What made Karnataka's citizens vote like they did?

What made Karnataka's citizens vote like they did?

Women stand in Queue to exercise their franchise for Assembly Election at Korahalli village in Aland taluk in Kalaburagi District on Saturday. - Photo/ Prashanth HG

After having traversed over 1,200 km over six days across as many districts of Karnataka, I will not be hazarding a guess on who will win how many seats in the Assembly elections. Rather, there are various trends and behaviours that were observed from across the state. Here’s a summary of what we found:

“Kaleda aidu varshadalli tumba kelasa aagide” (There’s been a lot of work done over the last five years): We heard this consistently across the six districts we traversed — Hassan, Chikkamagaluru, Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Uttara Kannada and Shivamogga. People, regardless of their political affiliations, believe that there has been a good deal of work done by the incumbent government — local infrastructure, economic development, food security and so on.

This is perhaps one of the prime reasons for the lack of a palpable anti-incumbency wave across Karnataka, which has been observed here since 1990s. But, the state’s electorate has a reputation of being politically more aware than others and hence, it is harder to persuade voters to give the incumbent government a second term in office.

“Rs 15 lakh in our bank accounts”: PM Narendra Modi’s 2014 poll promise of bringing back huge amounts of black money allegedly stashed abroad, and transferring Rs 15 lakh to each Indian had apparently captured attention. And while it might have been a tall claim, some citizens are disappointed with Modi that this has not happened yet. It has dented his political credibility to some extent and people are now wary of even some less fanciful promises.

“Modi, Modi!”: There’s no missing the larger than life image of the prime minister. Modi’s personal popularity as the BJP’s star campaigner seems to have resonated with Karnataka’s voters. Let me share the bird’s eye view and the worm’s eye view with the help of two anecdotes. Firstly, Modi’s Chikkamagaluru rally, which was attended by at least 30,000 people, had the distinct feeling of a rock concert. The PM showed up, drove the crowd wild with hysteria and proceeded to the two other rallies he was addressing that day in Belagavi and Bidar, having already done a similar number in Bangarpet earlier. The style, timing and scale of Modi’s rallies tell us that he’s got quite a bit of gas left in the tank, coupled with a large engine to drive the BJP’s juggernaut towards the 2019 general elections.

Secondly, at a small eatery in Sagara constituency, in Shivamogga District of former chief minister and current CM candidate, B S Yeddyurappa, a young woman was having thindi after casting her vote. She said she had voted for the BJP, not because of Yeddyurappa, whom she doesn’t have faith in anymore, nor for the party’s candidate, H Halappa. She “voted for Modi” because she believed he’s been good for the country for the last four years.

• There’s been a higher voter turnout than last time despite the conspicuous lack of outdoor media like buntings, banners and pamphlets, which shows the greater role media and technology are playing. Traditionally, elections in India have always been accompanied by noise, pomp and show, including, powerful visual elements like giant cut-outs of star candidates. However, this election has been rather “silent” on that count.

It has largely been fought through advertising in newspapers and television channels, and perhaps even more so through social media like WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. This is an indication of the maturity of our democracy, because, as my travelling companion astutely observed, “If you were a foreigner and were passing through, you might not have known that there was an election taking place here.”

• Hard-line religious posturing is mainstream, especially in Coastal Karnataka — there seems to be a feeling of insecurity among most Hindus. This has emerged from the belief that Siddaramaiah’s government pandered too much to Muslims and minorities. When we spoke to people across the region on the appeasement of Muslims, the supposed killings of 24 Hindus (even though there have been media reports to the contrary), the fear that the Muslim population will exceed that of Hindus and no safety for Hindus, emerged as the main reasons for the popularity of Hindutva.

“Earlier our party and party workers never spoke of Hindutva. Now society speaks of it,” said K S Eshwarappa, BJP candidate from Shimoga City, who explained the rise of Hindutva as an electoral issue in Karnataka. Coastal Karnataka earned the sobriquet “laboratory of Hindutva” some years ago for things like 'love jihad' and that remains a reality during this election. DH’s Kundapur reporter, who happens to be a middle-aged Hindu, explained this to us well: “Now people think a second time before inviting someone for a meal or function. When we grew up, there was no such feeling. We used to eat biryani at our Muslim friends’ houses.”

• Tipu Jayanti: Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s pet venture to mark the birthday of Tipu Sultan, former ruler of the erstwhile Kingdom of Mysore has caused heartburn with conservative Hindus. “Idu bekagitta?” (Did we need this?) was how an upper caste businessman in Udupi characterised this move by the government.

• The JDS, lead by its CM candidate HD Kumaraswamy, looks very solid in the Old Mysore region of Karnataka, with voters coalescing around its leaders in their bastion. A brief encounter with Kumaraswamy at a school field outside Channarayapatna, where he arrived and took off in a helicopter, a long chat with his brother Revanna in Holenarsipur, the volume of advertising by the regional party, and multiple discussions with party insiders, has showed that its campaign had deep pockets. We also learned that internal rumblings within the Deve Gowda family could see the party splitting, depending on the results.

• In many places, ordinary Kannadigas were not enthused with the nature of the language used in this campaign. They want a more decent campaign and leaders who speak with sophistry and decency, the qualities that are identified as being a good Kannadiga. Icons like the late film star Rajkumar and former Indian cricket captains Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid have already set the bar for behaviour in public life, albeit in other fields. It could be hazardous to stray from these and adopt a more aggressive tone while appealing to simple Kannadigas.

• Siddaramiah’s Anna Bhagya (up to seven kilograms of free foodgrains for families) has been a bumper hit. There is gratitude for this flagship scheme among rural people. The state’s effort to end hunger has been taken seriously. It’s also been a major confidence booster for Siddaramaiah, who sees himself as a social justice reformer.

• Lastly, there was no wave in this election — against or for any party. This is a strongly fought, yet silent election, with undercurrents that will reveal themselves in Tuesday’s results.