This summer, the Congress will be fighting to retain its last large state – Karnataka. As the party gears up for the challenge, its leaders are relieved that after three years of drought in the state, the rains were plentiful in 2017. The last time the party had sought a re-election in 2004, drought had dimmed its prospects.

“We are lucky this time,” said a senior Congress leader in the state capital Bengaluru. “The farmers are busy and happy. The chief minister did a one-month tour, travelling to 120 constituencies. There was not a single protest, no strike, nothing.”

Graphic: Anand Katakam

But this does not mean there is no farmer angst.

In North Karnataka, 450 km from the state capital, in the first week of February, the tall stalks of jowar were bent over with the weight of grain. As they waited for the millet to ripen, farmers harvested the chickpea that had been planted alongside in the region’s mostly arid black soil.

Chandrashekhar Basavaraj Hebbal had hired a dozen workers to work on his three acres of land in Kirasur village in Dharwad district. They made bundles of chickpea plants, which he tossed into a tractor trolley. The rains had been good, he said, but the bumper harvest had depressed prices. At the time of sowing, chickpea was priced Rs 6,000 per quintal. By the time it had been harvested, the price had fallen to Rs 3,000 per quintal.

“We aren’t getting good prices under Siddaramaiah,” Hebbal complained, speaking of the Congress party leader and chief minister of Karnataka. “We used to get better prices under Yeddyurappa.”

BS Yeddyurappa is the former chief minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party who was forced to resign mid-term in 2011 after he was indicted in a mining scam by the anti-corruption Lokayukta. He quit the BJP in 2012 and floated his own party for the 2013 assembly election. But he returned to the BJP fold in 2014 and has now been declared its chief ministerial candidate. As a leader of the Lingayats, one of the two dominant landowning communities in the state, he was considered the best bet, said a senior member of the BJP.

Hebbal, the farmer, also belonged to the Lingayat community but denied his support for Yeddyurappa stemmed from that. He said he had paid regular premiums for the government’s farm insurance scheme but had not received any compensation for crop losses. Even the farm loan waiver by the Siddaramaiah government had not come to his rescue – it covered farm loans upto Rs 50,000 from state cooperative societies, while he had borrowed Rs 1 lakh from private banks.

But the farm workers had another view of the government. “We like the hand [Congress symbol] because they work for poor people,” said Nagappa Pavadi, waving his palm smeared with black soil after a morning of hard labour. Pakirappa Hugenaver, who sat on top of the tractor trolley, joined in: “Siddaramaiah has given us free rice.”

Apart from free foodgrains for families below the poverty line, Karnataka serves daily hot cooked meals with milk and eggs to pregnant women and lactating mothers. A view from an anganwadi in Gadag district.

Karnataka government has arguably the most generous food subsidy scheme in the country – five kilos of rice and two kilos of wheat per person, distributed for free, and one kilo of tur dal sold at nearly half the market price. A senior bureaucrat of the state said the food transfers under the Anna Bhagya scheme had blunted the edge of drought – “no one went hungry in the state”.

But, like the Lingayat farmer, the farm workers’ political views showed a congruence with their community affiliations – they were Kurubas, the traditional shepherd caste to which the chief minister belongs. It is one of the largest groups categorised as the Other Backward Classes.

Among the Kuruba workers, however, a young man Basappa Naganur spoke in support of the BJP. “I have hopes from Modi,” he said, dabbing his red paan-soaked tongue with a dash of white limestone. “He was also poor, he has come up on his own.” In three years, Modi may have done little for the people, Naganur added, other than giving them gas cylinders – “but I still have hopes from him”.

Thickly laden jowar combs in North Karnataka are signs of a bumper harvest.

Congress is counting on the Ahinda vote

For the Congress, the stakes are high in Karnataka, but the party is confident that it has the upper hand over the BJP. “Strong leader, stable government, no scandals,” summed up Dinesh Gundu Rao, the working president of Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee. “The key thing is whatever we promised we have delivered, nuddidante naddeddideve. Of 165 promises in our manifesto, 156 have been implemented.”

Key among them are the government’s social welfare initiatives, many of them inspired from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. While the Anna Bhagya scheme covers 11 million families living below the poverty line, under the Ksheera Bhagya scheme, 10 million children are given milk five times a week in government schools and anganwadis. Last year, the government launched the Mathru Poorna scheme which supplies more than 8 lakh pregnant women and mothers with daily hot cooked meals, complete with milk and eggs. In cities like Bengaluru and Mysore, Indira Canteens offer subsidised meals for the urban working class.

The government had improved the functioning of departments that interact with the poor – social welfare, food, panchayat, women and child development – said AR Vasavi, a social anthropologist who works with a village collective in Chamrajanagar district. This set it apart from the previous governments, she said, even though it had perpetuated the same contractor-driven model of rural development and showed the same lack of imagination in tackling agrarian distress.

Kallava Channadas said her family got regular monthly supplies of free foodgrains based on their ration card. Her husband repairs musical instruments for a living. The Dalit family of eight depends on the state's food schemes for nutrition, but is undecided who they are voting for.

The Bhagya schemes work well with the party’s traditional social base. After the old guard of Lingayat and Vokkaliga community leaders parted ways with Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, Congress cultivated a social coalition that is pithily compressed into the Kannada acronym AHINDA – Alpasankhyataru or minorities, Hindulidavaru or backward classes, and Dalitaru or Dalits. Coined by the state’s first backward leader Devraj Urs, AHINDA has been reinvigorated by Siddaramaiah. Underlining the political advantage, a senior Congress leader pointed out that religious minorities, Dalits and Adivasis constitute 39% of the state’s population – Muslims and Christians (14.79%), Scheduled Castes (17.14%) and Scheduled Tribes (6.95%) .

But not all Dalits traditionally lean to the Congress. The party’s Dalit leadership comes from the Chalavadi caste, described as the right hand, prompting leaders among the left hand community known as Madigas to join the BJP. “But this time both right and left are voting for us because we have done so much work in the SC [Scheduled Castes] areas,” said the Congress leader. In 2013, the government passed the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan and Tribal Sub Plan Act, which mandates government spending in proportion of the population of the two groups, with provisions to ensure unspent funds do not lapse and cannot be diverted.

In keeping with his image as a AHINDA leader, Siddaramaiah speaks in rusticisms that resonate in political rallies. A former Janata Party stalwart, he joined the Congress in 2006, and was considered a surprise choice for chief minister. “The Kannada press didn’t even give him six months,” said Vasavi. In the national press, he made news for falling asleep in public events. But over the last two years, Siddaramaiah has shown unusual verve in taking on the BJP. A bureaucrat in the chief minister’s office attributed his new found energy to a personal tragedy. “He lost his son in 2016,” he said. “Since then, he has poured all his energies into work, perhaps to distract himself from the loss.”

On the Congress party's hoardings, Siddaramaiah gets greater prominence than national president Rahul Gandhi.

The result is an unusually aggressive Congress. “We have formed booth committees,” said Rao. “Our cadre is enthused. There is unity.” The chief minister has toured 120-odd constituencies where the party won, while the party’s state president G Parameshwara is visiting the rest.

In Dharwad, on February 3, as Congress party workers waited for Parameshwara to arrive, there were signs of a familiar chaos, with nearly two dozen leaders jostling for space on the stage. “We are eight ticket aspirants here, three major ones,” quipped a local leader. Ordinarily, he would have waited for his name to be announced as the candidate to start work on the party’s campaign, he said. But given the way BJP was monopolising power in the country, it posed an existential threat to those who saw no future in it. “Let BJP lose. I may contest another time,” he said.

Congress leaders are also taking heart from the fact that after the Lok Sabha debacle in 2014 when the party won only 9 seats compared to the BJP’s 17, it did better in the zilla panchayat elections in February 2016 and the bye-elections in two assembly seats held in April 2017.

“For one month, Yeddyurappa campaigned in these two Lingayat dominated constituencies,” said Rao. “He went to every village, said if you want me to become the chief minister, vote for BJP. We simply said: we have done work, give us our wages. This is the line we are going to take in the election.”

Privately, though, Congress leaders feared the BJP could use the threat of central investigative agencies against key leaders to undermine its prospects. “I am backed by one person, he is my boss, my godfather in politics. If he is silenced, then I am gone, since I am depending on him for financial help, for canvassing,” explained a leader in North Karnataka.

For BJP, it is Modi and Hindutva

The BJP, meanwhile, is counting on the fact that Karnataka has never re-elected a government since 1985. The party is confident of holding on to its social base among upper castes, the left Dalits and Lingayats, despite the turmoil over the demand raised by a section of the community for minority religion status. Its strategy revolves around the popularity of the prime minister and communal polarisation along the coast.

“We were wiped out in 2013, reduced to the third spot,” said a BJP leader in Bengaluru, recalling the time when the party had split three ways, with Yeddyurappa and the Bellary MLA B Sriramulu, close to the mining baron Janardhan Reddy, forming their own parties. “Those days are over. Now we are in war. The central leadership has neutralised all these factions.”

While Yeddyurappa is a farmer-friendly face in the countryside, the party is aware that among urban voters, the turbulence of his government and the corruption scandals are still fresh. For this, BJP leaders claim to have an antidote. “Modi is the shock absorber,” said a state office bearer of the party. “We will tell people that we are ruling in 19 states – 14 directly, five in alliance – and there has not been a single corruption charge, because there is regular monitoring from the Centre.” Even the state government’s social welfare schemes, the party will point out, were funded by the Centre.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi dominates the BJP's election posters in Karnataka.

This emphasis on the Centre, however, could leave BJP vulnerable – under Siddaramaiah, the Congress has encouraged an assertion of regional pride. Criticising it, the BJP state office bearer said: “They are overdoing it. The ‘national party, regional outlook’ could backfire. This is not just a Kannada-speaking state. In Belgaum, people speak Marathi. In Hyderabad Karnataka, they speak Hindi.”

But the dangers of an overreliance on Modi were all too evident on February 4, when the prime minister addressed a large gathering of BJP workers in Bengaluru. In his characteristic style, he sought to turn the tables, by attacking the state government for corruption, calling it the “10% government” – a government which charged 10% commission or bribes on all projects. However, barring a smattering of Kannada at the start of his speech, he spoke in Hindi. With no translations, even BJP cadres, enthused by the presence of the prime minister, found themselves drifting away, as seen in this video.


The Modi rally was the culmination of the party’s 80-day long Parivartan Yatra, which had been flagged off by BJP president Amit Shah on November 2. In what party leaders acknowledge was a miscalculation, workers were asked to ride into Bengaluru on motorcycles. “Who will travel 200-300 km on two wheelers?” said a senior leader. “How will you track them? Six hundred bikes started from Hassan. On the way, they stopped for coffee. When they started again, there were only 100.”

By the time they reached Bangalore, he chuckled, there were only 20 or 30.

Where the party believes it has struck the right chord is the coastal belt. It has effectively portrayed the Siddaramaiah government as one that practices Muslim appeasement. In January, a circular issued by the police department asking for a reconsideration of cases against innocent Muslims had to be withdrawn after the BJP put the spotlight on it. “Siddaramaiah is damaging the secular fabric of Karnataka,” said Rajesh Padmar, a lecturer and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh spokesperson in the state. “How can withdrawing cases against Muslims alone be considered secular?”

The RSS and BJP have claimed that 23 of their workers have been killed under the Congress rule – even the prime minister threw in a half-way reference in his Bengaluru speech, accusing the state government of enabling “the ease of doing murder”. The government has disputed the numbers, saying only nine of the 23 Hindutva workers were killed in communal incidents.

But the challenge for the BJP, say observers, is that outside the coastal belt and parts of Coorg, Mysore, Chikmagalur, Hubli, Hindutva politics has limited resonance.

A procession of workers of the Vishva Hindu Parishad marched in Dharwad city on February 3. The Hubli-Dharwad twin township has seen communal mobilisations in the past. But there are fractures in the Hindutva family. A senior VHP leader criticised the BJP's local MLA.

Where will JD(S) go?

There is a third major political party in the state – the Janata Dal (Secular). Led by former prime minister HD Deve Gowda and his son, former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy, it is strong in southern Karnataka, where the Vokkaligas are the dominant community.

Three months ahead of actual polling, the consensus among political leaders and observers in Bengaluru and Hubli-Dharwad was that while the Congress could lose Karnataka, the BJP has few chances of winning. It is more likely the elections will result in a hung assembly.

In that event, the focus would be on the JD(S). The party has been part of coalition governments with both the Congress and the BJP. Both experiments ended badly.

Where will JD(S) lean this time?

“With the BJP,” said a Congress leader. “After all, the party is in power at the Centre. They have more to woo them with. With even 20-30 seats, they will make Kumaraswamy the chief minister because they want Congress out.”

All photos by Supriya Sharma