Decoding BJP's Karnataka victory
Failures in Congress’ collaboration, use of big data, and deployment of massive funds have together resulted in the unexpected Karnataka results.
By 10 in the morning of May 15, it was evident that BJP is leading and will either be the single-largest party or the majority winner in Karnataka. An hour later, it was BJP all the way proving an overwhelming number of opinion and exit polls wrong. Now, why do we have these results in Karnataka?
Issues and non-issues
It is significant to note that BJP fought under the local leadership of Yeddyurappa who had to resign amidst corruption charges as CM in his last tenure. BJP has also given eight seats to the infamous Reddy Brothers of the Bellary mining scam, whose associate, Sriramulu, is expected to play a major role in the ensuing BJP state government. The success of BJP in this context proves that corruption was a non-issue in the polls. Association of Democratic Rights says that 37 per cent of BJP candidates have criminal cases against them with 27 per cent having serious charges like murder and rape, while the corresponding figures are 25 per cent and 14 per cent for Congress. However, 94 per cent of Congress candidates were crorepatis while 93 per cent of BJP candidates were the same.
It is further significant to note that CM Siddaramaiah's welfare measures could not cut much ice on the face of caste and communal politics. As growth has increased in this millennium, governments have been flushing funds to implement several welfare schemes, which are often described by critics as populist policies. Siddaramaiah resorted to many such measures ensuring food-grains and cooked food for BPL families supporting more than a crore people of the state, which also does not seem to have translated into many votes.
The Siddaramaiah-led Congress ran a campaign based on the Bihari versus Bahari model of Nitish Kumar but failed. He tried to capitalise on slogans like 'BJP is a North Indian party' or 'affluent South Indian states are funding regressive North Indian states' after this issue came up in the last Finance Commission meeting. From playing the Lingayat card, caste vote banks, rooting for a separate state flag, and leading a tirade against Hindi – Siddaramaiah tried all the tricks in his kitty and still failed.
It is also significant to note that Congress CM Siddaramaiah had reposed faith in his AHIND formula of uniting Muslims, Dalits, and tribals who together account for 39 per cent of the electorate. But, the combination seems to have been split between Congress and JDS-BSP combine as their constituencies are similar. Siddaramaiah's overtures to the Lingayat community by agreeing on a minority status to it has also not yielded significant results as the Lingayat BJP leader Yeddyurappa could not hold on to his Lingayat vote-base while JDS leader Deve Gowda and sons held on to their Vokkaliga vote-base. Thus, the Congress lost out on all mass vote counts.
The Vokkaliga-Dalit combo has worked for JD(S). Although Karnataka has witnessed a triangular contest at the macro-level, the contest at the ground-level is more or less between the Congress on one side and the BJP or the JD(S) on the other. This is due to the social and geographical distribution of the political influence of the BJP and JD(S). The BJP is popular in north and central Karnataka while the JD(S) is strong in the Old Mysuru region and southern Karnataka. While BJP enjoys the support of Lingayats despite Siddaramaiah wielding the separate religious identity card, JD(S) is rallying the Vokkaliga community voters. Thus, BJP and JD(S) are not competitors in the political and electoral arena of the state. There seems to be an undeclared understanding between the BJP and JD(S). BJP reportedly fielded weak candidates wherever JD(S) had winning chances against Congress, numbering at least 40+. JD(S) reciprocated with a similar choice of candidates in some 55+ seats where BJP had a stronghold from the start.
Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal CM, rightly commented that had Congress & JD(S)-BSP fought together, it would have been a spectacular victory of the alliance. Only a united opposition can combat an aggressive BJP riding the Hindutva bandwagon.
Big money meets big data
In this election in Karnataka, at any rate, the marriage of politics and big data has finally happened, not surprising in the tech hub of India, Bengaluru. The first election in which the whole of the hi-tech armoury was deployed is the one that just ended and by all the three major parties. This was also the first election in India after the Cambridge Analytica fracas hit the headlines. To simplify the Big Data approach, if a party (or a candidate) has a good idea of the political views and likes/dislikes of as many voters as possible, it can use this information to fine-tune its own outreach to voters and influence their votes, and a new ploy like this can indeed decide the outcome when elections are won and lost over a margin of a few thousand votes.
This brings us to the second aspect of the twin attack on the gullible voter: Funds. This was arguably also the costliest election of its kind in India so far. Money and muscle power have now been replaced by money and data power – at least in our own Silicon Valley. In place of social engineering, it is time for social media engineering. The Karnataka election marks a complete transformation of Indian politics. Karnataka was stinking with cash in this no-holds-barred battle.
Going further, forget debates and rallies, elections in India are now fought and won on WhatsApp, the messaging app that is used by millions to make calls, chat, and share information. It is also providing an unfiltered platform for fake news and religious hatred, activists and observers say.
In a high-profile state election here this month, seen as a preview of India's national election next year, the country's two major political parties claimed they each amassed more than 20,000 WhatsApp groups, boasting they could reach more than 1.5 million loyalists in minutes. But, some of those messages have been false and inflammatory, twisting the words of political opponents and ratcheting up tensions between Hindu nationalists and the country's Muslim minority. The fake list of 23 'Hindu activists murdered by Muslim outfits', listed by BJP MP Shobha Karandlaje, and the inflammatory rabble-rousing by coastal Karnataka BJP MP, Anand Hegde, went viral. Later, it was found that only 10 of the 23 killed were linked to communal clashes, one was alive, two committed suicide, and three were killed in family feuds. But the damage was done for polarisation. Similar lies were peddled by PM Modi when he wrongly spoke about Nehru insulting army heroes of Karnataka, General Thimayya and General Cariappa.
Concerns in the long-run
Karnataka marks the beginning of a new trend in politics – the tendency to treat voters like robots who respond to a software program through remote control. Voters, in this scheme of things, are reduced to puppets on strings. Armed with all the relevant information about him or her, geeks were out to manipulate their behaviour. In any case, voters' intelligence may not be a match for artificial intelligence backed by the razzmatazz of the money power. Pushed out of the agenda were all the issues that matter to the citizens: corruption, welfare measures, peace, infrastructure, farmers' woes, etc.
Democracy in its content may remain intact but it will be flagrantly violated in spirit if these trends continue. That is the essence of the Karnataka election.
(Prof. Ujjwal K Chowdhury is Head, School of Media, Pearl Academy. The views expressed are strictly personal)