Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The curious case of Karnataka - Southern Right!

Since 1985, the party that has won a larger share of the 28 seats in the state has sat in the opposition in Delhi! Don’t ask why. Nobody can explain it and an attempt to do so could result in hugely faulty and dangerous political analysis. It must just suffice to know that this has been the trend so far.  It is best not to forecast on the basis of this trend but, the Congress fancies its chances here.

In fact, senior Congress leaders openly admit that if there is one state, with a bipolar BJP congress fight, where the party has an edge, it is here. In 1977, then Congress CM Devraj Urs forged a remarkable combination of OBCs, Dalit and minorities to give the party a victory here, defying even a huge anti-emergency national trend. Congress hopes Siddaramiah can do the same.   

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah rose from the ranks of a fiercely anti Congress Janata movement. He served with Janata Party stalwarts like the late Ramakrishna Hegde and shifted to the Congress as recently as 2005. He walked out of former Prime Minister H.D.Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) after Gowda chose his son H.D.Kumaraswamy as the leader.

Siddaramiah belongs to the OBC Kuruba community and under his leadership the Congress forged an alliance of OBCs, Dalit and Muslims to defeat a corruption struck and split BJP in the 2013 assembly elections. IT must be re iterated that this was similar to the alliance made by Devraj Urs in 1997.

This is important because politics in the state has been dominated by two major blocks. The Lingayat sect which as one block form a majority and the Vokkaliga caste that forms the second largest caste block.  There has to be a conglomeration of all the rest to beat these two. The BJP has consolidated amongst the Lingayats and Janata Dal(S) has a stranglehold over the Vokkaliga vote.

The fact that Siddaramiah was chosen as Chief Minister was a departure from Congress culture where “Long term loyalty matters and outsiders remain outsiders”. It is probably the first time that such a politician has been chosen to head a Congress government.

It is believed that he was given the Chief Minister’s post with a mandate to deliver at least 20 of the 28 seats from Karnataka in the Lok Sabha election. But, can he?

Sandeep Shastri says “You have to extend the southern regional party feeling to Karnataka and Kerala. Here national parties matter because of strong regional faces they have. That is what makes Siddaramiah important”.

Congress had beaten the JD(S) in its stronghold the Old Mysore region in the 2013 polls. The Gowdas have dominated politics here (geographically areas around Mysore and Bangalore) with their hold over the Vokkaliga  vote. This region accounts for nearly 14 of the state’s 28 seats and the caste base is consolidated here.

In this region, apart from the four seats in urban Bangalore, the BJP has minimal presence and the battle is between the JD(S) and Congress.  The BJP’s strongholds are in the rest of Karnataka, especially northern parts of the state.

Unlike Siddaramiah who shifted from a regional party to a national one, B.S.Yeddyurappa grew from the ranks of the RSS. He led the BJP to its first victory in a southern state in 2008 but, had to step down as Chief Minister after serious allegations of corruption.

He was a belligerent regional satrap who rebelled and walked out, splitting the party. Yeddyurappa belongs to the Lingayat sect. He had consolidated the Lingayat vote for the BJP and his departure split that vote resulting in a defeat to the Congress in the assembly polls of 2013.

This is why Narendra Modi ensured that Yeddyurappa returned to the BJP. Despite pressures from within, Yeddyurapp returned and will now contest the Shimoga seat. He is considered a formidable force and these elections in effect will be a huge test.  A loss this time could send him into serious trouble. He has to prove one simple point- For the BJP to win here the party needs him!

In the 7 to 10 seats in Northern and Central Karnataka, Yedyyurappa’s return would make the BJP favourites. In Dakshin Kannada the battle will be close and this could prove which of these two parties will get more of the 28 seats in the state.  

 It must be mentioned that if there is one southern state where Modi himself has an appeal and electoral power it is in Karnataka, specifically in urban middle class pockets of Bangalore with the stereotype IT population.

This is why it will be interesting to see how Nandan Nilekanai performs as the Congress candidate for the Banagalore south seat. The Chairman of the UID initiative and one of the founders of IT giant Infosys, Nandan will battle out BJP’s five time MP(last two times from Bangalore South) H.N.Ananth Kumar. It is expected to be the most interesting battle in the state from a national point of view.

Many have wondered why Nandan actually wanted to fight a tough election. He could have chosen the Rajya Sabha route. After speaking with those close to him the impression is that he wanted a “reality check” for himself. He also strongly feels “being with a big party and fighting elections is the only way to change things and does not believe in the AAP route”

The point now though is can he win?

Sandeep Shastri says “Nandan’s campaign is focused on his persona and that could negate a Modi effect in urban pockets”. This will determine if the Congress finally has at least local answer to Modi!

Ananth Kumar himself is a tough cookie but, faces local level anti-incumbency but, that’s not enough. Nandan will have to evolve a campaign that gets him the basic Congress vote and then add to that with a vote for his image. In effect it would be something like getting the Congress vote plus an Aam Aadmi party vote. If he does it then victory would be achievable but, doing it is not easy.

The Aam Aadmi Party too has a presence in this same urban space. Another Infosys biggie V.Balakrishnan joined the party after he quit as CFO and will contest the Bangalore central seat. Their campaign though, is not even close to what was seen in Delhi but, the overall Kejriwal impact may get them some votes making them factors in a close battle.

In the end the Karnataka verdict may actually add to both the Congress and the BJP but, may not make a significant change in the final tally for either.

Going back to the fundamental thesis I started with on how South India will affect stability at the Centre. The analysis is simple. If the Congress wins more than the BJP and does not become the ruling force in Delhi, then numbers from Karnataka will not add to stability at the centre. The BJP does not seem likely to win even close to the 18 they won in 2009 and they seem likely to be the ruling force in Delhi – if true this would mean that Karnataka will be another southern state adding to instability in Delhi – read as not contributing to increasing the numbers of a central force in a national coalition!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Weekend Politics, why a divided state will add to instability in 2014.


The division of Andhra Pradesh, despite administrative formalities yet to be completed and the state voting as one block, brings about a fundamental difference in Peninsular India. For the first time, since the linguistic division of states in 1956, south India will be a conglomeration of a union territory and five states, not four.

Each of these states have starkly different political realities. They are divided by language and dominated by regional forces or regional faces representing National political parties. The BJP has never had a hold in these states, except Karnataka and the Congress has a mixed bag.

In effect 130 parliamentary seats will be accounted for and the results here will reflect the character and stability of a coalition in Delhi. 

In this context, it is important to remember one simple fact. The more the number of seats a central force in a ruling coalition gets, the more stable the government in Delhi. In effect if regional parties are more powerful in terms of numbers the less stable a coalition. 

So, it is important to understand what is happening in the 130 seats of peninsular India. To do that we need to understand the politics in each of these states. In that effort, I will be putting out piece on each of these states starting over the coming week. starting with erstwhile A.P


The two, yet to be born entities from a united Andhra Pradesh, are distinctly different from each other. Political choices that dominate the electorate in the two sides are different and so are the issues on which they would vote. Even if they vote as one administrative block, they are voting as two states.

In 2004 and 2009 united A.P contributed largely to the Congress’s final tally. The party won 29 of the 42 seats in 2004 and 33 in 2009. This added to stability at the centre but, this time it is a field wide open for regional parties.

Late Chief Minister Y.S.Rajashekar Reddy delivered victories for the Congress in 2004 and 2009. He acted as a strong “regional satrap” in a party that does not traditionally encourage such faces. He held factions within the party with an “authoritarian grip” but, he died in a helicopter crash in 2009 and with him seems to have died the Congress’s Telugu plot.

Soon after YSR Reddy’s death, his son Y.S.Jaganmohan Reddy demanded that he be appointed Chief Minister. The party high command refused and eventually Jagan broke away to form the YSR Congress (YSRCP). Jaganmohan Reddy, represents what has been Congress’s core caste vote base in the state- the Reddy community. He hails from the Rayalseema region where politics acquires a strong feudal character.

The Congress party in an effort to prevent alienation of that core caste base appointed Kirankumar Reddy, who also hails from Rayalseema, as Chief Minister. This could not curb Jagan’s political platform, which was being built on the basis of sympathy for his father’s sudden death.  

He was later arrested on serious allegations of corruption by the CBI. He countered Corruption charges and alleged it was “Vendetta Politics by the Congress”

Jaganmohan’s bastion was the Rayalseema and Coastal Andhra regions of the state. They are together what is called ‘Seemandhra’ and account for 25 Lok Sabha seats. The third region is Telengana which accounts for 17 seats. All three were merged together in 1956 to form India’s first linguistic state. 

Before independence, Telengana was ruled by the erstwhile Nawab of Hyderabad and the rest of Andhra Pradesh was largely administered by British India. Telengana was economically backward compared to coastal Andhra Pradesh and fierce movements for bifurcation and creation of a separate Telengana had erupted in the 1960s and 80s.

The Telengana agitation was re-ignited in 2009 and was led by K.Chandrashekar Rao, popularly called KCR, who launched the Telengana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) on the slogan for a separate state. Disturbing protests and a “fast unto death” by K.C.R  saw the Congress buckling under pressure to announce a Telengana in December 2009 but, it faced even greater pressure from its party’s “united Andhra” lobby and decided to backtrack.

Dharma Raju Kakani, a professional manager who hails from Vijayawada in coastal Andhra, says “All of us knew for the last four years that they will announce a Telengana before elections. The way it happened in the end is just not acceptable and left people even more angry”.

It is a sentiment shared across coastal Andhra and Rayalseema where the anti-bifurcation movement was at its peak. The anger and disgust was accentuated by “acrimonious” scenes witnessed in parliament during passage of the bill.

Faced with a Jagan onslaught, the Congress hoped to consolidate its position in the 17 seats of Telengana and went ahead with the bill. In doing so, it has virtually lost all ground in the 25 seats of Seemandhra. In effect, it would be a battle between YSRCP which had taken a strong anti-division stand and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

The TDP had supported division initially but, in the last days leading up to the passage of the bill it took a stand against it. It was a desperate attempt to save face on the ground in Seemandhra where it has traditionally had a strong base amongst the numerically powerful Khamma caste.

Both TDP and YSRCP have hit the election on the bifurcation issue and have called it a “betrayal”. “The main villain is the congress but, number two villain is BJP in the division of A.P” says a Hyderabad based journalist. 

The BJP is a marginal player in the state. They had taken a categorical stand in favour of Telengana which was consistent with the party’s stand on formation of smaller states.
Even in this context, the YSRCP and TDP have been making statements expressing openness to an alliance. Naidu and Jagan have clearly declared they are not “anti-Modi”. 

The TDP has been a traditional Congress rival to the Congress in a united A.P which was bi polar. An alliance with the Congress has not been in its list of possibilities. Jagan’s foundation plank is “betrayal by the Congress” and he cannot go with the party, at least not in this election.
In this scenario, with anti-congress being the platform, the two regional parties have no choice but to be reaching out to Modi. Lok Sabhha M.P from Hyderabad Asaduddin Owaisi says “This is despite the fact that they are aware that minorities still see Modi as a polarizing figure and the BJP supported the division of Andhra Pradesh”.

A backroom manager for Chandrababu Naidu’s son Nara Lokesh says “The story is not over for Seemandhra and we will justify an alliance with BJP, if it works out, by projecting Modi as a central figure who could do justice to the people in terms of allocation of resources”.  Interestingly Modi as the political figure goes beyond BJP as the party which supported the division.

 “We will justify it on the plank that a new state will need the centre’s help and it is important to choose a leader who will be in power in Delhi” said a senior leader.  
But, there is uncertainty over whether the BJP will seal a pre-poll pact or rather wait to see which regional player has greater numbers in a post-poll situation.

The irony is that, to two regional players, Congress is the untouchable and Modi is more acceptable than even the BJP even as a pre-poll ally and this in a state dominated by the Congress in 2009.

Congress's last C.M, Kirankuma Reddy has decided to form his own party and contest, this was expected but, may not be of any significant electoral consequences. 

It also brings to fore the point that the debate is not over Modi’s politics or economics. The “Gujarat Model” is heard but not understood or even questioned. In effect Modi exists as a personality here because the Congress ceases to be an option.  

Owaisi suggests that “with focus on the division and an anti-congress feeling Modi’s politics is not the prime focus. However it will cost parties who ally with him”

Another Congress irony is in Telengana where the party hoped to sweep. They have hit a road block. K.C.R had told this writer in August 2012 that “I will merge the TRS with the Congress the day they announce a Telengana”. Now that the deed is done he has decided “no merger, an alliance if it works out else we will go alone”.

This means there will be a battle between the Congress and the TRS for the 17 seats. The BJP could be delighted at the prospect of potential allies taking away a majority of the 42 seats that in 2009 went to their rival. It is difficult to fathom and has amused analysts that the Congress could create a situation so terrible for itself.

In the ultimate analysis, A.P contributed to stability at the center in 2009, it will not do so in 2014. The fact that the BJP has only a marginal presence will accentuate coalition pressures in Delhi (This is because if they had a presence they would be important to win seats in an assembly election and regional parties always eye power at the state level, making it more difficult for them to walk out of an alliance).