Karnataka voters send a message: Shape up or ship out
by N S Rajaram on 13 May 2013 12 Comments

Almost as interesting as the results of the Karnataka state assembly have been the explanations and opinions put forth by media talking heads and political experts. They tell us more about these experts and their thinking than they do about the ground realities in the state and what voters expect from their elected leaders today. I am a native of Karnataka; my ancestors have lived here and participated in the life and affairs of the state going back more than 400 years. So caste relationships in Karnataka are not to me numbers and abstractions, but part of daily life. And they are nothing like what these experts reported. Also they are not frozen in time - a point made by India’s greatest sociologist, the late MN Srinivas.


What strikes me about this election, and its coverage and commentary by experts is that voters by and large are ahead of the experts and possibly ahead even of the politicians. Where the latter are still trapped in thinking in terms of caste and community vote banks, voters are increasingly looking at performance. They want their elected representatives to engage in activities that will improve their lives, not in gestures and postures that appeal to this or that caste group or ideological representatives. And corruption is very much part of it for it both drains public resources and distracts from productive work.


First, to state the obvious, the BJP lost resoundingly in Karnataka. It lost 70 seats (from 110 down to 40) and 13 percentage points in vote share. The media by and large saw it in terms of the loss of Lingayat vote due to Yeddyurappa’s departure. Some intellectuals on the other hand attributed it to the voters’ disenchantment with Hindutva (which was not a major part of the BJP campaign). Both are wrong. Most ministers - 15 out of 17 - lost their seats. It was a vote against the incumbent. Even without the split with Yeddyurappa leading the campaign, the BJP would still have lost. Based on performance the BJP deserved to lose.


It was the same with Vokkaligas and other castes: the voters voted against the incumbent across all castes. Shobha Karandlaje, a minister with a relatively good image and non-Lingayat who jumped ship and joined Yeddyurappa’s party, lost from Bangalore where the BJP has done relatively well. Such resounding loss with most ministers being booted out tells the real story. They were voted out for not doing what they were elected to do. I live in Bangalore and can say that the BJP Government’s performance was dismal. It was dismal even before Yeddyurappa engineered the split, and no better after. Everyone knew this including the BJP brass.


One of the more absurd claims made, especially by left-leaning ‘experts’ like Lord Meghnad Desai (who knows nothing of Karnataka) was that Narendra Modi has no voter appeal. Modi spent two days in Karnataka and addressed five rallies in three districts out of thirty. BJP did comparatively better in districts where Modi campaigned, winning 50 percent of the seats, while winning only 10 percent in the remaining districts. Karnataka voters threw out 15 of 17 ministers. Surely, this is a verdict against their performance in Karnataka not Modi’s performance in Gujarat!


The point of all this is that there is now a growing mismatch between ground realities and what experts and even politicians are offering. Voters want performance, not slogans - Hindutva or Secularism - or abstract analysis and numerology based on caste, community and vote banks. This appears to be a new trend in Indian politics over the past five years that experts, still trapped in old dogmas seem to have missed. Increasingly voters expect performance from their leaders - programs and ideas that improve their lives. Karnataka is the only latest example.


Voters in UP gave Mayawati a mandate which she squandered with gimmicks like parks and statues that made no difference to their lives. Having given her five years, the voters threw her out. Basic necessities of life like roads, clean water and electricity are still out of reach for the great majority of Indians in states like UP. Narendra Modi in Gujarat is popular because he is focusing on basic needs like electricity and water. It is gross misreading to see his popularity as being based on Hindutva. Keshubhai Patel failed to dislodge Modi because he was using an outdated formula like caste appeal. (Why is Modi’s caste never mentioned; that he is an OBC?)


Seen against the background of voters’ expectation on performance, the new Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah’s early moves are not encouraging. It was widely reported that instead of visiting religious heads to seek their blessings as commonly done by politicians, the CM-elect visited senior Kannada writers GS Shivarudrappa, Chandrashekar Kambar and UR Anantamurthy - all associated with leftist political leanings. It would have sent a better message had he met progressive business leaders like Kiran Majumdar, Azim Premji and others who want to improve the living conditions in Bangalore.


To his credit, Shivarudrappa asked Siddaramaiah to make Karnataka “liveable for all.” Politicians everywhere better take this message to heart, for increasingly that will be the standard by which voters will judge them and vote. That was so in UP where the voters threw out Mayawati, in Gujarat where voters gave Narendra Modi a massive mandate and now in Karnataka where the voters threw out a bickering, non-performing government. This is what to look for in the elections over the next year from the Rajasthan Assembly to the Lok Sabha.


Karnataka is a sophisticated state. Its recent results have lessons for everyone. People are impatient for results. They don’t want more promises of ideology or handouts. They want their politicians to improve their daily lives, not give sops to caste identity or empty promises. In short the voters’ message to politicians is “Shape up or ship out.”

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