Elections

Battleground Karnataka: Caste Politics, Water Scarcity And ‘Fund Injustice’ Tussle Among Issues Shaping Polls This Year

Karnataka has never seen the same voting pattern in the Assembly Elections and General Elections – and hence, the result will serve as a litmus test for the current government, a fight for survival for JD(S) and a crucial contest for BJP that is looking to re-open a gateway to the south.

PTI
BJP candidate Yaduveer KC Wadiyar from Mysuru constituency with Karnataka BJP Chief B Y Vijayendra and JD(S) chief HD Kumaraswamy during a roadshow ahead of Lok Sabha polls, in Mysuru Photo: PTI
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Introduction

A high-pitched battle awaits as we inch closer to the 2024 Lok Sabha election scheduled to be held in seven phases from April 19 to June 1. The last five years, BJP-led National Democratic Alliance's second term, saw a series of civil protests, political cross-firings and constitutional debates. At Outlook, we are closely tracking the developments and bringing to you exclusive stories, ground reports and in-depth analysis of the state-wise electoral scenario, focusing on regional parties, their journeys in recent years and how it will play out at a national level.

Today, we are looking at Karnataka, a state which sends 28 MPs to the Lok Sabha. The Bharatiya Janata Party which has forged an alliance with regional Janata Dal (Secular) will be looking to better its 2019 performance of 25 seats. Meanwhile, the state incumbent Congress would hope to replicate its success in the 2023 Karnataka assembly elections, where it recorded its biggest win in over three decades

It’s not just summer that is heating up in Karnataka with temperatures breaking record numbers, but the electoral battle too with both the BJP-JD(S) combine and Congress finalising their list of candidates for 28 constituencies. The state will be going to polls for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in two phases: April 26 and May 7. Although the election in the state will largely be bipolar, the contest is being seen as a do or die battle for both sides: Congress has seen a gradual decline in seat share since 1989; BJP – which set out its ‘mission 400 par’ for this year – won its highest ever tally of seats in southern India in this state (in 2019 elections). 

The state politics has largely been influenced by local and regional issues, caste arithmetic of Vokkaligas and Lingayats, populist schemes and historical alliances. The state has never noted a same voting pattern in the Assembly Elections and General Elections – and hence, the result on June 4 will serve as a litmus test for the current government, a fight for survival for JD(S) and a crucial contest for BJP that is looking to re-open a gateway to the south.

Here’s a brief look at some of the major poll planks shaping elections this year:

Caste affiliations

The continued support of Lingayats and Vokkaligas has been crucial for any party’s electoral performance in the state. While Vokkaligas are traditionally associated with farming and are largely concentrated in South Karnataka, the Lingayats are mostly situated in North Karnataka. In the previous general elections, BJP performed well in both the belts, however, the turning point came in the 2023 assembly elections. The Vokkaligas, Lingayats and AHINDA (a Kannada acronym for the conglomerate of minorities, backward classes, and Dalits), rallied behind the Congress which cost the incumbent BJP government heavily. The stepping down of Karnataka BJP stalwart BS Yediyurappa, who was known as a unifying force for the Lingayat community, and refusal to give ticket to former CM Jagadish Shettar were some reasons that were attributed to BJP’s loss. Shettar has since then re-joined the BJP.

The importance of these castes could also be seen in the candidates fielded by different parties in the state. Of the 28 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP has fielded nine Lingayats, four Vokkaligas, three Brahmins and OBCs each. The Congress has fielded seven Vokkaligas, five Lingayats and six OBCs.

Lingayats constitute 17 per cent of Karnataka’s population followed by Vokkaligas at 15 per cent, Muslims at 12.92 per cent and Brahmins at three per cent. The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) are believed to form 35 per cent of the state’s population while the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) account for about 18 per cent. However, the official numbers can only be determined when the findings from the socio-economic and education survey that was commissioned in 2015 are released. The report was recently submitted to CM Siddaramaiah by Jayaprakash Hegde, the then chairman of the Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes (KSCBC). 

However, the report is yet to be made public amid apprehensions that the survey would instead show the Scheduled Castes as the largest community, followed by the Muslims, and then come Lingayats and Vokkaligas – effectively reversing the dominant discourse over the last few decades and stripping the Vokkaligas and Lingayats of their welfare benefits. Both the communities have criticised the said report and demanded that it be scrapped. 

Water scarcity

Local issues have always taken precedence during elections in the state – be it assembly elections or general elections. This time, as the poll season heats up, the state has been parallelly facing an acute water crisis owing to lack of rainfall, depleting groundwater, inadequate infrastructural planning, and the influence of water tanker operations. 

The issue has taken a political turn with the BJP accusing the Congress government in Karnataka of giving Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu, where the party is in an alliance with the DMK. The construction of the Mekedatu project, which is a multipurpose balancing reservoir project at the confluence of the Cauvery river and its tributary Arkavathi river, has been a contentious matter between both states for years. While former Prime Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) supremo H.D Devegowda said that his party’s manifesto will include the implementation of the Mekedatu project, Congress’s DK Shivakumar too reiterated that he has taken the irrigation portfolio mainly to ensure that the Mekedatu project is implemented.

The party has been alleging that the Central government has been indifferent towards Karnataka in giving the state its due share and has not provided the assistance it had requested to tackle drought in many parts of the state.

Hindutva politics

The BJP-led NDA has set its target of winning 400 Lok Sabha seats this time – a feat that would be difficult to achieve if the South Indian states, especially Karnataka where the party has made significant gains, don’t rally behind the party. 

While the saffron party will try to electorally capitalise on the construction of the new Ram Mandir especially in the Hindi-heartland states, analysts warn that the event could also bolster the party’s influence in the southern states as well. Karnataka’s coastal belt, which is often referred to as the ‘Hindutva laboratory’ of the state, has been at the centre of overtly communal activities – a trend that hasn’t changed since the early 1990s. Despite Congress’ victory in the state last year, the BJP won or secured significant leads in the three coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada, Uttara Kannada, and Udupi. For the upcoming elections, BJP appears confident of winning in these regions again.

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Although the party’s hardline Hindutva push might not have worked in the assembly elections, will the party push a similar narrative again? For example, in a major change, the party dropped Anant Kumar Hegde, a five-time MP from Uttara Kannada, who has made headlines recently for claiming that BJP will ‘amend constitution’ if it wins 400 seats, rose to politics in the late 1990s during the Ram Mandir movement. He also recently called for ‘demolitions’ of several mosques in the state which he alleged were built on temples. “Until they are demolished, the Hindu community will not sit idly,” he said. Whether this indicates a change in the party’s strategy or not will only be more evident in the coming weeks as campaigning heats up in the state.

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