The state has six very distinctive regions, and any poll analysis can seldom be done without breaking down the whole into these six distinct parts.
Unlike several other Indian states that were carved out of larger princely provinces or presidencies, modern Karnataka was formed as an amalgam of disparate parts, which had separated from each other way back in 1799, with the fall of Tipu Sultan and the takeover by the British. Kannadigas from the erstwhile Bombay and Madras Presidencies of the British, the Nizam’s Hyderabad, the princely state of Kodagu and the coastal Karavali merged with the Old Mysuru State of the Wodeyars.
This merger was accepted grudgingly by many in the Old Mysuru region, which was more developed under its benevolent and progressive monarchy. The binding factor, though, was the Kannada language and the nostalgia it evoked across different political regimes. For Aluru Venkata Rao, the concept of unification was of “Karnatakatva” — a larger geographical identity meshed with cultural and linguistic bonds; for poet Kuvempu, this was more of a literary map; for the leading light of Kannada renaissance B.M. Shrikanthaiah, the Kannada identity was reawakened during this time.
Almost six decades later, and having taken many strides together, these competing tensions, regional imbalances and disparities continue to dominate and influence the political landscape of Karnataka. Geographical unity might have been achieved, but has emotional integration really happened in these 60 years?
Is this what gives the scope for creating the pan-state Kannada identity and sub-nationalism that the current chief minister Siddaramaiah is striving strategically to achieve (and reap poll dividends)? With 30 districts and four administrative divisions (Bengaluru, Mysuru, Belagavi, and Kalaburagi), the state has six very distinctive regions — and any poll analysis of the state can seldom be done without breaking down the whole into these six distinct parts.
1. Coastal region (Karaavali) — 19/224 seats: Uttara Kannada, Udupi and Dakshina Kannada.
Karaavali has always been a BJP stronghold and the region where Hindutva ideology has had a strong resonance. The 2013 assembly polls were an exception, when the BJP’s divided house (B.S. Yeddyurappa and B. Sriramulu had formed breakaway factions) handed the region on a platter to the Congress, which wrested 14 seats.
This time around, a united BJP and the shrill rhetoric of leaders such as Ananth Kumar Hegde, Shobha Karandlaje and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath is expected to win back the traditional support base of the party in this communally-sensitive region. The spate of political violence and killings of BJP and RSS workers here, and the inaction of the government has bolstered the narrative about Siddaramaiah’s anti-Hindu, pro-appeasement image.
This region, along with Kodagu, was also where maximum public protests were seen to the CM’s pet project — Tipu Jayanthi.
2. Old Mysuru – 61/224 seats: Mysuru, Kodagu, Mandya, Hassan, Chamarajanagara, Tumakuru, Chikkaballapura, Kolar and Bengaluru Rural
The heart of Mysuru has traditionally been the battle turf between the Congress and the JD(S). The BJP has had wavering fortunes here, and in 2013, it won a mere four seats, while the Congress romped home with 27 and the JD(S) came a close second with 25. The region also sees a strong polarisation between the two caste vote-banks of the Congress and the JD(S) respectively — AHINDA (Kannada acronym for Dalits, minorities and backward castes) and Vokkaligas.
With a Vokkaliga icon like former CM S.M. Krishna hopping on to its bandwagon, the BJP hopes to make a dent in the JD(S) pie. However, the party’s strategy seems unclear, with Krishna sulking all the while on being marginalised, while his supporters have failed to get tickets.
This region will also see Siddaramaiah battle it out in the Chamundeshwari constituency, as well as the fallout from not nominating BSY’s son Vijayendra against the CM’s son Yathindra in Varuna.
3. Bengaluru Urban – 28/224 seats
The political significance of the capital Bengaluru comes from being the financial lever, the IT-BT and start-up hub of the country. Voters here are largely influenced by civic issues and developmental work. Bengaluru is one of the most engaged cities in India when it comes to citizen awareness and participation in governance issues. But the voting percentage here is abysmal. The city has usually been a BJP bastion, with the educated middle classes by and large supporting it. In 2013, the Congress marginally raced ahead with 13 seats. The BJP, at its 2013 nadir, afflicted by severe anti-incumbency, corruption scandals and three chief ministers in five years, still managed a respectable 12 seats.
This time, the Congress faces strong anti-incumbency, with public ire about the pathetic condition of roads and lakes, traffic mismanagement, flooding during rains, and poor public safety. The Congress seeks to offset this with its measures for the urban poor and minorities in the form of its numerous Bhagya schemes, the Indira Canteen and so on, as also the strong Kannada identity and anti-Hindi sentiment that it fanned and hopes to encash upon.
4. Mumbai-Karnataka — 50/224: Belagavi, Bagalkote, Hubballi-Dharwad, Vijayapura, Gadag and Haveri
The Mumbai-Karnataka region is significant because it is dominated by the Lingayat community. It will decide if Siddaramaiah’s calculated move to accord minority status to the community will benefit the Congress. Siddaramaiah’s decision to choose a second and safer seat, Badami, is driven by the same comfort factor. The region has usually been a BJP stronghold, though in 2013, with the division in the BJP ranks, the Congress managed to win 31 seats here. The JD(S) has a marginal presence here. The sensitive Mahadayi river water-sharing issue too dominates this region. The BJP’s floundering response to the issue will be tested here.
5. Hyderabad Karnataka – 40/224 seats: Bidar, Yadgir, Raichuru, Koppala, Kalburgi and Ballari
The most underdeveloped part of the state and plagued by illegal mining, Hyderabad-Karnataka is dominated by SC, ST and Muslim voters, with a sizeable Lingayat voteshare. The competing tensions of one-upmanship with southern Karnataka, especially the political hub of Bengaluru, has been a constant peeve here. With strong leaders such as Mallikarjuna Kharge coming from here, the Congress had posted a significant victory of 23 seats in the region. The region has been a traditional Congress stronghold and it returned Sonia Gandhi too in her 1999 parliamentary fight against Sushma Swaraj in Ballari. In 2008, the BJP snatched the region from the Congress, riding on the backs of the Reddy brothers. As they make a comeback (Yeddyurappa said it adds an elephant’s strength to the party prospects, even as its anti-corruption image might take a huge dent), the region seems to be up for grabs for either party.
6. Central Karnataka – 26/224: Chitradurga, Chikkamagaluru, Shivamogga and Davanagere.
With Shivamogga as Yeddyurappa’s home bastion, central Karnataka has usually gone with the BJP. In 2008, the Congress and BJP won 13 seats each here. However, it was a rout for the divided BJP in 2013, securing a mere three against the Congress’s 15 and the JD(S)’s six seats. The Lingayats are strong in Davanagere, and would test the minority tag. In Chitradurga, religious mutts play an important role; hence the beeline of leaders from Amit Shah and Rahul Gandhi, “seeking blessings”.
In this fascinating mélange of many worlds, in subsequent articles, I will zoom-in into each of these distinct regions to analyse the issues, trends, tensions, and the prospects of the various players. Will a politically aware state that has seldom returned an incumbent break the jinx and hand it back to Siddaramaiah, or will Yeddyurappa make up for his disastrous first term and wrest back power? Will the JD(S), as always, play spoilsport or kingmaker? Will PM Modi’s blitzkrieg starting 1 May tilt the scales in favour of the BJP?
The stakes are high for both the BJP in its current expansionist drive, and the Congress in its existential moment.
Dr Vikram Sampath is a Bengaluru-based award-winning author/historian and political commentator.