The results of the recently-held urban local body (ULB) elections in Karnataka, two months before the Assembly elections, have made the writing on the wall all the more clear to all political parties. The BJP is declining, the JDS is struggling to hold on its position and the Congress is gaining by default.
In the elections held on March 7 for seven city corporations, 43 city municipal councils, 92 town municipal councils and 65 town panchayats, the Congress hauled more gains in all the blocks and regions. The Congress won 3 city corporations, 10 city municipal councils, 37 TMCs and 18 town panchayats with a clear majority, leaving behind BJP and JDS to a distant second and third place.
Out of the 4,952 wards, Congress won 1,960, putting an end to its tragic story of defeat in each and every poll, except the Udupi- Chikmagalur parliament by-election held in March 2012. It also improved its earlier tally of 1,606 seats in the 2007 ULB polls. Against this, JDS which had emerged at second place with 1,502 wards in 2007, riding on the peak of HD Kumaraswmy’s popularity, the then chief minister in the JDS-BJP coalition government, had to be satisfied with only 905 seats. The BJP which had emerged at third place then, by garnering 1,180 seats, also had to be satisfied with 905 seats, sharing the distant second place with JDS, even though it is the party in power in the state. The very ambitious Karnataka Janata Party (KJP) floated by former Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa after he quit from BJP, won only 274 wards, but managed to play a big spoiler for the BJP. The performance of the Badavara Sharamikara Raitara (BSR) Congress Party was disastrous. But it also aided in decimating BJP in the Bellary district. Independents have won in an unprecedented way in 778 wards, exposing the precarious position of all the main parties in the state.
The ULB elections and its results have many hidden stories which may become obvious during the coming Assembly elections. Even though no political party dared to say this, the fact that each one was aware of this became clear when all the parties, both ruling and opposition, tried their best to postpone the ULB elections. They even tried to impeach the state election commissioner for going ahead with the election process after a unanimous resolution was adopted in the Assembly against the polls in March. It was only after the intervention of the apex court that the ULB elections were finally held in the state. That no party was ready for elections was also brought out by the fact that no single party could field candidates for all the 4,976 wards for which the elections were declared. Out of the 30 districts in the state, in no district except Koppal, Yadgir and Udupi, did any party field candidates in all the wards. The Congress fielded 4,492 candidates, BJP 3,954, JDS 3,651, KJP 1,966, and BSR Congress fielded 1,496 candidates. It was only the independents who exceeded the number of wards.
The big story behind the verdict is the decline of the BJP in the state, after a decade of its meteoric rise. The “betrayal” of HD Kumarasvamy (JDS) in 2007 by the then chief minister of the JDS- BJP coalition government – who refused to step down to make way for the BJP to head the coalition after the end of the first 20 months of rule – was meticulously used by B.S. Yedyurappa, who was then the leader of BJP party. He described it as the historical betrayal committed on Lingayats, the community to which he belongs. This created a big wave in the state against JDS. The Congress was in a deep slumber, anyway. In fact, the Congress leaders are pleasantly shocked by the result of the ULB polls now and puzzled by their own victory. This is another proof of the lack of political energy in the state unit of Congress. The sympathy wave generated in 2007, coupled with the Reddy brothers’ big and ill-begotten money and the caste-based alliance of the Lingayats-Valmikis- Madigas which was meticulously forged worked well for the BJP in the 2008 elections.
But this election has shown in very clear terms that this upward surge of the BJP has come to a halt and the party has taken a decisive U-turn to its original position where there were no Reddy brothers, no consolidated Lingayat vote base etc.
The biggest point of the story is the total defeat of BJP in the coastal region where the Sangh Parivar and BJP had created its ideological voter base over two decades. The BJP has faced humiliating defeat in the Mangalore City Corporation and in all but one TMC of the Dakshina Kannada district. The Udupi City Municipal Council (which was the first urban body that the Janasangh won in the country) has been gained by Congress. These are convincing proofs of this point.
This is due to many factors. There is a kind of exodus of leaders belonging to the dominant Bunt community – like Haladi Sreenivas Shetty (known for his non-corrupt image, a rare phenomenon in the BJP in the district), Nagaraja Shetty and others, whose interests the RSS and the BJP was unable to accommodate. There are old time BJP supporters who are completely fed up with the recent development in the party. Weeks before the ULB polls, Shakuntala Shetty, belonging to the dominant Bunt community and a hard core RSS, left BJP and joined Congress. A series of church attacks and moral policing by organisations like the Bajrang Dal has also had its impact on the urban and young electorate. The internal squabble in the RSS and the BJP leadership in the district have also contributed to this rout. A complete alienation of Muslim and Christian voters from BJP and their subsequent polarization to Congress may also be happening, although the Muslim-dominated SDPI is cutting into the vote base of Congress in the district. Even in Shimoga district, from where K.S. Eshawarappa, the deputy CM hails, the BJP has lost bitterly. Another important stronghold of BJP was Davanagere, where all but 4 seats was seized by the Congress from BJP. The BJP has also fared badly in the constituencies of 17 sitting ministers of the BJP cabinet.
Thus the BJP’s downfall has become clear more than ever. The hoax played on democratic institutions, the blatant communalism practiced by the parallel government run by the local RSS leader Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat in the coastal areas, the enormity and the blatant corruption in which the BJP ministers were steeped in, the exit of Yedyurappa who had brought in the support of the populous and dominant Lingayat caste to BJP and the never ending internal squabbles within the party have all taken their toll on the BJP in this election.
Another important lesson from these results is that even though Congress has more number of wards and local bodies to its credit, it is anything but a positive vote for Congress. The Congress has, at best, benefited from the anti-incumbency factor and the lack of state level credible alternative.
In fact, the most interesting part of the result is that the performance of most of the top leaders from all the parties is dismal. While Parameshwar, KPCC President, has failed in providing majority seats for Congress in Koratagere, his home constituency, the BJP has lost in most of the wards falling in the constituency of Eshwarappa, the BJP state president. Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar has failed to get a decisive victory for BJP in his home town Hubli and Kumarasvamy, the supremo of JDS, has failed to get his party the required mandate from his stronghold Ramanagar. The performance of HD Revanna his brother and second in command, also failed to retain the party position in Hassan. Most importantly, even though B Sriramulu and his party were successful in decimating the BJP in Bellary district, the party itself gave way to Congress on its home turf. Incidentally, Yeddyurappa also lost to Congress in his home ward having given an impressive performance in other parts of the same constituency.
The verdict also shows the fractured nature of the mandate. Out of 7 city corporations, 4 are hung and 26 of 43 city municipal councils are without clear mandate for any one party. Thirty-three of 92 TMCs are hung and more than half of the town panchayats face a fractured mandate. This is a direct outcome of a multi-cornered contest. It used to be a triangular contest between Congress, JDS and BJP. Because of the entry of KJP and BSR Congress, with their own caste and community base and calculated electoral strategy of caste alliances, victory margins have become thin and the final verdict ambiguous. Thus, in more than 33 constituencies, the victory margin is just one vote. Out of these 33 wards, nine wards happen to be Muslim dominated wards, suggesting that more parties are trying to bank on votes from this community, making the contest fiercely multi-cornered and resulting in a photo finish verdict. In 167 wards, the margin is less than 10. Likewise, an unprecedented number of independents, 778, have won in this election. Interestingly in Gokak and Chikkodi TMCs, all the seats are won by Independents. A cursory look at the results suggests that Independents have made a dent in all those places where established parties are very weak or fraught with dissent and rebellion.
It is true that only 20 percent (80 lakh) of the total electorate of the state comes under the ULBs and that under no circumstance can the Assembly polls be a replica of the ULB polls. Nevertheless, one can safely predict that some of the fundamental features of this verdict may continue in the Assembly polls as well.
Firstly, in the absence of any wave, the downfall of the BJP will continue. Both the KJP and the BSR Party play spoilsport for BJP and will still reduce its fortunes. The results suggest that the chance of success for the KJP and BSR Party is concentrated in some clusters where their respective caste and community support is stronger. For the same reason, while KJP may play the role of a spoiler statewide, the BSR Party may give a stern fight in a few districts in central Karnataka. This may result in Congress getting a better verdict by default.
In a multi-cornered contest where more number of parties are in the fray, the margin of victory would be thinner, questioning the representativeness of the victorious candidate. Also, while the dominant caste would choose the winning party and candidate, the “lower” castes and disadvantaged groups’ mandate would remain scattered, failing to forge a political voice.
The results of the ULB polls certainly reflect the possibility of change in the configuration of the ruling elite where BJP may drown due to implosion from within and the Congress substituting it. But the larger question as to whether it necessary means better governance and better opportunities for disadvantaged groups will remain unanswered as ever.