Debating India

KARNATAKA

Phoenix Won’t Flee!

Sugata SRINIVASARAJU

Monday 24 May 2004, by SRINIVASARAJU*Sugata

Deve Gowda returns from oblivion as the protagonist of the Kannada poll opera

The third front has remained a pipe-dream for the Indian polity, but the Karnataka assembly poll has been all about the resurrection of H.D. Deve Gowda-symbol of the now anathematised umbrella front. On Thursday, when the results were declared for Karnataka’s 224 assembly seats, it almost seemed that Deve Gowda was living the speech he made in Parliament before laying down office as prime minister, claiming he would "rise like a phoenix from the ashes". One couldn’t, of course, miss the mite of absurdity that warped an otherwise clearly triumphant image at its edges: an ex-PM returning from political oblivion only to determine the shape and destiny of a state government.

The irony is heightened by the fact that Gowda’s JD(S), the No. 3 party, has emerged as the kingmaker. It has only 55 seats while the BJP and its ally JD(U) have 85 and the Congress 64. Others account for 20 seats. But Gowda’s 55 seats have become critical since any bid for power will have to involve him. To get to the magic mark of 113, the BJP requires 28 seats and the Congress 49. It is only the JD(S) that can help either the BJP or the Congress. But the million dollar question in Bangalore is: which way will Gowda go?

It was largely Gowda’s conviction and pragmatism that helped the JD(S) checkmate these two entities, surprising pollsters and the media, who had written him off. Operating on the ’equidistance’ plank, the JD(S) hurt the Congress voteshare in the Vokkaliga-dominated south Karnataka and halted the saffron surge in the Lingayat-dominated north, thereby ensuring a hung verdict. Ironically, he himself lost from Kanakapura, one of the two Lok Sabha seats he contested, to Tejaswini Sri Ramesh, a political rookie from the Congress. Of the two LS seats the party won, one was Gowda’s Hassan and the other was Chamarajanagar.

If JD(S) holds the key to government formation, the BJP’s achievement in the assembly polls is by no means small, although it doesn’t match their pre-poll claims. For the first time in the state’s electoral history, the BJP has become the single largest party, almost doubling its tally from 43 to 81. Their partner JD(U) fetched them four seats, which puts their tally at 85. Since they need 113 to form a government, external support becomes inevitable. Thus, the Deve Gowda factor.

As expected, the BJP performed well in its traditional support pockets of coastal and north Karnataka, but was unable to strike hard in the south. Its S. Bangarappa gamble, to bring the backwards into its fold, had a limited effect. Bangarappa’s rebel son even won the assembly seat on a Congress ticket in Soraba.

The BJP’s increased currency among the upper castes began after they aligned with Ramakrishna Hegde’s Lok Shakti in the previous polls. But the party is not exactly happy with the dividends it paid this time. BJP leader Suresh Kumar says the performance was not up to expectations because they were "unable to project themselves as an alternative to the Congress in the Old Mysore region and the gap was filled up by the JD(S)".

The BJP’s biggest problem in the assembly polls has been the lack of leaders. "If they had won, they would have struggled to form a decent cabinet," quipped a Congress leader. Ananth Kumar was their only hope, but as a chief ministerial aspirant, he contested the Lok Sabha polls, which was quite inexplicable.

The big question, however, is where did the ruling Congress go wrong? Party insiders trot out a host of excuses for the decline, but the one single reason they emphasise is Krishna’s neglect of the backward classes, minorities and SC/STs. Says a state Congress office-bearer: "During the times of Indira Gandhi and Devaraj Urs, they constituted our crucial support base; these sections constitute nearly 65 per cent of the state’s population".

Krishna completely ignored them and promoted just forward communities including his own Vokkaliga community, who amount to about just 12.5 per cent of the population."

The second factor appears to have been the three years of drought that hit the state. Krishna himself admitted to this as one of the reasons for the "total rejection of the Congress" in his farewell press conference. "It happened in Rajasthan and it has happened in Karnataka too," he said. But unlike in Rajasthan, the 696 cases of farmer suicides reported in the state complicated the issue for the Krishna regime. The maximum number of deaths were reported from Krishna’s own home district of Mandya and Gowda’s Hassan. Gowda capitalised upon this in his manifesto and during his campaign. The Krishna government did release a Rs 880-crore package for farmers, but his own partymen feel it came a little too late.

Krishna’s upper class, urban image frequently came up for discussion during the polls. It was adequately played up by the JD(S) in rural pockets. The theory that it indeed was a liability was buttressed by Krishna looking for a safe exit from his rural Maddur seat to Chamrajpet in Bangalore, something quite unprecedented for a sitting CM. "The charge of rural neglect against my government calls for introspection," Krishna now admits. Also, his "bare minimum" visits to Maddur after he became chief minister was another grouse among the electorate.

And what helped Congress retain the fraction it did? A JD(S) leader ascribes it to the Stree Shakti programme for women’s development introduced by the Krishna regime and the Akshara Dasoha mid-day meal scheme in schools.

Some observers blame Krishna for his decision to advance the polls by nearly six months. "Some rain and the situation would have been different," they say. This is debatable. Rains didn’t help Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan a few months ago.

The handling of professional education is also said to have had a subterranean effect on the youth. The number of merit seats have not only shrunk, but the cost of engineering and medical education in the state has gone up manifold. Says an educationist: "During Veerappa Moily’s regime, it used to cost about Rs 15,000 per annum for an engineering course, it’s now about Rs 2 lakh. The whole professional college recruitment system is in a mess." Teachers too were an unhappy lot as salaries were being delayed.

As far as the next government in Karnataka is concerned, a lot of surprises could be in store. The Congress does not sound confident about a coalition (especially given Gowda’s continuing pique about his 1997 ouster in Delhi), the BJP is depressed even as the single-largest party because of its national rout-and it’s not at all clear how they would wean over the avowedly secular Gowda to their side. "Arun Jaitley will come, we will sit down and discuss", is all they would say. Energy is circulating only in the JD(S) camp.

The familiar positioning drama, meanwhile, has started. Krishna says "secular forces should checkmate the fascist forces". But the JD(S) seems reluctant to acknowledge the Congress numbers. "Congress leaders didn’t allow the Janata parivar to unite in Karnataka, so we are open to all options," says JD(S) leader P.G.R. Sindhia. Gowda’s hurt about the Congress is bigger-"mine was a secular government at the Centre, but the Congress pulled it down". But the JD(S) state chief has ruled out any truck with the BJP. The semantic relation of these statements would be clear in the next few days.

P.S.

Debacle Recipe

- Neglect of backwards, minorities and SC/STs went against the Congress

- Electoral prospects hit by drought and a large number of farmer suicides consequently

- Early elections did not pay off. Polls after the monsoons may have been better strategically.

- Krishna’s upper-class, urban image went against him in rural areas

- Steep hike in fees of professional courses turned young voters against the Congress

in Outlook India, Saturday, May 24, 2004.

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