Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj S Bommai presents the state budget, February 17, 2023
THE POLITICAL TEMPERATURE in Karnataka has been steadily rising and the revenue-surplus state budget, the first since the Covid-19 pandemic began, presented by Chief Minister Basavaraj S Bommai seemed to suggest that along with the economy, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) fortunes are also on the upswing. It rang the bell on the starting round for state polls, due in a couple of months, which are seen as a key indicator of BJP’s hold in the only state in southern India where it has formed governments. The elections will also pit the party against its main rival Congress and regional player Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S).
With elections round the corner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited Karnataka thrice in the last two months and Union Home Minister Amit Shah has been flying in nearly every other week. Shah will flag off two of the party’s four rath yatras in the first week of March—from Bengaluru and Bidar—while Modi is scheduled to visit Belagavi and Shivamogga in the final week of February. The party’s determination to buck a four-decade-long trend of anti-incumbency—no government has been re-elected since 1985—is reflected in the interim budget which launched new schemes for farmers, women and children. Though BJP debuted in the state—it won four Lok Sabha seats and 29 per cent of the vote—in 1991, the party has often fallen just short of a majority in state elections. In 2018, it was just eight seats short and had to depend on defections to form a government after a spell of JD(S)-Congress rule. BJP had to accommodate turncoats to run the government, skewing the regional balance in the ministry, and it is now looking to overcome the odds and form a government with no millstones.
Among the measures announced by Bommai, who holds the finance portfolio, is an increase in the limit of interest-free short-term loans to farmers from ₹3 lakh to ₹5 lakh from the coming financial year, in addition to a subsidy ₹10,000 in the year 2023- 24 for over 50 lakh Kisan Credit Card holders. The revolving fund for Minimum Support Price (MSP) to farmers has also been increased from ₹2,000 crore to ₹3,500 crore. These measures are meant to reassure farmers, who have been protesting the APMC Committee Act 2020 and the Karnataka Land Revenue (Amendment) Act, that BJP will work for their welfare. The Bommai government’s flagship welfare scheme, Raitha Vidya Nidhi, which provides scholarships for 10.19 lakh children of farmers so they can continue higher studies, was recently extended to children of agricultural labourers. The budget avoids, like the recent Union government’s fiscal exercise, profligacy, choosing focused interventions for key social groups.
“I could have taken a series of populist measures with little regard for fiscal prudence, but we have not gone against poll norms. Ours is a responsible government,” the chief minister said on budget day. While Bengaluru got a grant of nearly ₹10,000 crore, the government strategically underlined allocations to regions where it needs to shore up its political capital. A “majestic Ram temple” has been promised atop Ramadevara Betta in Ramanagara, for instance, and ₹1,000 crore will be released to commence work on the long-pending Kalasa-Banduri Nala Project over which Karnataka is embroiled in a dispute with Goa for diverting 3.9 tmc (thousand million cubic feet) of water from the Mahadayi River. The project, along with Phase 3 of the Upper Krishna project for irrigation—₹5,000 crore has been allocated towards this—is crucial to the development of North Karnataka. The attention paid to Bengaluru is nevertheless significant as BJP did poorly in the city in 2018, a reason for its failure to cross the majority mark. Party leaders are also conscious of a persistent deficit in the “Old Mysore” region where JD(S) patriarch HD Deve Gowda has wielded influence and Shah has made more than one foray in this area.
Bommai has also announced the creation of a Kittur- Karnataka Development Authority. Previously known as Bombay-Karnataka, Kittur-Karnataka is a Lingayat-dominated region comprising Uttara Kannada, Belagavi, Dharwad, Vijayapura, Bagalkot, Gadag and Haveri—his home district. In Bommai’s second budget since he took over as chief minister, the region has been allocated ₹5,000 crore. To understand the significance of this announcement, it is important to look at the upheaval in Lingayat society over the last few years. Panchamsali Lingayats, the largest sub-sect within what is believed to be the single largest caste group in Karnataka, allege they have been denied adequate opportunities in proportion to their numbers and, therefore, want to be included under category 2A which will entitle them to 15 per cent reservations instead of the 5 per cent quota Lingayats are entitled to under category 3B. The issue has tested BJP, especially since Lingayat strongman and former Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa (BSY) stepped down to make way for Bommai. Community leaders have even protested in the chief minister’s home constituency and refused to compromise. Sources in the state BJP told Open that an amicable solution has been arrived at and it would be announced well before the polls so that the party’s prospects in the 80-plus seats where the community has a sway are not hampered. The Kittur-Karnataka package is the cherry on top of the political cake. Equally crucial are the efforts of top BJP leaders to work closely with BSY to prevent any faultlines opening.
BJP’s determination to buck a four-decade-long trend of anti-incumbency is reflected in the interim budget which launched new schemes for farmers, women and children. Though BJP debuted in the state in 1991, it has often fallen just short of a majority in state elections
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“The party is confident of winning 70-80 seats with a comfortable majority. It is now dedicating resources to improving its chances in about 40 seats,” said a BJP leader. “The southern districts, including Kolar, Ramanagara, Mandya, Hassan, Chamarajanagar and Bengaluru Rural, are crucial for us, as is the entire Kalyana- Karnataka region, if we are to cross 130,” the leader said. In 2008, BJP won 110 seats in a House of 224 and in 2018 it got 104. Despite coming up short, when BSY staked his claim to form the government in 2018, he lasted 55 hours in office before Congress and JD(S) cobbled together an uneasy majority. Fourteen months later, a rebel group of MLAs pulled down the government, making way for BJP to assume power again. “This time, too, we are worried there may be a hung verdict,” says the BJP leader explaining the concerted efforts to improve the party’s performance. The party’s prospects, seen in the context of key schemes and Congress’ complicated internal equations, hold out the hope that it stands a chance to make it back to office, party leaders say. The result is important as it will set the tone for other state polls due later this year and will be seen as the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. BJP would not like Congress to wrest, either alone or with an ally, a major state that would give the main opposition a renewed lease of life.
“The state BJP does not have a clear-cut leader. There is no obvious chief ministerial candidate. They are resorting to last-minute bribery to sway sentiment in their favour, but it won’t work. The anti-incumbency is real. We are fielding more Lingayats this time to take advantage of the trust deficit,” says GT Devegowda, a senior JD(S) leader. With surveys predicting a hung Assembly, JD(S), which wields influence in the agrarian Vokkaliga belt of the Old Mysore region, hopes to play kingmaker even as it faces high attrition and distrust within the party’s first family. While Bommai may come across as low-key, this election will be an opportunity to earn his spurs. There is, of course, no doubt that BJP will bank on Modi’s appeal and Shah’s rallies and organisational skills to fight a cohesive campaign. “People are voting for Modi and it is Amit Shah who calls the shots. Most of us are happy to implement their strategies because we can see how they are taking the party from strength to strength,” a BJP functionary said.
BJP is planning conventions for those who have benefited from state and Central schemes—which is about 4.5 lakh people. “SCs and STs are the biggest beneficiaries in Karnataka,” says Minister for Transport and Tribal Welfare B Sriramulu. Last year, the Karnataka Assembly passed a Bill hiking reservations for Scheduled Castes (SC) from 15 to 17 per cent and for Scheduled Tribes (ST) from 3 to 7 per cent. SC communities make up 16 per cent of the population in Karnataka and ST communities 6.9 per cent. BJP, hoping to cash in on this legislation, organised an ST morcha rally in Ballari last year. Shah’s impending visit to the district, to address a rally in the mining town of Sandur, must be seen as part of the party’s continuing effort to attract ST votes in Ballari, Vijayanagara, Davanagere, Chitradurga and Raichur districts, which together account for 10 of the state’s 15 constituencies reserved for STs. Not too long ago, these areas were part of Congress’ vote bank. Sriramulu, a Valmiki leader and one of the architects of the proposal to hike reservations for STs, is expected to pull crowds as well as votes. The quota hike decision, which takes the reservation tally in the state to 56 per cent, is yet to be included under the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, leaving opposition parties to question how the government would implement it.
Congress, which claims its internal surveys indicate a clear majority for the party, has been campaigning aggressively to counter BJP at every step. On budget day, Congress leaders, including former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar turned up with flowers tucked behind their ears. The “Kivi Mele Hoova” protest—channelling a Kannada saying for making a fool of the people—has since become a full-blown poster war between the parties. “The government has painted a very rosy picture of finances, which is not the case. From a state that used to lend money, we have become borrowers because of delays in GST reimbursement. This is the reality of the double-engine sarkar. With 25 MPs from Karnataka, one would have thought the state would get benefits, but what we are getting is a raw deal in the 15th Finance Commission,” says Congress leader Priyank Kharge. Kharge alleges BJP is merely trying to catch up with its Praja Dhwani yatras across the state, with corresponding promises made for each region. “We are listening to the people and they are stricken by price rise. We want to provide up to 200 units of electricity free under the Gruha Jyoti scheme, and ₹2,000 a month to the woman head of the family to help them cope with inflation. This government is merely making promises in the air and churning the caste cauldron by announcing one caste corporation after another.”
Some people in BJP concede that the party’s anti-Tipu Sultan rhetoric risks taking the focus away from development but the polarisation, particularly in coastal Karnataka, due to the alleged activities of the banned PFI will be part of the party’s campaign notes
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Veteran Congress leader RV Deshpande says the party has carefully drafted schemes and initiatives to ensure balanced development of all regions in the state. “For instance, the Karavali Dhvani Yatra that will cover coastal districts and Malnad will take our special manifesto for the region to the people. We are going to constitute a coastal development authority and increase the development grants for coastal taluks. The people of the region deserve real development, not communal rhetoric.” Mangaluru and Shivamogga have 33 Assembly constituencies, 29 of which elected BJP MLAs in 2018.
SOME IN BJP concede that the party’s anti-Tipu Sultan rhetoric risks taking the focus away from development but the polarisation, particularly in coastal Karnataka, due to the alleged activities of the banned Popular Front of India (PFI) will be part of the party’s campaign notes. There is no ambiguity among the party leadership over the use of the ‘Hindu card’ in the context of the communal incidents where PFI is accused of targeted killings. The state BJP has time and again tried to frame the election as a ‘Tipu vs Savarkar’ battle, and even called for the descendants of Tipu Sultan to be driven away and consigned to the woods. Recently, the state higher education minister, CN Ashwath Narayan, waded into this controversy when he made a statement at a rally asking people to “finish off” Siddaramaiah in the same way local chieftains allegedly killed 18th-century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan. Narayan has since apologised and clarified that he had meant to attack Siddaramaiah politically and not personally. He hasn’t, however, substantiated the bizarre theory that Vokkaliga chieftains Uri and Nanje Gowda killed Tipu who, according to historical accounts, died in 1799 fighting the British in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War.
The political arena is crowded enough without heroes or villains from the past vying for voters’ attention. In what is perhaps the last election in Karnataka driven by mass leaders, it remains to be seen who among them can sway undecided voters and walk away with a clear victory.