In the run-up to the May 12 Karnataka elections, state Chief Minister Siddaramaiah took on every tweet from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah with wit and sarcasm. It was a parallel campaign he seemed to be winning. But as the results came in on Tuesday, the story on the ground turned out to be different. The face of the Congress not only failed to retain his government, he was struggling with his own seats. At 1.50 pm, the trends on the Election Commission of India website showed he was trailing the Janata Dal (Secular) candidate GT Deva Gowda in Chamundeshwari by 34,511 votes. In Badami, the other seat he contested, Siddaramaiah was ahead of the BJP’s B Sriramulu by a mere 1,696 votes, with the leads fluctuating almost every round.
The Congress clearly took a gamble by betting on Siddaramaiah. An outsider who joined the party only in 2006, he had the reputation of being a foe to the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, two of Karnataka’s most powerful communities. His AHINDA politics, a mobilisation strategy to unite other OBCs, minorities and Dalits, has clearly failed, leading the BJP to the verge of a possible historic majority.
In 2013, when the Congress won with a tally of 122 seats, Siddaramaiah was a dark horse. He had spent much of his political career in the Janata Dal (Secular). The Congress chose him over senior leaders like Mallikarjuna Kharge. He had the backing of the high command, especially that of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who managed to suppress dissent by Siddaramaiah’s rivals in the Karnataka Congress. During the current election campaign, almost every other leader was sidelined, something that senior Congress members are not used to. After all, what really enthuses leaders is the possibility of leadership. Still, it became clear by mid-2017 that no one else had a chance if Congress won. Posters and banners carried only Siddaramaiah’s face.
His presence also made it difficult for the Congress to stitch up an alliance with his former party, the Janata Dal (Secular), which regards him as a traitor. In a state that favours a regime change every five years, this put the electoral arithmetic against the Congress.
Siddaramaiah tried to project the idea that all OBCs would be included in the AHINDA grouping – the Kannada acronym for Alpasankhyataru or minorities, Hindulidavaru or backward classes, and Dalitaru or Dalits. But in reality, the strategy excluded the powerful Vokkaliga and Lingayat groups.
For the Vokkaligas, the main base of the JD(S) which dominates the Mysuru region in the southern parts of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, a Kuruba, was unacceptable. Siddaramaiah barely made any attempt to reach out to the Vokkaligas. In fact, he was so sure that the community would vote against him that he chose to contest a second seat in Badami in North Karnataka to boost his chances of going to the Assembly again. In Chamundeshwari in Mysuru, he is set to lose with a significant margin to the JD(S) candidate.
In fact, it is the Mysuru region that has completely turned the game on its head. Of the 43 seats that observers include in this region, the JD(S) and the BJP were leading 18 seats each at 11.30 am. The Congress had to do with just seven leads. Traditionally, this area witnesses a Congress vs JD (S) fight.
Another question that the results throw up is the voting preference of Dalits. Given the robust performance of the JD(S) in the southern part of the state, the question of whether AHINDA politics failed with the Dalits will be raised inside the Congress. Siddaramaiah was accused of pushing Dalit leaders such as Srinivasa Prasad out.
Besides, the JD(S) strategically aligned with the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose leader Mayawati campaigned for the alliance.
In terms of caste equations, the Congress and Siddaramaiah had one important objective in the run up to the polls: to split the Lingayat vote. The majority of the community has been voting BJP for decades. The weapon chosen by the Congress to engineer this split was to honour the demand of the community’s elite, represented by the heads of various mutts, to declare Lingayatism a separate religion and take it out of the Hindu fold.
For the sake of maximum impact, Siddaramaiah chose to do this in March, just two months before the polls. However, religious and caste identities are quite complex on the ground. Many Lingayats felt confused by the government’s move. In reality, many in the community saw themselves as both Lingayat and Hindu, pretty much the way all caste Hindus have no trouble seeing themselves with multiple identities.
Adding to this was the fact that the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate was BS Yeddyurappa, easily the tallest leader of the community. Some in the community felt the attempt to divide the group as Veerasaivas and Lingayats was to keep Yeddyurappa from becoming chief minister. Given how the results panned out, the Congress strategy has clearly not worked.
Together, Lingayats and Vokkaligas do not merely bring numbers to the table: their dominant social position gives the party with their support great influence and money power.
Social media mirage
There was, however, one area where Congress took the lead: there was great praise for the manner in which Siddaramaiah handled social media. He took on Narendra Modi and Amit Shah directly, often with cutting humour. But it is very clear on the ground that elections cannot be won through social media campaigns alone.
The support on social media also created a false impression that Congress was way ahead on the ground, a complacent position no party would want to be in the run up to the polls.