Intriguingly poised

GIRISH NIKAM

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IN 1989, when Karnataka went to the polls to elect a new legislative assembly after an eight month spell of President’s rule, the results were overwhelmingly in favour of the Congress. Both factions of the Janata Dal which had earlier split had bitten dust, with the Deve Gowda faction almost mauled out of shape. The euphoria in the Congress and the dismay in the Janata Dal camps had, however, overlooked a critical factor – signs of the BJP emerging as a force on its own.

The Ram temple movement was just gaining ground across the country. L.K. Advani was yet to embark on his rath yatra and Babri Masjid still stood in Ayodhya. BJP had won just four seats in a house of 224. Yet, there was a feeling among discerning political observers that the saffron party could not be overlooked as an emerging force. Remarks expressing such a possibility made to some senior Congress and Janata Dal leaders had, of course, elicited a derisive reaction. ‘BJP can never make a serious dent in Karnataka’, was the common refrain of most political leaders of the Congress and Janata Dal.

Fast forward to 1999, a full ten years later. Again a situation similar to 1989 prevailed before the elections to the assembly. During this decade, the two factions of the 1989 Janata Dal had come together, formed a government, sent a prime minister to Delhi, and promptly split again.

The state Congress had also gone through turmoil. From the high of 1989 (174 seats), it had been humiliated, ending up in third place behind the BJP in 1994. The re-unified Janata Dal made it to power once again. BJP had gone up from 4 to 40.

The 1999 election saw the Congress redeem itself, back to being the ruling party with 132 seats. The BJP retained its second position with 44 seats and the two factions of the Janata Dal were left licking their wounds in fourth and fifth positions, with independents emerging in third place.

The BJP’s climb from 4 to 44 during this decade was a clear warning to the two rival parties, the Congress and the Janata Dal factions, one of which led by Ramakrishna Hegde had joined hands with the saffron party in 1998. (That faction was virtually devoured by the BJP later.)1 Yet, the Congress and Janata Dal (S), refused to see the writing on the wall, and continued to argue that the BJP could never become the ruling party in Karnataka.

These predictions of the BJP never being able to be make it to power on its own, and that it was essentially confined to some urban areas in some districts failed to take note of its growing strength in the rural areas, especially in the first decade of this century. The BJP had already proved, as far back as 2001-02, that in urban local bodies it was a bigger force than JD(S) and JD(U) by bagging 562 seats out of 4934. JD(S) had won only 415 and JD(U) 457, while the Congress was way ahead with 2,322 seats.

In the rural local bodies elections, it achieved a more modest but steady growth. In the zilla parishad elections in 2005, out of the 1005 seats, it won 145, while JD(S) bagged 275 and the Congress 493. By 2007, the BJP was fast catching up with the two other parties with pretty impressive results. In the gram panchayat elections held in 2007, it won 1,180 seats out of 5007, while JD(S) bagged 1502 seats and the Congress 1,606 seats.

 

The 2008 elections to the Karnataka Assembly disproved the skeptics resoundingly, with the BJP occupying the seat of power on its own. The saffron party had outsmarted and out-manoeuvred its rivals with a clever and ruthless combination of caste and cash, the latter provided generously by the increasingly powerful mining and real estate lobbies.2

The hard work put in by the various arms of the Sangh Parivar during the previous 20 years in communalizing a significant part of the state, with their effective use of communal and ultra-nationalist propaganda, also played a major role. And of course, the people’s feeling that ‘we have tried both (Congress and Janata Dal), why not give them a chance too’, equally helped pitch-fork the saffron party to power. The party has further consolidated itself both in the urban and rural areas in the last couple of years, as indicated by its victory in the Bangalore City Corporation polls this year.

 

Has the BJP come to stay and, can it create a Gujarat in Karnataka? This question has dogged the minds of political analysts for the last couple of years that the BJP has been in power. Is Karnataka another Gujarat, or even a Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan? These are the three states where BJP has ruled on its own in the recent past and continues to rule in two of them. Though few political similarities exist between Karnataka and Gujarat, initially many felt that Karnataka may actually be going the Gujarat way, in the sense of the state ending up with a bipolar political field, like in the above mentioned states.

However, the doggedness being displayed by the Janata Dal (S), despite its shrinking base and a substantially reduced geographical reach, is what makes the state a different political ball game for the BJP in comparison to Gujarat, MP, Rajasthan, or even Chhattisgarh.

Having played ball with the BJP, briefly, in one of the most forgettable chapters in its short history, the JD(S) seems to have realized that its future, if at all lies only in opposing the BJP and not in coalescing with it. For the BJP, on the face of it, it may come as a sign of good times. Its simple political calculation is that as long as the polity is three-pronged, it is bound to gain, as the Congress and Janata (S) would share their vote base, leaving the BJP to mop up the remains and emerge victorious.

 

There is no doubt that the Lingayats, one of the two dominant communities of Karnataka, have solidly backed the Yeddyurappa government, as he himself is a Lingayat. His emergence on the Karnataka political firmament was not initially welcomed with much enthusiasm by the community. However, as the sense of hurt in the community grew, with Vokkaliga-dominated governments of H.D. Deve Gowda and, subsequently, S.M. Krishna, they started looking around for their own icon.3 

In Yeddyurappa, they found the right man in the right place at the right time. The sense of hurt of the Lingayat community had been festering ever since Veerendra Patil, their last community political icon, had been humiliatingly dismissed by Rajiv Gandhi. J.H. Patel, another Lingayat chief minister, never met their expectations and, in any case, did not last long enough to capture their imagination.4 

Noticing the sense of void in the Lingayat community, the BJP did not lose much time in anointing Yeddyurappa as their mascot. This, despite the internal differences in the party, and a strong section led by Ananth Kumar5 unhappy with it.

It was a master stroke, resulting in a significant section of the Lingayats, who were with Ramakrishna Hegde’s Janata Dal, and later in his Lok Shakti and Janata Dal (U), migrating in large numbers to the BJP. Some from the Congress also followed. All this happened even as the hugely influential Lingayat mutts, who for years sought a political patron from their own community, went out of their way to be Yeddyurappa’s benefactors. It is now a given that the Lingayats are the major vote bank of the BJP in Karnataka.

 

The Congress has done little to stem this tide, as it has treated the Lingayats with scant respect. In fact since S. Nijalingappa’s tenure as chief minister, Lingayats have seen Congress as their bête noire, except during the brief tenure of Veerendra Patil in 1989-90.6 In fact, during the entire 1980s and ’90s, it was Ramakrishna Hegde they looked up to as their leader, despite him being a Brahmin.

The Congress, consciously or otherwise, has not nurtured a single Lingayat leader since Patil, giving the community one more reason to abandon it, and move first towards Hegde and now the BJP. On the other hand, the Janata Dal (S) is seen as a Vokkaliga party, dominated by Deve Gowda and sons, which again gives the Lingayats little leeway, other than to look up to the BJP.

 

This sharp polarization of the two dominant communities, with the OBCs divided between the three parties, and the minorities divided between the Congress and Janata Dal (S), has been a feature of Karnataka politics for the last decade.

The BJP, however, cannot rest on its present strength or its domination over the Lingayat community. Despite having struck roots in all parts of the state in the last decade, its politics has been dominated by the money power of the mining and real estate lobbies, especially since it occupied power in 2008.

It is these benefactors of the party which are also its most dangerous and tricky elements. The Reddy brothers,7 who bankrolled the party into power, have already demonstrated their enormous nuisance value, when they held Yeddyurappa as well as the national leadership of the party to ransom for weeks last year.

The brothers, upset by the ‘interference’ in their domain, ostensibly by the chief minister, demanded that he be changed. The messy stand-off was played out in the open under the glare of TV cameras, as the party high command grappled with the extraordinary tactics employed by the Bellary brothers. Though they finally succumbed by withdrawing their demand for a change of leadership, they extracted a few concessions which were humiliating to the chief minister. It was felt even then that the truce would be a temporary one, which has now it been proved right. The chief minister’s surprising admission on the floor of the assembly in the July session this year, that lakhs of tons of iron ore had been mined and illegally transported out of the country during the last two years, has brought the focus back on the Reddy brothers.

 

The increasing pressure on the chief minister to take action against them on the illegal mining issue, both from outside as well as a section of party-men from inside, can prove fatal. Caught between the devil and the deep sea, Yeddyurappa’s moves are being watched carefully by the Reddy brothers, who have a stranglehold over nearly 40 MLAs of the BJP.

The party is well aware that another round of grandstanding on the part of the Reddy brothers can prove dangerous to its only government South of the Vindhyas. On the other hand, what is heartening for Yeddyurappa is that the greater the pressure he faces from the Reddy brothers, the more sympathy he seems to evoke from his Lingayat brethren, consolidating his vote bank further.

Yeddyurappa has also ensured that he plays up to the sentiments of the hard core Hindutva followers in the BJP, by piloting legislations like the anti-cow slaughter bill, which was hurriedly passed in the legislature, amidst the opposition dharna demanding a CBI enquiry into the illegal mining in the state. The subtle support he has extended to Hindutva hardliners is also evident from the lack of any serious action against those who have been targeting the minorities in Karnataka for some time now. All this he hopes will keep him entrenched, despite the potential trouble he may face from the Reddy brothers in the foreseeable future.

During these last few years, the BJP as well as Yeddyurappa has been helped by the increasing empathy from a section of the media in Karnataka. In fact, a section of the regional media has openly advocated the cause of the Sangh Parivar, thereby helping the saffron party further consolidate itself. This section of the media violated all norms of professional conduct in their reportage on the attacks on churches in Mangalore and on Muslim youth in the coastal areas by the Sangh Parivar forces.

 

Meanwhile, ever since the BJP made it to the seat of power on their own, Congress, the leading opposition party, has been in shambles. Apart from being demoralized, it has faced a serious leadership crisis, which only got accentuated by its move to appoint R.V. Deshpande as the president and D.K. Shivakumar as the working president of the state unit. It created parallel centres of power with both of them constantly trying to upstage each other. The recent confrontation between the two, which was played out in the open, has not helped in any way either.8 Its legislature party leader, Siddaramaiah,9 a late entrant to the party from the Janata Dal fold, continues to face problems in adjusting with the party’s older elements.

Moreover, the party till recently has suffered from a lack of direction. Its obsession with the Janata Dal (S) leadership and the Gowda family, resulted in the blunders of the ruling BJP being overlooked. The communal agenda of the BJP, which it has proceeded to tirelessly implement, has been left virtually unchallenged by the Congress.

 

Siddaramaiah’s distaste for the Gowda family and his personal battles with them, has dominated his politics, instead of taking on the BJP government effectively, until recently. The Congress high command also played its part in this lacklustre performance of the party as an opposition in Karnataka, as it has given little attention to the affairs of state. The heavyweight Union ministers of the Congress from the state, like S.M. Krishna, Veerappa Moily, Mallikarjuna Kharge have never shown any inclination to work in unison, which was also one of the causes for the party’s debacle in the 2008 assembly elections.

Belatedly, the party seems to have realized the futility of being obsessed with the Janata Dal (S) and instead has started directing its attacks against the ruling party and its government. However, the party has a long way to go before it sets its house in order.

The problem for Janata Dal (S) continues to be its shrinking base. From a party which was in power, albeit in a coalition with both Congress and BJP, it has now moved to third place, its support base essentially confined to just four or five districts in the state. It has already paid a heavy price for having committed the blunder of joining hands with the BJP to form a government, making things worse by not sticking to its promise of giving BJP its chance to lead the government.10 The result of this broken promise was the BJP managing to come to power on its own.

 

For a party which has been heavily dominated by the shadow of former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, it suffers from an existentialist dilemma. On the one hand, though aware that its influence is now severely limited, it has yet to come to terms with this reality. Its vote base has shrunk, and is seen more as a Vokkaliga-centric party. Its very existence was under threat, soon after its disastrous cohabitation with the BJP. However, Gowda and his son, H.D. Kumaraswamy, have proved tough nuts, though both seem to differ on many issues that confront them. One of the biggest questions they face is the kind of relationship they should have with the Congress in the present situation. A clear answer to that question continues to elude them, as the party plays ducks and drakes with the Congress.

Karnataka’s polity is at present intriguingly poised as it is too soon to claim that BJP has come to stay as a ruling party, and at the same time it is not possible to rule out the re-emergence of the Congress, while the Janata Dal (S) certainly looks like it will continue to play a role, though certainly not a major one.

 

Footnotes:

1. Ramakrishna Hegde – only the second Brahmin to be the chief minister of Karnataka and the last since then, he held office twice between 1983-1985 and 1985-88. He joined hands with BJP after Deve Gowda had him removed from the party in 1996. His breakaway party, Lok Shakti, had an alliance with the BJP in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, and later he became the Union Minister of Commerce in the BJP-led NDA government.

2. BJP won 110 seats in 2008, three short of a majority. Through what came to be called Operation Kamala, it raised its strength to 117 seats. Operation Kamala, involved getting some Janata Dal (S) and Congress MLAs to resign from their seats, luring them with positions of ministerships and chairmanships of boards and corporations and later getting them elected to the assembly on a BJP ticket.

3. H.D. Deve Gowda was the chief minister of Karnataka between 1994 and 1996. He left the post to become the prime minister. S.M. Krishna (Congress), was the chief minister between 1999 and 2004.

4. J.H. Patel, one of the senior-most members of the Janata Dal, and a Lingayat, became the chief minister after Deve Gowda moved to Delhi as prime minister. He remained chief minister from May 1996 to October1999.

5. Ananth Kumar has been BJP Member of Parliament from Bangalore South for five consecutive terms. He is one of the parallel centres of power in Karnataka BJP. He is also the general secretary of the national BJP and a former Union minister.

6. S. Nijalingappa, one of the stalwarts of the independence movement and a lingayat, was chief minister of Karnataka three times: 1956-58, 1962-67 and 1967-68. Veerendra Patil, a protégé of Nijalingappa and a leading Lingayat leader, was chief minister of Karnataka twice: 1968-71 and 1989-90.

7. Reddy Brothers: G. Karunakara Reddy, the eldest of the Reddy brothers of Bellary was an MP from Bellary for a term and is now the Revenue Minister of Karnataka. G. Janardhan Reddy, the second of the three brothers, and Minister for Tourism in Karnataka, is the actual force behind the brothers, who controls not only the political aspects but also their huge mining and other businesses. G. Somashekara Reddy, the youngest of the brothers, is presently an MLA and chairman of the Karnataka Milk Federation, an influential body.

8. D.K. Shivakumar alleged that R.V Deshpande misused the flood relief funds raised by the Congress party.

9. Siddaramaiah, a leader of the Kuruba community, is presently leader of the opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly. Formerly with Janata Dal (S), he was deputy chief minister in the Congress-JD(S) coalition government between May 2004 and Jan.2006. He formally joined Congress after H.D. Kumaraswamy broke away from the Congress coalition and formed a JD(S)-BJP government.

10. In February 2006, after 21 months of a coalition government of Congress-Janata Dal (S) led by Dharam Singh, H.D. Kumaraswamy, the Janata Dal (S) MLA and son of H.D. Deve Gowda, struck a deal with BJP and formed a coalition government. Both parties were to head the government for 20 months each. The government lasted upto October 2007. However, Kumaraswamy refused to hand over power to the BJP after his 20 month term came to an end. President’s rule was imposed for a month, and lifted when Kumaraswamy agreed to back the BJP under the chief ministership of Yeddyurappa. But he withdrew support after a week.

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