A very different battlefield

Karnataka is poised for the 15th Vidhana Sabha elections across 224 assembly constituencies, comprising diverse districts, driven by agriculture, education, healthcare, industrial, marine, service and trade-related economies that shape its socio-economic profile. Coastal Karnataka, which constitutes 18 assembly constituencies, has three districts, namely Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, with a two-decade track record of periodic caste conflict and communal violence. The region emerged as a saffron stronghold during the 1980s. Endowed with its distinct socio-political dynamics, it has to be viewed differently from the rest of Karnataka. 

The coastal districts are emblematic of diverse cultures and communities, the plurality of identities and ideologies, which co-exist together to share common spaces and values. The multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious context of coastal Karnataka has enabled people to establish relations that transcend caste and community. In a sense, this is due to economic compulsions and social necessities that have led to a nuanced network of relations which reflect values of tolerance, mutual respect and peaceful co-existence. However, such socio-religious harmony has been disturbed over the past three decades with the cocktail of religion and politics manifested through communal and political violence. 

Coastal Karnataka simultaneously witnessed two extraordinary phenomena during the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century. These two mutually complementary developments are the cultural politics of Hindutva and the economic politics of globalisation. Hindutva politics is an amalgam of corporate interests and cultural nationalism which amounts to corporate nationalism. As a result, not only the region’s political geography was decisively remapped but also its social and cultural life.

The rise of religious fundamentalism of all kinds, ever-enlarging and ever-changing trajectory of communal mobilisation and politics, new forms of communal violence and hatred marked by moral policing, onslaughts on minorities, identities and professions in the coastal region are the hallmarks of Hindutva politics. While, unhindered industrialisation, urbanisation and professionalisation of all sectors are the startling features of globalisation in the region. The two developments of Hindutva and globalisation go hand in hand to create a new era of corporatist politics under whose heavyweight, the foundational principles of democratic life suffers severe damage.

The electoral scenario in the region makes for a different reading from that in other parts of Karnataka due to its regional, cultural and social specificities. Today, the major political parties in the election fray in the region are Congress and BJP. The Janata Dal (S) lacks a meaningful political presence. The party is not a home-grown entity with an otherwise strong Vokkaliga orientation that has a political presence in other parts of the state. However, the coastal region has the distinction of fielding a regional party, namely the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). The SDPI, which represents Muslim interests with strong pockets of influence in the region, is likely to prove a political force to reckon with and would work to negate the BJP vote to the extent possible. 

The Congress remained in power till the 1970s, while other political parties, namely the Communists, Socialists, Swatantra Party and Jan Sangh occupied smaller spaces, both in terms of seats and votes. The former enjoyed a pro-people image, vibrant character of its local leadership, ever-expanding social base among the Dalits, minorities, women and other backward classes, besides progressive legislation that it introduced such as land reforms in 1974. 

After the Congress crumbled by the 1980s, the region witnessed a resurgence of Hindutva politics. A political formation which was almost on the fringe of ideological politics in coastal Karnataka suddenly came to the fore and challenged not only the Congress dominance in electoral politics but also severely threatened the region’s democratic and secular fabric. This happened precisely because the Congress had ideologically and politically become a spent force, giving room for Hindutva to emerge as a formidable alternative. 

The rise of Hindutva to political dominance is attributable to a systematic networking of institutions and skilful application of plans and strategies. It is also important to note in this context that Hindutva’s success is not only electoral or political but also in terms of civil society. It was able to produce and reproduce constantly such discourses in civil society that, in turn, manufactured a mute consent in favour of a communal vision of coastal Karnataka. Therefore, communalism in the coastal region is not only an articulate ideological perspective but also inarticulate and mute civil society consent.

Given the predominant presence of Hindutva as a civil society ideology and globalisation as an economic agenda in coastal Karnataka, what do the elections signify? Today, the electoral hustings are fought not as a mechanism or process to choose alternatives in democratic politics. Instead, they are seen as contestations across different business establishments. Political parties are no longer vehicles of ideologies and aspirations. They are platforms to pursue self-interest, whether individual or communal. Hence, calculations and manipulations are in place. Political parties from the Right to the Left have completely abandoned normatively anchored or ideologically informed battles for political dominance. Perhaps such is the case with elections everywhere. 

To that extent, the voter has no real alternative. The Congress might hope to repeat its 2013 performance. The BJP is all set to recapture its hold which it lost during the 2013 elections. It was able to recover lost ground to some extent during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. However, all these do not make much sense due to the contemporary perplexities of the region. The hard choice or no real choice before the voter is between the BJP’s corporate nationalism and corporate liberalism of the Congress.The electoral contestation between the two political giants in the region looks fierce and formidable with a lot of electoral rhetoric, but deep down it is ideologically empty.

(The writer is Professor, Department of Political Science, Mangalore University, Mangaluru) 

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