Why Karnataka rejected the BJP

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Karnataka Governor Thaawarchand Gehlot receives BJP leader Basavaraj Bommai’s resignation as state chief minister at Raj Bhavan in Bengaluru. (PTI)
Win for Congress presents opportunity to rethink styles of political leadership, reimagine economic development, reinvent democratic norms

Karnataka’s people have taken back their state, and how. They have voted to show the door to the government that rode the “caboose” of the “engine” in Delhi, while generously stoking that engine with its robust economic resources. It is a vote that has acted firmly against the tedious and unproductive insistence that we were being given “development” when all we got were messages of hate, threats of violence, the ever-deferred better futures, yoked always to the Union government’s plans for the state, while the BJP was either consolidating its grip on home-grown economic successes (such as the Karnataka Milk Federation) or digging deep into other’s pockets.

In all the endless TV chatter and “analysis” that was generated by news channels, banal reference was made to the place of “anti-incumbency” in determining this historic election’s outcome. This ignores several positive aspects of the campaigns that have borne fruit for the Congress. The first, and most important, was the visibility and engagement of local leaders with issues that mattered to the people. The Congress’s early promise of five “guarantees” was a well-chalked-out response to soaring prices, and the “self-exploitation” that it has fostered on an unprecedented scale. Which woman domestic worker, or auto rickshaw driver did not complain about the soaring LPG prices that have forced families to borrow on a monthly basis? Which member of the urban poor did not feel rage at the curtailed Anna Bhagya scheme, or the end of the Indira canteens?

Secondly, perhaps for the first time in the history of the state of Karnataka, civil society groups felt compelled to put aside their aversion to politics and pledge to turf out the party that was mutilating Karnataka’s historical legacies, whether in ensuring social justice (especially but not only under Devaraj Urs), decentralised democracy (especially but not only under Ramakrishna Hegde) or in ending the stranglehold of the dominant asset-owning classes over political representation. To many, the constant refrain of following the “UP model of governance” was a threat, not a promise. That one of India’s richest states had unacceptable levels of stunting and wasting among its children was shocking enough. That the BJP government in power sought to drag Karnataka UP-wards and prevent the inclusion of eggs in the midday meal, despite its proven benefits to nutrition, all in the name of a “satvik” diet proposed by some Karnataka mathas, was seen as unacceptable. To all, especially in urban areas, the severe restrictions on public gatherings and protests while (Hindu) religious processions received police protection, was enough to encourage a push-back.

In addition to the groups that had long worked in electoral matters (such as the Association for Democratic Rights), others sprang up. Bahutva Karnataka produced a set of “report cards” on the previous government, reminding voters of the extraordinary alacrity with which it passed legislation related to cattle slaughter and conversion, while openly “contracting” out its law and order functions to vigilante groups. While Karnataka has a large number of teacher vacancies and was coping with severe learning loss due to Covid-19, the government chose to focus on banning hijab, building Viveka classrooms painted in orange, and altering textbooks.

Did voters need to make these connections? A movement called “Eddelu Karnataka” (Wake Up Karnataka) enjoined citizens to slough off their (political) slumber, and exercise forethought in the run-up to this election. EK drew on the moral authority of several well-known litterateurs, scholars and activists to set off a campaign blitz that reached deep into rural areas as much as cities. As a result, there was not a little borrowing of ideas and slogans of civil society groups by political parties. The sustained work of Muslim and Christian organisations in pledging to bring larger numbers into public political life has also yielded fruit.

Thirdly, the Congress has finally thought fit to begin a pushback against the poisonous campaigns of the BJP and its Parivar. It has taken the first shaky step towards bringing accountability to the apparatuses of the state, and to reverse the extensive damage that was inflicted on state institutions by the BJP’s infamous “subcontracting” of policing functions to vigilantes. It has taken the calculated risk of drawing the lines between legality and illegality even on religious matters, distinguishing itself from the BJP’s single-minded guarantee of freedom only to “Hindus”. But can it successfully claw back the powers that have been savoured by non-state groups and institutions? Only time will tell.

Fourthly, the Bommai government pioneered the use of (primarily upper) caste boards, in place of broader access development programmes. Abstract ideas of citizenship, painfully constituted over the years, were thus increasingly segmented and hierarchised, with the government even justifying these corporations as “special purpose vehicles” for the delivery of “developmental” public goods.

Towards the end of the high-decibel campaign by top political leaders from the North, unintended messages were learned by the electorate. The daily insistence on the benefits of “double-engine sarkar” ironically served as an opportunity for voters to teach themselves about the federal principles that stood imperilled by the designs of the Union government. And the attempted “grab” of Nandini milk products a few days before the election produced a surge of regional pride like no other cultural icon or symbol.

Karnataka has embarked on a whole new journey. From the disasters that have been inflicted on the state spring the opportunity to rethink styles of political leadership, reimagine economic development, and reinvent democratic norms. The new government, which has raised expectations among a wide range of groups, can accept the new political consciousness of its people as an asset, and commit itself to new forms of accountability that no longer exist. All this will call for extraordinary courage, innovation and risk-taking. But for now, Karnataka has decided that it will no longer be the gateway to the ferocious “conquest” of South India.

The writer taught history at JNU

courtesy Indian Express

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