A tough, bitter contest

KARNATAKA ELECTIONS

The Assembly elections in Karnataka is a battle, the outcome of which, will have far reaching consequences for state and national politics. A victory for the Congress will result in Siddaramaiah becoming the unquestioned leader of the OBCs in the state, next only to the late Devaraj Urs. It will give a boost to the Congress leadership at the national level to aggressively face the elections due later in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and more importantly, the Lok Sabha elections next May. A defeat would demoralise the leaders and the morale of party workers. A victory for the BJP would certainly strengthen its southern push, fight the other elections confidently and prove yet again that Narendra Modi is the one who can deliver victories.

However, there are a few concerns about the choice of candidates. It is sad that the parties have gone solely by the principle of “winnability” and caste background of the candidates rather than their performance and capabilities. This aspect was admitted by a senior member of the Congress when he said: “It is true, giving tickets to candidates based on their caste is a breach of our commitment to the secular values, and we are sorry for doing so, but winnability is a very important criterion when it comes to choosing candidates for election.”

Going by media reports, the Congress has given 49 tickets to Lingayats, 46 to Vokkaligas, 35 and 17 to the SCs and STs, respectively, as per reservation of the constituencies for the category and 45+ tickets to the OBCs, out of which 17 went to Kurubas, the community to which Siddaramaiah belongs.

The BJP has given 68 tickets to the Lingayats and 38 to Vokkaligas, the two communities which have dominated state politics since 1952. Interestingly, the Congress gave 45 tickets each to Lingayat and Vokkaliga candidates, which was incidentally the same number of tickets given by Devaraj Urs in 1972. It is worth recalling that between 1957 and 2013, the Lingayats won 73 seats in 1957, and 70 in 1967, hovering around 55 seats in between, which dropped to 50 in 2013, their lowest. Vokkaligas have won 57 to 53 seats between 1957 and 2013. Needless to say, the two communities have dominated the state Assembly and politics quite disproportionately to their population, which together hovers around 27%.

No wonder, Jayaprakash Narayan, the founder of the Lok Satta party, once said, “Caste is the biggest party in India.” Another disappointing feature is the criminal background of the candidates. According to the Association For Democratic Rights (ADR), out of the 154 candidates who filed their affidavits in the first few days of filing of nominations, 30 candidates with criminal background are re-contesting the election, out of whom 19 have serious criminal cases against them.

In the Congress, out of the 148 who filed their nominations, 48 of them are re-contesting. Of them, 23 have serious criminal cases against them. As for the JD(S), the figure stands at nine with serious criminal cases out of the 17 re-contesting candidates. If we add to this the tickets given by the BJP and the Congress to persons with cases against them, including the infamous Ballari mining cases, the picture of the enormous disregard shown by the major parties to the sensitivities of the voters becomes more glaring. It deserves total condemnation.

Let us turn to the importance of manifestos in elections. Ideally, political parties should come up with their manifestos well in advance after preparing them with extensive consultations with citizens and experts. It is also important that the candidates become familiar with their party manifestos and appraise the voters of their constituencies in their campaign speeches. But, in reality, seldom do such things happen. It is a good thing that the Congress and the BJP have come up with general and region-specific manifestos, but they have been released very late in the day, which shows the rather casual manner in which they treat the importance of manifestos.

As for the campaign, instead of focusing on issues like agricultural distress resulting in farmer suicides, unemployment, price rise, power and water scarcity, expanding educational opportunities, healthcare, inclusive development, traffic and garbage mess in Bengaluru, the top leaders of the BJP, Congress and the JD(S) are making it a personality-driven contest. They are criticising their political rivals rather than highlighting the issues. The campaign discourse has deteriorated to mud-slinging matches, devoid of parliamentary decorum, adding to citizens’ disdain of politicians.

Building an egalitarian, just and a tolerant society is a paramount requirement to which parties do not even pay lip sympathy these days. The aggressive manner in which the leaders of the Congress, the BJP and the JD(S) are campaigning, the contest is truly tough and bitter.

As for the outcome of the elections, in a loosely triangular contest that we are witness to, to recall Winston Churchill’s words, “It is notoriously dangerous to predict the outcome of elections.” A fractured mandate cannot be ruled out, though expectedly, the Congress, the BJP and the JD(s) are talking of forming a government on their own. It is quite possible that the votes of the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, along with those of the SC, STs and OBCs, to a lesser extent, are going to be divided, depending on caste loyalties and other factors.

The votes of the youth and women are likely to be crucial this time. Surveys and predictions notwithstanding, it is difficult to be categorical about the outcome, more so because voters in Karnataka have voted different parties to the state Assembly and the Lok Sabha in the past.

(The writer is a former professor of Political Science, Bangalore University, and is at present a senior fellow, ICSSR)

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