Why Siddaramaiah is unlikely to change Karnataka

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The memories blur one into another: from the gold-crusted thrones in the Reddy brothers’ living rooms to the severed chicken heads in front of the Vidhana Soudha; from MLAs held captive in hotel rooms to Hindutvadi goons storming bars; from Yeddyurappa‘s naked suryanamaskaras to piles of garbage gathering on Bangalore streets. And through it all, Yeddyurappa, unfazed and untouched, serenely bobbing from one mega-scandal to another, a saffron-clad zombie springing back to political life over and again.

And yet now that K Siddaramaiah has been sworn in as the Chief Minister of Karnataka, there are no vaulting expectations of Change with a capital C, or even a modest hope that Bangalore will be released from its 11 pm curfew. The overwhelming sensation instead is of simple relief. Now that the fevered nightmare has broken, we may now wake back to a more dull but familiar sanity. Siddaramaiah is no messiah. But if this run-of-the-mill politician with modest credentials can deliver some modicum of order, a return to basic governance, it will suffice… for now.

But this long bout of madness has been instructive — more so as it still continues unchecked at the Centre. The UPA government displays the very same symptoms: spectacular corruption, internal disorder that feeds external chaos, unflinching denial of reality or accountability, fevered clutching to power at irremediable cost. What causes this disease? What feeds this insanity? Karnataka points to the delusional assumptions that cause our leaders to so completely lose the plot.

Corruption is irrelevant to electoral fortunes. At one level, this is a reasonable premise in a nation where corruption is just business as usual, be it in politics or business or daily life. But there is the everyday corruption that allows, at times even enables, a certain level of governance. And then there is the other in-your-face kind which makes voters queasy.

“More than the scams, it’s in being totally impervious to public opinion that the real damage came. A feeling had set in at some point that the party cared little about public perception,” writes Imran Qureshi in Outlook magazine. Operation Kamala, Yeddyurappa, and the Bellary brothers came to represent a brazen, impervious form of rampant greed that begged to be punished.

Vote banks are all. Yeddyurappa’s jaunty indifference to public perception was wholly based on his assumption that he owned the Lingayat vote. This electoral power put him above the law and beyond the control of the BJP leadership, which shared equally in this delusion, and hence, appeased him at every turn.

Indians vote for caste leaders who can deliver benefits. That faith, however, is hard to maintain in the face of a complete breakdown of governance. And so it is that Yeddyurappa could not in fact deliver the Lingayat vote even for his own KJP. His community broke ranks to vote for the BJP and, yes, even the Congress in crucial districts in North Karnataka. Kannadigas across caste lines preferred to vote in a party without any declared leader. Call it the anything-but-BJP vote.

And yet the BJP seems unwilling to learn its lesson. “This accidental fluke victory of the Congress is because of the split in BJP votes,” insists BJP honcho Ravi Shankar Prasad. And so it is that local leaders continue to dream of Yeddy. “He was our tallest leader in Karnataka,” gushes one such source in India Today, promising, “We will get all splinters back in the party before the Lok Sabha polls.”

Hindutva is a winning card. Up to a few months ago, rightwingers and liberals alike were touting coastal Karnataka as the great Hindutva laboratory. Then the urban local body elections came along, and the BJP found itself facing defeat in the most saffron of bastions. The state elections sealed the reversal.  The numbers say it all, as Gauri Lankesh points out:

Indeed, the intensity with which the people in the 17 constituencies of coastal Karnataka have turned against the BJP has even shocked its political rival, the Congress party! Out of eight assembly seats in Dakshina Kannada district, BJP won only in Sullia, that too with a margin of a mere 1,373 votes. In the remaining seven, the Congress won with comfortable margins… Of the five constituencies in Udupi district, the BJP has won only one seat. From Udupi town, Pramod Madhwaraj of the Congress beat his BJP rival by a margin of over 40,000 votes. That’s the highest margin in the constituency in the last 40 years!

All the fuss over saffron rising missed the bigger truth: Ideology matters little in the absence of crisis. Without the galvanising force of an Ayodhya or Godhra, the “Hindutva vote” plays a negligible role in determining the outcome of elections. The rightwing shenanigans encouraged by the local BJP did have an impact, but of the opposite kind. The Sanghi attacks on pubs, churches and parties drove the minorities right back into the Congress fold.

Both the BJP leadership in Delhi and the UPA government ought to take note of these lessons — though it maybe too late for note-taking now. UPA is in a moral and political tailspin that will likely prove impossible to reverse. And the BJP remains much too addicted to infighting, apathy and Sanghi politics to remake itself into a genuine alternative. Worse, given the 2014 political math, there is no end in sight to the coalition madness that reigns in Delhi.

But we in Bangalore can at least comfort ourselves with the fact that Siddaramaiah is talking traffic congestion, garbage and monorail. And no, he doesn’t plan to perform surynamaskars in the buff. What more can a voter ask for?

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