audacious statements are an insult to the maturity of the Karnataka electorate who have generally voted different Parties to power at the state and national level.

The Congress Manifesto focuses on conferring benefits to the BPL families by promising 200 units of free electricity, ₹2000 monthly assistance to the women head of the family, ten Kgs of rice under the Anna Bhagya scheme and ₹3000 allowances to the unemployed youth for two years. State Congress President D.K. Shiva Kumar has even distributed guarantee cards symbolically. Priyanka Gandhi has promised to increase honorarium to Anganwadi workers to ₹15000, ₹100000, for mini-Anganwadi workers, ₹8000 for ASHA workers and ₹5000 for mid-day meal workers, adding further that they will get retirement benefits too. The manifesto further talks of introducing the old pension scheme (OPS) to the retired government employees, employment generation, and empowering women. Sops to garner votes!

The manifesto emphasises its commitment to making the State a ‘peaceful garden’ (Shantiya Tota, as described by Karnataka’s Jyan Peet awardee, poet Kuvempu) as a mark of its commitment to social harmony. It also reiterates the Party’s commitment to increasing reservation for the Scs from 15 to 17 per cent, to the STs from 3 to 7 per cent and hiking reservation for lingayats, vokkaligas and other communities and restoring the 4 percent reservation to Muslims. It also talks of rejecting the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 and replacing it by a new State Education Policy.

Additionally, as part of its objectives and campaign strategy, the Congress Party has consciously chosen to accord priority to local issues like inflation, price rise, unemployment, corruption and opposition to the BJP’s communal polarisation agenda. The Party is not falling prey to BJP’s strategy of focussing on national issues.

As for the JD(S ), it is trying its best to ensure that the contest is triangular. It goes to the credit of Kumaraswamy that he started the election campaign by undertaking the ‘Pancharatna Yatra’ on 1st November 2022 itself. The Party has stuck to the five issues of employment, education, agriculture and irrigation, health, women and youth empowerment. Kumaraswamy is campaigning throughout the state, while the Party supremo Deve Gowda is focussing on the southern and coastal regions. At the time of writing this article, the JD(S ) has not released its manifesto.

In the end, it bears recognition that the electoral contest seems to be a clash between the Modi-centered, Hindutva narrative and the Congress’s ( JDs too) narrative focussed on local issues. It is heartening to note that first-time voters in Bengaluru have spoken candidly about voting candidates on the basis of their profile and performance and not on caste and religious lines. They have further added that they expect Parties and Politicians to maintain social harmony and commit themselves to the goals of employment generation, decent standard of life for the people and sustainable development. If such concerns motivate the rural voters too, specially women, Karnataka can hope for a healthy and mature exercise of franchise.
We have to wait for13th May to find out which way the larger electorate would have voted. It would also be a test of whether the electorate would signal their preference for a coalition government or choose to give a clear mandate to a Party.

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

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