Karnataka could well throw up a fractured verdict, writes Rajdeep Sardesai
Karnataka is, arguably, India’s most beautiful state, blessed with a rich natural diversity. Unfortunately, Karnataka’s politics is in sharp contrast to its scenic beauty. Politics is not pretty in any part of the country but in Karnataka, it has become particularly ugly and debased. Just one look at the options before the voters in 2018 and there should be little surprise that the Karnataka Political League (KPL) isn’t anywhere close to attracting the crowds that flock to the Chinnaswamy stadium to cheer Virat Kohli, De Villiers and Co.
Take the three principal chief ministerial contenders. The Congress’s incumbent chief minister Siddaramaiah takes great pride in the fact that he has provided Karnataka with a stable five year government while conveniently forgetting that it took him almost four years to wake up to the reality that he was actually the man in charge. In the last year, he has suddenly become an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like man of action, announcing a series of pro-poor and farmer-friendly schemes. It is almost as if the lure of re-election and a grim reminder of the state’s history of anti-incumbency has forced him out of a prolonged stupor and revived the Congress.
The BJP’s face, BS Yeddyurappa, is also struggling to rediscover the elixir of eternal youth at an age when his party threatens anyone more than 75 years with a ‘Margdarshak mandal’ voluntary retirement scheme. Ten years ago, he had swept to power as the leader of the BJP’s first majority government in the south. The mandate was grossly abused: in five years, the BJP threw up three chief ministers, while Yeddyurappa himself went to jail after a Lok Ayukta indictment. That he is back as the party’s mascot only reveals the BJP’s dependence on the numerically powerful Lingayat community and the fear that a rebellious Yeddyurappa is far more dangerous than a fatigued lion in winter.
The third visible contender for the top post, HD Kumaraswamy, is his father’s son, and as long as the indefatigable political warhorse Deve Gowda is around, he and the Janata Dal (Secular) remain in the power game. There is nothing really ‘secular’ about the JD (S) any longer: it remains one of the many emasculated offsprings of the original Janata party experiment that has long since lost its way, a single Vokkaliga caste, family-run transactional enterprise which has a track record of cutting deals with the highest bidder.
But it isn’t just the lack of inspiring chief ministerial options that makes Karnataka’s political outlook so depressing. Just take a look at the brazenly immoral behaviour of all the principal teams. The BJP has been rightly targeted for the manner in which it has brought the Bellary Reddy family mining barons back into the party fold. The very political robber barons who were accused in a multi-crore mining scam that precipitated the BJP’s downfall in the previous government are now back in business, making a mockery of the prime minister’s claims of having zero tolerance to corruption.
If the return of the tainted mining kings exposes the moral bankruptcy of Karnataka’s politics, then the manner in which the Lingayat caste card has been used only reveals the ideological vacuum in which cynical politics plays out. When the chief minister suddenly on the eve of the elections proposes minority status for Lingayats, he hasn’t overnight discovered the values of the 12th century reformer-philosopher Basavanna. Instead, Siddaramiah, on old-style socialist warrior, is only practising unashamed divide and rule politics in an attempt to spread confusion within the BJP’s core vote base.
Indeed, the manner in which every Karnataka and national politician has sought to assiduously woo the swamis from various mathas and peethas is possibly a recognition that the men of religion carry greater credibility than the state’s politicians. Which is also perhaps why Karnataka could well throw up the intriguing prospect of a fractured verdict. If there is no single pan-Karnataka narrative and no single towering leader who is trusted by all, then the ever-sharpening regional and caste divides suggest that the state’s polity resembles a cracked mirror. Which is why Karnataka could well see a ‘super over’ where voter turnout could make all the difference as to who eventually comes out on top in the KPL.
It might also explain why the queues outside Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy’s residence are the longest at the moment. After all, when the political future is uncertain, it’s the kingmakers who matter more than the men who would be kings.
Post-script: Unlike a UP and a Bihar, where everyone has an opinion on electoral fortunes, Kannadigas tend to be more reserved. Till I meet a mithai shop owner in Hubballi who gives me a classic one-liner: ‘Politics in our state is 20-20; you need 20 crores to fight an election and 20 MLAs after the election to decide who will be CM!’
Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author.
The views expressed are personal