As Karnataka votes, the election promises to be in its own right, unique in multiple ways. And according to pollsters, poll pundits and commentators, this election is, to put it bluntly, messy. One could also say, chaotic given what the state witnessed in the run up to and on the actual election campaign trail itself cutting across party lines.
A brief survey of the campaign reveals the picture of a Siddaramaiah-led Congress party engaged in a desperate struggle not merely to retain Karnataka but fighting perhaps its last-ever battle to somehow save itself from imploding into a final extinction. A defeat in Karnataka, its last big state, will truly deal it the death blow ahead of the 2019 General Elections.
The BJP led by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo on the other hand has emerged as almost an invincible election winning machinery with twenty-two states under its belt. Having rewritten the grammar of electoral successes, it shows no sign of fatigue.
The third significant player, the Janata Dal (Secular) led by the father-son duo, HD Deve Gowda and HD Kumaraswamy respectively, has vastly diminished in strength, popularity, messaging, and appeal. Akin to the Congress, the 2018 polls has put the Janata Dal (Secular) in a do-or-die situation.
It is in this backdrop that we can explore some of the major issues that will have a definitive impact on the upcoming elections. At a very high level, these issues can be broadly classified as real versus manufactured issues.
The first of these manufactured issues includes the unnecessary and dangerous move by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to vertically split the Lingayat community for the cynical purpose of splintering the community’s votes, which have solidly remained with the BJP for the last three decades. Apart from the party’s faithful, this move has backfired spectacularly with some powerful Veerashaiva Mathas declaring a “holy war” against the Congress party. Equally, powerful Congress Lingayat leaders like the veteran Davanagere strongman Shamanoor Shivashankarappa openly expressing his outrage against the move.
The second is the Congress Government raking up the Mahadayi River issue, a matter which is currently in the Supreme Court. Instead of offering constructive solutions to end an issue with a commonsense and amicable approach, Siddaramaiah has morphed it into a vote-catching device. To this, he has added a linguistic twist as we shall see.
The third is a whipping up of Kannada chauvinism as contrasted with inclusivity. This has taken the form of public vandalism of the Bangalore Metro by hooligans masquerading as Kannada champions, of declaring compulsory reservation for Kannadigas in private sector jobs, and issuing official fiats that either “bank employees in the state learn Kannada within six months or risk losing their jobs.” These moves have not only damaged the prestige of Bangalore as a truly cosmopolitan city but have scared investors off the city and consequently, the state.
Which brings us to the real issues. Of the flight of capital from the state. As early as in 2015-16, Amazon and Flipkart among other giants bid goodbye to Karnataka citing the lack of a favourable investment climate. The results speak for themselves: in 2016-17, the state’s GSDP fell to 6.9%, and the manufacturing sector declined from 52.1 to 51 on the PMI in 2018.
As though complementing this, the infrastructure of Bangalore is another major issue. The unanimous conclusion cutting across political and ideological divides and spheres of activity is that Bangalore’s urban planning is non-existent and that its infrastructure needs a reboot from scratch. Overflowing drainages, appalling garbage and waste management, traffic snarls, non-existent zoning laws, scams and corruption…the list is nearly endless. This state of affairs despite an enormously wealthy municipal body, the Brihat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and a separate ministry for Bangalore’s urban development.
Tied to bad planning is the problem of chronic and random power shortages and outages. Because Bangalore is the largest contributor to the state’s economy, most of the power is diverted to the city to keep it functioning, thereby plunging the rest of the state in darkness. This has generated outrage across the state especially when people observe Prime Minister Modi’s ambitious plan to electrify the entire nation within 2019. On 28 April 2018, the PM announced that electricity has reached all the villages in India. The dichotomy of Karnataka, one of the more prosperous states, facing power cuts is hard to miss and blame lies on the doorstep of political mismanagement.
In what had never been a serious electoral issue until now, water has entered the fray this poll season. The appropriate term to characterize this issue is: water crisis. A March 2018 report in the BBC claimed that after Cape Town, Bangalore will run out of water by 2022-23. The problem is also compounded by the brazen manner in which lakes have been filled up to make way for large-scale construction projects. Across the state, drought has also contributed to the water crisis. In March 2017, 160 out of 176 taluks were declared drought-hit and agricultural production decreased to half.
Farmers suspended sowing activities for the Kharif and Rabi seasons and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah declared that the state had suffered a crop loss of ₹ 25000 crores. As the campaign trail showed, potential voters came out heavily against the government’s handling of drought and multiple water crises.
These apart, the near-total breakdown in law and order is another significant issue that continues to play a big role in these polls. Specifically, the law and order issue has taken on two dimensions. The first is in the nature of political and ideological murders, and the second is the skyrocketing crime rates, which earned Bangalore the dubious distinction as the second most unsafe city in India.
To be sure, political murders are a first in a state that has no such history. The suspicious deaths of dutybound policemen such as Mallikarjun Bande, Ganapathy, and IAS officer D K Ravi are memories that the electorate will take with them to the polling booth. Equally, the brazen, daylight murders of a whopping twenty-four members belonging to the BJP, RSS and Bajrang Dal by Muslim radicals is a dark chapter that was inaugurated during the Siddaramiah-led Congress regime.
Last but not the least, another prominent issue is the overt communalization of both the government and the administration. Almost since the day Siddaramaiah became Chief Minister, the Congress government embarked on a series of measures directly targeting Hindu institutions and way of life. From the so-called anti-superstition bill, attempts at taking over Hindu temples and Mathas, and unleashing the cow-slaughter mafia, this issue will play a major role in these polls. The aforementioned ploy to vertically split the Lingayat community is an extension of the same device of targeting the Hindus.
Needless, the issues of rampant corruption, pre-university question paper leaks, the public hooliganism of a Congress MLA’s son, the sand and real estate mafia will act as decisive factors on voting day.
The 2018 Karnataka Assembly elections are unique in the sense that the electoral issues have largely been created by the incumbent government than by external and/or uncontrollable factors. Equally, these have also occurred through a combination of a narrow and ideological political vision, mismanagement, nepotism, and corruption. Indeed, when we observe the campaign trail, it’s clear that the principal opposition parties have precisely highlighted these issues for which little has been forthcoming by way of a cogent response from the incumbent government.
In the end, perhaps an even bigger factor is Chief Minister Siddaramaiah himself. By centering the entire Government around his personality for the last five years, Siddaramiah has currently ensured that the elections are also centered around his personality and track record. This is one reason why both the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular) have made it an election of prestige and have targeted him in both the Badami and Chamundeshwari constituencies from where he’s contesting.
To a neutral observer, this election is also about rebooting the fortunes of Karnataka by providing a fresh vision, innovative ideas and models of governance much like Narendra Modi did in the 2014 general elections.
(Sandeep Balakrishna served in the IT industry for over 17 years. He is the author of the bestselling history book “Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore,” and “Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History.” He has translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa’s bestselling Kannada novel “Aavarana” into English as “Aavarana: The Veil,” currently in its eighth reprint. He’s a columnist at various English and Kannada media outlets like Firstpost, DailyO, Pioneer, Mint, Swarajya, Kannada Prabha, Vijaya Vani and Vishwa Vani. He is a contributing editor at Prekshaa Journal.
Sandeep’s articles and books have been quoted and referenced in the BBC, Huffington Post, Daily Beast and Wall Street Journal among others. He is also a Fellow at the Indian Council for Philosophical Research.
He’s currently working on a new book on the history of Ala-ud-din Khilji)