Deep inside Gulbarga district, in a village between Wadi and Rawoor, Girappa and Basappa, father and son and dual owners of a kirana shop, are engaged in a sparring match. Old man Girappa, attired in his traditional dhoti-kurta and turban, speaks with the charmingly petulant conviction of age. Closing his eyes, as if to an advancing new reality, he declaims that his vote is for the grand old party -- that which “always wins here”!
Rudely interrupting him from the other end of the shop, shoving aside rows of colourful tobacco, shampoo and washing powder packets strung in front the shop, Basappa pops in his head. “Don’t listen to my father, he knows nothing. We’re Lingayat, and we’ll vote for the BJP.” A shrill battle of words ensues between the two -- the election well could have been between the two! -- and ends with the father declaring in a resigned tone, “How does it matter if Basappa is my son, he can go wherever he wants!”
This could be the zoom-in microcosmic portrait of the elections in North Karnataka -- the tussle over the Lingayat vote. Its consolidation is something the BJP has worked hard for in this election -- its unity is what had been the bulwark for the party in its earlier wins too. Ever since their fellow caste man B.S. Yeddyurappa’s emergence, the Lingayats have leant towards the BJP in a big way. Siddaramaiah’s gambit of dividing the Veershaiva-Lingayat community by according them a separate identity is alleged to have been a non-starter in the last assembly elections -- it certainly created bad blood. Maybe there’s a counter-narrative, but it’s not audible. No one is uttering even a word on it this time round. Even the muttadhipatis have retired into their spiritual sanctuaries, away from the rough and tumble of elections. No visits from Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi to Anubhava Mantapa, Bidar, unlike in 2018.
Karnataka is perhaps the only state in the country where the regional nomenclature carries the stamp of other states -- the North is divided between ‘Bombay Karnataka’ and ‘Hyderabad Karnataka’ -- a reminder of old historical maps. Gulbarga (or Kalaburagi), the heart of Hyderabad Karnataka, was once part of the Nizam’s dominions. Its distinct ethnic flavours mean a mere consolidation of the Lingayat vote will not suffice to deliver the North to the BJP. The party is aware of that and is therefore working to penetrate other, smaller caste and regional vote-blocs -- like the Marathas in the Bidar-Belgaum belt as also Brahmin and Rathore votes.
The effects of the strategy are visible on the ground, from the roadside tea-stalls to the village chaupals. Mahesh Kulkarni, who like many other farmers in his village grows mostly toor dal and chickpeas (this is India’s pulse belt), is a Maratha who has been assimilated into Karnataka’s polyglottic landscape.
As for his vote, Mahesh has little doubt that he and the rest of his village is voting for Modi. No matter how inefficient the BJP candidate has been, “Our vote is for nationalism,” he notes, adding that “Modi is international now!” Whatever that means -- perhaps that the PM has managed to get international attention to the India-Pakistan problem through the air strikes. No matter how much Yashwant Sinha grimaces in his interviews about how Modi’s foreign policy has taken India back to the stage where it’s again fated to live a hyphenated existence with Pakistan on the global stage, the voters on the ground think otherwise.
That’s not all. It’s surprising to see young or middle-aged voters in the villages and qasbas of the rural north of Karnataka agitatedly discussing the ‘tukde tukde gang of JNU’! Kanhaiya Kumar may or may not win his elections in Begusarai, Bihar, but he has managed to galvanise opinion in these tiny villages thousands of kilometres away. “How could the Congress support such elements in JNU?” asks a BSc undergrad student. There are also those like Prabhas Kumar, also a Maratha, who interjects, “Don’t believe what these people are saying, when they vote it’ll be different.”
No animosity is visible, prima facie. At a tea-stall in Bidar, Lingayats and Muslims and backward caste folks sit together and ask sagely, “Did you notice the Modi factor?” They laughingly add that North Karnataka may be catching the fever five years late! North Karnataka indeed has its unique dynamics. The BJP did its best in 2009 when Yeddyurappa was the CM. Despite the Modi wave of 2014, it actually slid from its 2009 showing and the Congress picked up more seats. But admittedly, GOP veterans like Mallikarjun Kharge have had to sweat it out far more this time compared to 2014 -- the wave indeed seems to have arrived five years later.
The BJP’s Karnataka state in-charge, Muralidhar Rao, takes credit for the party strategy that kept the Congress and JD(S) stalwarts restricted to their respective prestige fights. “We ensured that Kharge -- who’s the Congress’s tallest leader (from the Scheduled Caste segment) -- could not step out of Kalaburagi even once to try and harness Dalit sentiments in favour of the party elsewhere in the state. Similarly, Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy remained tied to Mandya, Hassan and Tumkur. And Siddaramaiah mostly to Mysore. Whereas our BSY was free to campaign all across the state.”
Rao claims the Congrees-JD(S) coalition arithmetic was what spoilt their campaign chemistry, not allowing synergies to develop. “On the ground, the workers of the two parties could not bury their traditional rivalry, and joined us in large numbers both in south and north Karnataka. Added to the Modi factor in this state -- it’s playing out differently in different states -- this was a bonanza for us,” Rao adds.
But that’s the upbeat story from the BJP perspective, not necessarily shared by those viewing it from the other side of the room. In seats like Uttara Kannada, Davangere, Koppal – all in the north, which the BJP treats as its stronghold – JD(S) candidates acted as a spoiler for the Congress, with their votes exceeding the vote differential between the BJP and the Congress.
The coalition has ensured that in the second phase at least, it’s a straight fight between the Congress and the BJP. So the degree of desperation in some ways has been lesser than in the south, where the top leadership of the GOP had to rally behind the coalition partners to give them face-saving wins in their prestige fights. Plus, the Vokkaliga-Lingayat dichotomy of Karnataka politics was better handled through the prism of coalition. “It allowed us to field our Lingayat candidates in some constituencies in the north, leaving it to Siddaramaiah’s Kuruba and AHINDA (OBC, Muslim, Dalit) equation to play out in the south, and the Li-AHINDA (breakaway Lingayat and AHINDA) to pay some dividends in the North,” says K.C. Venugopal, Congress in-charge of Karnataka.
Free poaching on each other’s candidates by the two parties has also resulted in a bit of confusion among voters, some of whom decry the fact that no political party has actually addressed the issue of concern in these arid zones -- the water crisis, the drought, delayed project implementation. Curiously, employment is not such a big issue for Karnataka youth, who can still hope to swing “something in the IT sector”. Nor the GST rigmarole. “Unlike the north, we in southern India prefer to live by rules, however tough they are,” says a motorcycle showroom owner from Mysore, on his train ride back from Sholapur.
Karnataka is the only southern state where the BJP hopes to post a handsome win, maximising the 28 seats on offer, offsetting whatever losses it faces elsewhere. For the Congress, it is not just about a prestige fight in a few seats. It is about existential questions -- that too in a state into which Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi could walk any day and win an election!