Thanks to the media, ‘Karnataka goes to polls’ sounds or reads like ‘India goes to war’.
Thanks to the media, ‘Karnataka goes to polls’ sounds or reads like ‘India goes to war’. Characteristically, Mr Narendra Modi will address 15 rallies in five days. No Prime Minister before has pushed himself/herself to the frontline of election battles in states as Mr Modi has done. It is the strategy of a high-stakes gambler. The strategy paid huge dividends in Uttar Pradesh where the BJP was the challenger to the incumbent party (Samajwadi Party) and to the previous incumbent party (BSP). That Mr Modi had been elected to the Lok Sabha from Varanasi, that he spoke Hindi, and that his party was able to provoke communal conflicts were helpful factors.
Karnataka not Gujarat
The strategy came perilously close to failure in Gujarat. Mr Modi’s last-hour plea to save the honour of a fellow Gujarati bailed his party out and the BJP limped past the finish line with a slim majority of seven seats. The strategy is being tried again in Karnataka.
In Gujarat, the BJP and its government controlled the election narrative, in Karnataka the Congress and its government do. In Gujarat, Mr Modi was the ‘native son’, in Gujarat Mr Siddaramaiah is. In Gujarat, Mr Modi spoke in Gujarati, in Karnataka Mr Modi is constrained to speak through a translator. In Gujarat, the face of the BJP that sought another term was Mr Modi (and no one was projected as the next chief minister), in Karnataka the face of the BJP is Mr Yeddyurappa. In Gujarat, the BJP was able to polarise a section of the population, in Karnataka its attempts on this behalf (e.g. in South Karnataka) have failed so far.
The Congress government in Karnataka was formed in May 2013. The Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) in constant prices was Rs 6,43,292 crore in 2012-13. It increased to `9,49,111 crore in 2017-18. Real GSDP growth was over 8% a year. The average resident of Karnataka is richer: per capita income, in current prices, jumped from Rs 77,309 to Rs 1,74,551 during the same period, a growth of over 125%. In comparison, the per capita income of the whole country increased by about 59%. Unemployment (April 2018) in Karnataka is among the lowest for all the states, at 2.6% (Gujarat 5.0, India 5.9).
Mr Siddaramaiah has been able to push growth by keeping the tax to GSDP ratio practically constant (average of 9.5%) and using the fiscal deficit (FD) limit of 3% to borrow more and invest and spend more. During the five years, the average FD was 2.26% and the average revenue surplus was 0.08%. Social sector expenditure has been consistently over 40% of total expenditure. The benefits are visible, for example, in the fall in infant mortality rate, increase in electricity consumption, and rise in the number of new projects announced.
Mr Siddaramaiah has also played his political cards cleverly. By calling the JD(S) the B-team of the BJP, he has split the opposition votes. The label has stuck to Mr Kumaraswamy. By stressing on the use of Kannada language (and opposing the use of Hindi), he has blunted the effect of the oratory of Mr Modi. Every Hindi speech of Mr Modi is viewed by a section of the people as imposition of Hindi! By supporting the demand to recognise the Lingayats as a minority, he has split a reliable vote bank of the BJP. Every Lingayat vote that shifts from the BJP to the Congress has a value of two!
Will Karnataka Push Back?
There are still six days to polling. The Congress government must maintain communal harmony and peace in those crucial days. The Election Commission must not feign helplessness in curbing the distribution of money (as it did in Tamil Nadu in 2016). Mr Siddaramaiah must prove that his decision to contest from two seats did not prevent him from campaigning vigorously for the maximum number of Congress candidates. Above all, he must keep the focus on 2 Reddys + 1 Yeddy — a slogan gifted by Mr Modi!
This time the BJP is not boasting of a victory. It is placing its bet on preventing an absolute majority for the Congress and joining hands with the JD(S) to form the government. For the BJP, that is a paid for and proven formula (Manipur,
Karnataka is a great opportunity for the voters who are concerned about the slide in the governance of the country. Among them are the Dalits, the minorities, women, and the liberal and secular, but proud, Hindus. Among them are those who were worst affected by demonetisation and those who continue to be affected by a flawed GST. Among them are the first-time voters of 2014 who were lured by the promise of jobs and were thoroughly disillusioned when told to ‘go and fry pakoras’. Will they push back against a growing political culture of ignorance, intolerance, bigotry and violence, and the willingness of the BJP’s leadership to ‘normalise’ such behaviour? Intuitively, I think those voters constitute the majority, but that will be known only on May 15, 2018.
The stakes are low for the JD(S), high for the Congress, and highest for the BJP.
Whatever be the result, it will cast a long shadow until May 2019.