Karnataka's 20-20 election

Karnataka is, arguably, India's most beautiful state. Few states can match its rich diversity: from the wondrous Karwar coastline to the verdant green hills of Coorg, from the wildlife of a Bandipur to the majesty of the Cauvery delta, Karnataka is the original God's own country. Why even Bengalureans can gaze wistfully at Cubbon Park's flora and reminisce of a Garden city that existed before the real estate sharks took it over.

Unfortunately, Karnataka's politics is in sharp contrast to its natural beauty. Politics is not pretty in any part of the country but in Karnataka, it has become particularly ugly and debased. A coarsened political eco system, shaped by strident caste and community identities against the backdrop of big ticket corruption, is a defining feature of the 2018 elections. Just one look at the options before the voters and there should be little surprise that the Karnataka Political League (KPL) isn't anywhere close to attracting the crowds that flock the Chinnaswamy stadium to cheer Virat Kohli, De Villiers and co.

Take the three principal chief ministerial contenders. The Congress's incumbent chief minister Siddaramiah takes great pride in the fact that he has provided Karnataka with a stable five year government while conveniently forgetting that it took him almost four years to wake up to the reality that he was actually the man in charge. In the last year, he has suddenly become an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like man of action, announcing a series of 'pro-poor' and farmer friendly schemes, some of which like the Indira canteen and 'anna-Bhagya' cheap rice programme have actually given the Congress hope of stopping the Modi-Shah juggernaut south of the Vindhyas. It is almost as if the lure of re-election and a grim reminder of the state's history of anti incumbency has forced him out of a prolonged stupor, revived the Congress and enhanced his own image.

The BJP's 'face', BS Yeddyurappa, is also struggling to re-discover the elixir of eternal youth at an age when his party threatens anyone over 75 years with a 'marg-Darshak mandal' voluntary retirement scheme. Ten years ago, he had swept to power as the leader of the BJP's first majority government in the south. The mandate was grossly abused: in five years, the BJP threw up three chief ministers, while Yeddyurappa himself went to jail after a Lok Ayukta indictment. That he is back as the party's mascot only reveals the BJP's dependence on the numerically powerful Lingayat community and the fear that a rebellious Yeddyurappa is far more dangerous than a fatigued lion in winter.

The third visible contender for the top post is an even more intriguing political figure. HD Kumaraswamy is his father's son, and as long as HD Deve Gowda is around, he and the Janata Dal (Secular) remain political players. There is nothing really 'secular' about the JD (S) any longer: it remains one of the many emasculated offsprings of the original Janata party experiment that has long since lost its way, a single Vokkaliga caste, family run transactional enterprise which has a track record of cutting deals with the highest bidder.

But it isn't just the lack of inspiring chief ministerial options that makes Karnataka's political outlook so depressing. Just take a look at the brazenly immoral behaviour of all the principal teams. The BJP has been rightly targeted for the manner in which it has brought the Bellary Reddy family mining barons back into the party fold. The very political robber barons who were accused in a Rs 35,000 crore mining scam that precipitated the BJP's downfall in the previous government are now back in business, making a mockery of the prime minister's claims of having zero tolerance to corruption.

But if the Congress is to lambast the BJP for reviving the 'Reddy Republic', then the party's own roll call of candidates includes mining beneficiaries who also face serious corruption charges. When 'electability' becomes the sole criteria for distributing tickets, then no political outfit can take the moral high ground. An Association of Democratic Reforms report only confirms how a thriving nexus of crime and money has completely hijacked the state's politics: the average five yearly increase in assets of sitting legislators is one of the highest in the country.

If the return of the tainted mining kings exposes the moral bankruptcy of the state's politics, then the manner in which the Lingayat caste card has been used only reveals the ideological vacuum in which cynical politics plays out. When the chief minister suddenly on the eve of the elections proposes minority status for Lingayats, he hasn't overnight discovered the values of the 12th century reformer-philosopher Basavanna. Instead, Siddaramiah, trained in an old style ruthless socialist stock, is only practising unashamed divide and rule politics, an attempt to spread confusion within the BJP's traditional vote base.

Indeed, the manner in which every Karnataka and national politician has sought to assiduously woo the Swamis from various mathas and peethas across the state is an acceptance that the men of religion carry greater credibility than the state's politicians. After all, atleast the religious leaders don't switch sides as frequently as the netas: the clever ones certainly make an effort to bless all political parties!

Which is also perhaps why Karnataka could yet throw up what we haven't seen too often in recent elections: a fractured verdict. If there is no single pan-Karnataka narrative and no single towering leader who is trusted by all, then the ever-sharpening regional and caste divides suggest that the state's polity resembles a mirror cracked. Which is why turnout and last mile booth connectivity could make all the difference as to who eventually comes out on top in the KPL and we could even have a 'super over' post May 15. It might also explain why the queues outside Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy's residence are the longest at the moment. After all, when the political future is uncertain, then it's the kingmakers who matter more than the men who would be kings.

Post-script: Unlike a UP and a Bihar, where everyone has an opinion on electoral fortunes, Kannadigas tend to be more reserved. Till I meet a mithai shop owner in Hubbali who gives me a classic one-liner: 'Politics in our state is 20-20; you need 20 crores to fight an election and 20 MLAs after the election to decide who will be CM!'

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