Kar‘natakam’ – The Electoral Drama in Karnataka

Kar‘natakam’ is a witticism (‘kar’, which means, to do, and ‘natakam’, a drama) doing rounds in social media groups, a statement on the spectacle of electoral drama being played out during the run-up to the legislative assembly elections in 2018 in the State of Karnataka in India.

The lively electoral donnybrook is often dubbed as a ‘celebration of democracy’, the battle rink of political ideologies. But with each passing day we witness politics stoop to new lows. Politics has never been an arena of the idealistic and manipulation and power play are intrinsic to the game, has been so since time immemorial. In recent times however we see even the bare veneer of value-based politics on which parties were supposedly founded has been abandoned, all but reduced to unprincipled wranglers of illicit means. This debasement was to be witnessed in its full nakedness in the campaign for the shortly concluded Karnataka elections.

From the time that elections were announced on March 27, all major parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Janata Dal – Secular (JDS), Indian National Congress (INC), began their pitch to gain an upper hand in the campaign. Parties fielded candidates on considerations of caste, creed, religion, money or muscle power, several of them with cases of corruption and criminal records against them, all but considerations of capability and integrity. There was an unabashed show of opportunistic politics with as many as 30 of the seats being allotted to people who had jumped across the party lines and switched loyalties to different parties just before the election. Since the election code of conduct came into effect, Rupees 81 crores in the form of cash, 65 crores worth other incentives and a further 25 crores worth of liquor were seized, meant to buy votes in favour of some parties. According to the Election Commission, the value of seized goods and cash far exceeded that in the 2013 elections. And according to some projections even these seizures amounted to merely a drop in the ocean compared to the actual amount of money estimated to have been in circulation during the campaign. Obviously political parties have found that siphoning off State funds from the system meant for development works and using it to enrich themselves and as doles to the impoverished, disempowered, unconscious masses to buy their votes and remain in power, a far more profitable enterprise.

Hundreds of rallies were held by the political parties in the last 30 days all over the State, which severely disrupted daily life of the people and impaired the normal course of business. The two major parties vying with each other, the Congress for retaining power in the state and BJP for bringing down the last bastion of congress as regional powers, traded charges and created controversies drumming up the clamour leading to the polls.

But let us leave this lament aside as these have come to characterise the overall political discourse these days. Politics takes the course dictated by the consciousness of the people and they are verily reflections of each other. And in this sense, the worst indicator in these Karnataka polls was the fact that there was an effort by the incumbent State government to divide the people along the lines of religion, denomination, sharing of resources between states and appeals to regional prejudices, creating permanent schisms in the polity and the minds of the people, imitating the stratagem of erstwhile colonialists abandoning all considerations of national interest. This was an obvious damage control ploy for their patent misrule and diminishing popularity among people.

Fortunately, as it became clear from the poll results today, at least one of the constituencies that they sought to entice by these machinations does not seem to have bitten the bait, and this will remain to their credit.

Considering the failure to deliver on promises of governance and welfare of Kannadigas by past governments formed under both BJP and the Congress, the 2018 Karnataka polls was also to be an important test of perception of the performance of PM Narendra Modi’s government at the centre, since this is the only variable from the previous elections in the State.

The decisions of the people sealed in May 12, results of exit polls and early trends as counting began today gave BJP all reason to feel buoyant and celebrate what appeared to be a definite wave in favour of the PM. However, at the end of counting, the initial euphoria was dampened somewhat as the numbers settled to nearabouts the equations existent in the State largely unchanged over the decades. The result was almost a repeat of BJP’s 2008 performance emerging as the single largest party with 104 seats but short of majority, however with the disadvantage of fewer independent candidates (only 2 to the 7 in the 2008 elections) to possibly win over to their side to form the government. BJP’s success was moreover diminished since it did not manage to significantly expand its vote share as revealed by figures released by the election commission yesterday.

The neat seat share between the major three parties now affords the Congress a foothold to manoeuvre itself into a position to be a part of the government in a coalition with JDS. Though decidedly amoral, considering that the Congress was emphatically rejected by the electorate being reduced from an absolute majority of 122 seats in the previous elections to 78, not the ones to be left out of the power-sharing, they have indicated that talks to this effect have started between the parties to possibly stake a claim to form the government. The alliance may seem natural since both parties purport a secular position as opposed to the alleged saffron leanings of BJP. But the prospective alliance has already started to produce murmurs of dissent within these parties, since the prime support base of JDS is formed of the Vokkaliga community, while the Congress draws significant support from among Lingayats, two communities which see their interests at odds and therefore are averse to being part of the same government with the other. The antipathy is strong enough to have led some Lingayat members of the Congress to even consider resigning from the party now and this remains a serious hindrance to the alliance. Even if the dissatisfied members do not resign, the history of unstable coalition governments in Karnataka does not make this an ideal scenario for the people of the State. This is however the area that constitutes the scope of negotiation for BJP. And now the horse trading will start…

As much as we abhor electoral malpractices and manipulations of political powers, it is ‘we the people’, rather our collective level of consciousness that produces exactly the politics that we are subjected to. Indians (with the exception of Abrahamic religious minorities, who are very clear about the larger identity they owe allegiance to, only that it is not India) notoriously lack a larger perspective of the overall unit we inhabit and the critical importance of our first commitment to its preservation. This has been witnessed all through the past millennium of our history of interactions with invaders, that we consistently failed to rise above our narrower identities and differences and recognise the threat that imperils the very existence of our civilisational unit. This has and will continue to lead us to our steady nemesis. The difference is only, that instead of battlefields these contentions are played out in the electoral process today. While this might seem like a dark prognosis, the political scene in the last seven decades of independent India permits no other conclusion. With a single party in power at the Centre and States for the greater part of this period, the regional pushes and pulls were kept in check, which lent us the impression of being a stable democracy. But in recent times, as the ‘grand old party’ lost favour owing to corruption, ineptitude and utter decrepitude in morals, the electoral process has seldom produced steady governments. If it has in some regions, these have been achieved by appealing to ever narrower interest groups by unscrupulous politicians detrimental to national integrity.

But let us at this juncture try to make some sense of this chaos…

While there is little chance of an actual move towards reviewing India’s constitutional structure, since at the present stage both the numbers and clear vision and conviction is lacking in the leadership in order to think in this direction, every election is a good time to ponder over the nature of our political system. Democracy has long been touted by modern political theorists as the ideal form of government, but it obviously has its pitfalls which are not insignificant, the most prominent one being, that democracy in its very nature and working caters to the lowest common denominator among us. A system where the lowest and the highest minds are equated in determining the course of society, and empirically the former always make up greater numbers, a gradual decline in overall character of a nation is its inescapable predestination, since it makes no distinction between the basest and the most refined thoughts about ourselves. Democracy and its assumptions of equality, fairness, representation and empowerment, conveys a notional framework that constitutes an ideological proposition, but a fallacious one. Rhetorical noise and appeals to plebeianism make up its inevitable attendant factors, where the higher, more evolved ideas will always be disregarded brushed aside by brute numbers of pedestrian concepts. This characterises every aspect of our cultural expression today. But democracy brings about none of the ideal effects it touts. In fact it causes the common people to be manipulated through these very aspirations by a small group of unscrupulous power-bearers who unlike traditional rulers owe nothing to loftier ideas of common good but have learnt to exploit the petty interest groups to their advantage.

But reverting to an earlier order or a monarchical system which had greater ownership, is not a possibility today. What however can and ought to be reviewed is the flawed Indian federalism which makes the Indian democracy extremely unstable and debilitating. Our Constitutional model was an emulation of constitutional democracies of the West which have a relatively uniform culture. Practice demonstrates however that India with its mind-boggling diversity and strong and divergent regional forces was probably not a suitable case for a federal system and should have opted instead for a more unitarian form of government. This would have probably posed greater difficulties at the initial phase of the formation of the Union, but would have turned out infinitely better in the long run for our nation.



Author: Smita Mukerji

Published: May 16, 2018



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