Here is an oddity that has not received the attention it deserves: In last month’s voting, the south broke from the rest of India—and Karnataka broke from the rest of the south. What made Karnataka go out of step with Telangana, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala? Dravidian roots are common to all of them, yet one stands apart. What explains this exceptionality?
Not that all southern states have a unitary approach to life. They are as different in their politics as they are in their food. The Dravidian sentiment became decisive only in Tamil Nadu, where titans such as K Kamaraj and C Rajagopalachari were made irrelevant by C N Annadurai and M Karunanidhi. It continues to remain strong as can be seen from the unpopularity the ruling AIADMK has acquired following its collaboration with the BJP.
Telugu atmagauravam became a shaper of history twice, first when Potti Sriramulu sacrificed himself for the creation of a linguistic state, and again when Rajiv Gandhi’s public humiliation of former chief minister T Anjaiah led to N T Rama Rao’s ascendance and the elimination of the Congress. Later, the personal ambitions of K Chandrashekar Rao led to the bifurcation of the Telugu state. In both halves, however, local sentiment prevailed supreme and the Congress was shut out.
In Kerala, the narrative took a unique course because it is the only state where the Left has a place. A see-saw between the Left Front led by the CPM and the United Front led by the Congress became its game. But, as with Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Telangana, it gave no opening to the BJP, which was seen as an outsider.
Karnataka alone let the BJP become an insider. It would be a mistake to argue that this was because the people in Karnataka were communally disposed. Kannada represents an advanced culture nourished by towering thinkers, writers and artistes who soared above narrow partisanship of any kind. On the other hand, verifiable evidence suggests that two politicians provided political space into which an outlier could step in—a foolish Rajiv Gandhi and a selfish H D Deve Gowda.
Learning nothing from the way he alienated Telugus en masse in 1982, the haughty Rajiv Gandhi summarily dismissed Karnataka Chief Minister Veerendra Patil in 1990. The entire Lingayat community, 20 per cent of the population, felt the insult and turned against the Congress. In the election four years later, the Congress was reduced to 36 seats (from 179). Although the Janata Dal was the immediate beneficiary, the BJP gained the most, raising its vote share from 4 per cent to 17 per cent.
Lingayats have remained the BJP’s strongest base ever since.
Deve Gowda’s contribution to the growth of the BJP was a consequence of his being the greatest dynast of India. Indira Gandhi turned a dynast because of her insecurity complex; she thought she could trust only her sons and her personal secretaries. Deve Gowda turned a dynast because of his love for his family and his conviction that his sons and grandsons were born to lead Karnataka to glory. He equated the advancement of the state and the country with the advancement of himself and of H D Kumaraswamy, H D Revanna, and grandsons Prajwal and Nikhil. He told a press conference that he was pained by allegations that he was a dynast, then proceeded, along with Revanna and Prajwal, to cry before cameras.
To some extent Kumaraswamy was acceptable to the people because he proved to be a reasonable politician capable of mixing with leaders of different persuasions. Revanna was something else. As minister, he travelled 170 km from his home in Holenarasipur to his office in Bangalore every morning and all the way back in the evening, six hours in all, because his astrologer told him that if he stayed in Bangalore overnight, the government would fall.
When Deve Gowda’s inability to see anything beyond his family was added to Congress’s loss of credibility, a vacuum evolved in Karnataka’s political space. The BJP still could not just walk into it; trickery had to be employed. It was ready to do anything because the opportunity was too good to be missed. It enlisted barons from Bellary notorious for violations of mining laws. It pretended not to notice when its handpicked chief minister was jailed on corruption charges. Power was its own justification and the BJP was not to be found wanting. In other states, alternatives were available to replace the offender. In Karnataka, the alternative itself became the offender. As always, luck favoured the lucky.