When the campaign in Karnataka reached its crescendo, PM Modi in his speech made a bizarre claim that the ‘Vokkaligas’ caste had killed Tipu Sultan. Factious as it may sound, the claim triggered a protest from the Vokkalingas community. This factious tale which did not exist in the popular culture turned heads, and with a smile laughed at the Gujarati banya who was teaching the Kandigas their piece of history.
Swiftly, the premier religious leader of Vokkaligas’ Sri Adichunchanagiri Swamiji, rubbished the PM’s claim saying there is only gas and no substance in this gossip.
Another, hara-kiri PM Modi did was to give a call to the voters to say “Jai Bajrang Bali” while casting their ballots in the elections. This left the voters baffled as they did not know what does it mean in the voting sense.
The "Jai Bajrang Bali" war cry, mostly used to lynch Muslims in North India, did not find any taker in Karnataka.
PM Modi right after coming to power in 2014 had said, “Na Khayoongaa, na Khanedoonga” to tackle corruption in the country. Corruption hitting the roof in Karnataka and PM’s indifferent attitude towards it made people think about whether he is a leader or a deceiver. Remember, he came to power in 2014 on his famous anti-corruption campaign.
The BJP government in Karnataka raised the corruption bar to an abnormal level. An astonishing 41% of the BJP’s own supporters told a survey, that corruption had increased phenomenally under the BJP rule.
The Prime Minister once claimed that the previous Congress state government was demanding 10% in bribes from contractors but now the BJP ministers were asking the contractors to pay a whopping 40% as bribe.
In November 2021, the Karnataka State Contractors Association, which included many BJP supporters, wrote to the Prime Minister complaining about the 40% kickbacks culture prevalent in the state. He did not reply. Four months later, the contractors sent similar protest letter to the Chief Minister and Governor. But nothing changed.
In April 2022, a contractor hanged himself after a minister demanded 40%. The Association’s complaints continued and another letter to PM Modi went unanswered. PM’s complacent inaction on the corruption issue, made him sallow his own words “Na Khayoon Gaa, Na Khanedonga.”
In March 2023, as state election campaigning began, the Association linked its 40% grievance to the government’s failure to release Rs. 22,000 crores, as the contracts stipulated. They threatened to protest at every district headquarter and the Chief Minister’s residence. The corruption scandal in Karnataka was far more public now and it had a telling impact on the voters in the 2023 election.
Why PM Modi did not respond to the allegation of corruption by the contractors? This was because, despite his supposed omnipotence and stated abhorrence of corruption, he lacked the will to tackle the problem of corruption.
The power-drunken PM not only became complacent about the issues on the ground, but he lived in a make-belief world where he thinks his charisma, his oratory, vastly superior campaign funds, and control of the media, can swing the election in his favor. That belief was apparent in his Karnataka campaigning.
The unpopularity of the BJP government also has to be seen in the drift of the caste matrix that once gathered around the BJP axis. The Lingayat votes (17 %) that always consolidated in favor of the BJP in the past, this time did not behave in the same manner.
Lingayat is the dominant community in Karnataka remains under the control of its ‘Mutts’ on which the BJP has considerable influence. But this time the Lingayats broke free.
In comparison to 2018 when Lingayat gave 38 seats to the BJP, in the 2023 elections, it gave it only 15 seats. This is out of the 70 seats where they are in winning position and the BJP fielded 69 candidates from this community. Lingayat support for the BJP dipped to 56%, with 29-30% going to Congress.
In southern districts where the Vokkaligas are dominant, the voters gave JD(S) its traditional party only 19 seats which is a huge decline from its past four elections of 37, 40, 28, and 58.
In the Vokkaligas stronghold, the battle was between the Congress and the JD(S), and this time the Vokkaligas shifted towards the Congress. The BJP found it difficult to make gains in this region because its main backers, the Lingayats, are present there only in pockets.
The game changer was the consolidation of Muslim, Tribal and Dalit votes in favor of the Congress in the 2023 state election. About 63% of Dalit votes across the state went to the Congress.
Congress also won the support from the OBCs, Adivasis (a small group in Karnataka), and solid consolidated votes of the Muslims, much of which had previously gone to the JD(S). This consolidation of votes by the poor and oppressed people of Karnataka that suffered due to the anti-people policy of the BJP actually turned the table in Congress’s favor.
As far as Muslims are concerned, in the past, the community voted for the JD(s) and the BJP. This time when the BJP raked up issues of Hijab and Halal, it alienated the Muslim community to the core. Adding to the fuel was the cancelation of reservations for Muslims under 2B of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. This caused huge resentment among the Muslim community in Karnataka.
The anti-Muslim policy of the BJP gained no traction in the deeply Hindu religious society of the southern Indian state. The war against Islam and Muslims that’s played in north India to win election after election was no music to the ears of the south Indian voters. In fact, many Hindu voters were pained at the BJP beguile of anti-Muslim politics.
The Muslims in Karnataka taught a lesson or two to the north Indian voters. They did tactical voting in favor of the opposition candidate of the BJP and did not cut votes among themselves for electing a Muslim candidate. For Muslims, the goal was clear and that was to defeat the BJP. This proved the best way to kick out the BJP from Karnataka.
Against this backdrop, a rainbow coalition of Muslims, Dalits, and Tribals was formed to drive out the BJP from Karnataka. This coalition firmly stood up to the consolidation of the Lingayat/BJP votes to seal the fate of the BJP in South India. Due to the consolidation of Muslim, Dalit and Tribal votes, 12 BJP ministers were defeated in the 2023 assembly election in Karnataka.
The Karnataka election result tells us that with Congress winning 135 seats in an assembly of 224, the BJP may not be able to succeed in its game to wrest power even if it loses the election by enticing ruling party legislators to defect them to its camp as it did in many states.
Now with the 2024 general election due in no time, it remains to be seen how the electorates may behave on an all-India scale. The hunch is, if Karnataka is a sign of winter, spring is not far away.
[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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