Karnataka, India’s high-growth power state, votes in shadow of 2014 national campaign


In 2004, when the national government of the center-right, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) sought reelection, it did so with the slogan of ‘India Shining,’ a catchphrase that it hoped would capture the progress India was making in catching up to the economic development that for so long eluded it.  That campaign failed, and the slogan itself largely backfired, but make no mistake — no city was shining brighter than Bangalore, the capital of the state of Karnataka.karnataka flagIndia Flag Icon

Bangalore, in the 1990s and the 2000s, rapidly developed into the so-called ‘Silicon Valley’ of India, with a rapid, increasingly technology-fueled growth wave that made the city a favorite among multinational corporations and that made Karnataka one of the fastest-growing regions in the world.  Bangalore’s population went from 5.1 million to 8.4 million from 2001 to 2011 alone.

Karnataka itself has a population of nearly 62 million people — although it ranks as only the ninth-most populous state within India, it nonetheless has a slightly larger population than Italy and a population twice as large as Malaysia, though I’m sure you’ve heard much more about the recent Italian elections and the Malaysian parliamentary elections scheduled for the same day as Karnataka’s state elections on May 5.  But given the rising economic, cultural, demographic and political importance of India, and the central role than Bangalore and its economic hinterland has played in India’s 2000s economic boom, there’s really no reason why Italian politics should necessarily be any more important than Karnataka state politics.

Its importance comes especially into relief when you view the Karnataka campaign in the context of India’s highly anticipated 2014 national election showdown between the BJP, which will likely (though not certainly) be led by Gujarati chief minister Narendra Modi and the current governing party, the Indian National Congress (Congress, or भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस), which will almost certainly be led by Rahul Gandhi, the son of current Congress president Sonia Gandhi and the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and both Rahul and Modi have recently visited Karnataka state to campaign for their parties and to take swipes at one another.

So what do you need to know about the politics of Karnataka?

The politics of Karnataka

Karnataka, a south Indian state bordered by the sprawling Maharashtra to the north, coastal Goa to its west, and Tamil Nadu and Kerala to its south, is a predominantly Kannada-speaking state.  Kannada, with 38 million native speakers, is a Dravidian language more closely related to Tamil and Telugu than to Hindi, and it’s about as widely spoken worldwide as the Polish language.

Sunday’s election will determine the lower house of the bicameral Karnataka legislative assembly, the Vidhan Sabha (विधान सभा), which features 224 legislators, each of which is elected in a single-member constituency through first-past-the-post voting, though only 223 legislators will be chosen on May 5 (one constituency’s election is postponed to May 28 following the death of the BJP candidate).  Counting and the announcement of the results will take place on May 8.

Politics in Karnataka (the state of Mysore until 1973) was long dominated by Congress until the 1980s, though it’s now essentially a three-party state.  In the previous 2008 election, the BJP won control of the government with 110 seats, while Congress 80 seats and the more leftist Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S), ಜನತಾ ದಳ(ಜಾತ್ಯಾತೀತ) in Kannada) won 28 seats.

This time around, the unpopular incumbent BJP government is waging a defensive struggle to keep the surging Congress from returning to power.  It’s an odd juxtaposition of the national dynamic, where voters seem weary of what will be a decade of Congress rule in 2014 and, even in Karnataka, Modi seems much more popular than local BJP officials.  A pre-election CNN/IBN survey projects that Congress will win the state election with 117 to 129 seats, with the BJP winning between just 39 and 49 seats and Janata Dal (Secular) winning between 34 and 44 seats and other parties (notably the newly formed Karnataka Janata Paksha) winning between 14 and 22 seats.

There’s certainly no shortage of personalities within the state, either, and any number of officials could emerge as the next chief minister.  The race features the BJP incumbent, a previous BJP chief minister running an opposing campaign, any number of Congress officials, including a former chief minister who until recently served as India’s foreign minister, and a former JD(S) chief minister and his father, himself a former JD(S) chief minister and a short-lived Indian prime minister in the late 1990s.

A split and beleaguered BJP government seeks reelection

The BJP enters the election under the leadership of the state’s third chief minister in five years, Jagadish Shettar, who took office only in 2012 with a party torn apart by infighting and corruption.  The BJP came to power in 2008 under the leadership of B.S. Yeddyurappa, who became the first BJP chief minister in south India.  He was forced to resign in July 2011 after being charged with profiting from illegal mining and real estate transactions, however, and when his hand-picked successor Sadananda Gowda also stepped down in July 2012, Yeddyurappa, who remains influential within the state’s Lingayat community, defected to a new party, the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP).  The split between BJP and KJP voters, alone, could well be enough to cost the BJP another term in office.

Shettar, who is himself Lingayat, has a solid reputation as an honest politician, though voters hardly feel the same about his party after the Yeddyurappa era.  If his party loses, it may well be because it turned to Shettar too late to provide any goodwill.

If the BJP wins or at least exceeds expectations, it will be seen as a victory for Nodi’s ability to mobilize voters beyond his own state, Gujarat.

A rising Congress 

Congress has waged a strong campaign against corruption and against the inflation that’s accompanied economic growth, much as the BJP campaigned against corruption and inflation so successfully in 2008, though it has not announced before the election who it would appoint as chief minister if it wins.

Its likeliest chief ministerial candidate, Siddaramaiah, is a former leader of Janata Dal (Secular), and he has previously served himself as the deputy chief minister.  But there’s no shortage of factions or heavyweights within Congress, either.  One of them is S.M. Krishna, who was not only chief minister of Karnataka (from 1999 to 2004) and chief minister of Maharashtra (from 2004 to 2008), but also the external affairs minister in Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh’s government from 2009 to late 2012, raised eyebrows by remaining somewhat aloof from the campaign.  He’s taken a marginally more visible role as the campaign has come to a close, despite a sense that he’s been somewhat marginalized after hoping for a happier comeback to Karnataka politics.

For Rahul Gandhi, the race is his first since becoming vice president of Congress, and he’s hoping to mark a victory after the party’s defeat in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, in February and March 2012 state elections.

JD(S) potentially holds the balance of power

Janata Dal (Secular), a splinter from the larger Janata Dal party that formed in India in the 1980s, is active essentially only in Karnataka and in the state of Kerala to the south, where it has been part of the leftist coalition that’s long governed Kerala.  H.D. Kumaraswamy, the party’s leader, previous served as Karnataka’s chief minister from 2006 to 2007, though his party lost 30 of their 58 seats in the 2008 state election.  He’s the son of former Karnataka chief minister H.D. Deve Gowda, who briefly served as India’s prime minister from June 1996 to April 1997 under a non-Congress, non-BJP government.

While no one expects Janata Dal (Secular) to win Sunday’s elections, if the result is tighter than expected, Kumaraswamy is expected to play a kingmaker role to determine whether the BJP or Congress will govern Karnataka.


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