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Home > India > News > Columnists > Rajeev Srinivasan

Moving on from Karnataka

June 04, 2008

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There is plenty of good news about the BJP's rise to power in Karnataka, and I hate to rain on the parade, but there needs to be some introspection as well.

I am delighted that the BJP has finally made its inevitable inroads into the South, but there are a few caveats. First, there is no massive mandate for the BJP; second, entire sections of the state have rejected it; third, Karnataka is a different animal from the rest of the South. There is no room for complacency, or for Pollyannaish extrapolations to the 2009 general election.

It would be fair to say that the BJP ran a disciplined and sensible campaign, sensing the mood of the people and providing them with a cogent vision, instead of the tired, oh-so-1970s 'bread, clothing and housing' and 'destroy poverty' slogans that the Congress has been recycling over and over. And the BJP did win, which is the important thing, and kudos to them, in particular to Arun Jaitley; but there are some clouds on the horizon.

The first issue is the size of the mandate. Given that the UPA government has been an absolute disaster in every possible way -- be it rampaging inflation or the debacles in foreign affairs or widespread terrorism or apartheid against Hindus -- this should have been a comprehensive rout for the Congress. The BJP should have, by rights, won a thumping majority. The fact that it did not is food for thought.

The biggest issue is inflation, especially in food items: The BJP was handed a gift on a platter, because, despite the desperate fudging of numbers by the UPA to say it is 7.8%, the actual inflation on the ground is in the vicinity of 20% to 100% in the price of essential items. Considering that food accounts for 60% of the consumption basket in India, this is an enormous hardship for the average household, and it is hitting them in the pocketbook and is enforcing belt-tightening, literally.

Some years ago, there was a similar price rise in just one essential commodity -- onions -- and the chattering classes crucified the NDA for that. Oddly, the same glitterati seem blas´┐Ż when the price of every food item has shot through the roof. They argue that this is related to global warming, and that there are food shortages everywhere. True, but on the other hand, the Indian State has been criminally negligent in ensuring food security. For instance, the US has just passed the Farm Bill 2007, which once again subsidises large commodity farmers with billions of dollars --- and this directly leads to the bankruptcy and suicides of Indian cotton farmers. Yet India has done or said nothing about this.

If only the Congress, seduced by the siren-song of Soviet-style heavy industry, had not under-invested in agriculture for fifty years (see my old Rediff column Indian farmers can't just fade away), India would by now have been a leader in that major global power, the Organisation of Food Exporting Countries (OFEC), raking in outrageous export earnings and turning away supplicants with derision. So it really is the fault of the Congress for compromising the nation's food security and competitive advantage. Considering this, the Congress should have been trounced: Oddly enough, it increased its tally.

The BJP went from 79 to 110 (a 39% increase), and the Congress went from 65 to 80 (a 23% increase). That is not so bad, and I don't have the numbers in the popular vote, but it was probably a swing of some 5% to 6% there at the expense of the feckless JD-S. So it's not as though there's a tsunami of support for the BJP: I expected better.

But I do acknowledge that the key thing is to gain power. Look at the Congress at the Centre: They got just about the same number of seats as the BJP in 2004, but they have been able to wrest power and wreak absolute havoc. A friend who's an economist with an investment bank in ASEAN commented that before the UPA and the Communists came to power, India was about 5 to 10 years behind China on all sorts of criteria. Now, four years later, he said India has slipped to 15 to 20 years behind China on all those measures. Surely this must count as a great achievement for certain vested interests, and you know who they are -- such is the value for you and friends from gaining political power.

Second, it appears that the BJP's rise is confined to certain areas, and it has not made any progress in Dakshina Kannada. This is odd, considering that those in South Kanara surely had the same problems -- poor governance, lack of development, a free hand for terrorism -- that their cohorts elsewhere in the state had. The conventional explanation has to do with caste equations. This may not be a satisfactory explanation, as it is not clear that castes vote as monolithic votebanks. Caste-as-monolith had been the rationale behind the confident assertion that Mayawati and the BSP would be a spoiler or king-maker. As it turned out, the BSP was no factor at all.

What does that mean? Is the old calculus of caste breaking down? It is taken as an axiom that Mohammedans and Christians vote as vote banks, but are Hindu castes getting away from that? Where are all the pundits who proclaimed the virtues of the BSP? They must have gone back to the same woodwork as the tea-leaf readers and soothsayers and television pontificators who so confidently predicted a Congress sweep.

It appears that, instead of being undifferentiated vote banks, the common people, as they become more politically aware, vote rationally for those they think will actually bring them some benefits. This happened in Gujarat, for instance: in spite of the pseudo-secularist brigade shrieking like banshees, even the Mohammedans saw that Narendra Modi [Images] was bringing development, investment, and water to them, and so they voted accordingly.

In Kerala [Images], I have observed a similar phenomenon, alas, in a negative way: The Ezhavas, once they became politically aware, ceased to vote as a caste group, but began to vote for ideology. The fact that they started voting en masse, even blindly, for the Communists, is tragic, but ideology counted for more than suggestions from 'tribal' leaders. Unfortunately, the Mohammedans and Christians are still in this 'tribal' stage, where the padres and mullahs lay down edicts on how to vote. And that may well explain the BJP's loss in South Kanara where there are large numbers of Mohammedans and Christians.

The third issue is that Karnataka is not representative of the South. There are some similarities between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, not only in the arid and starkly beautiful, boulder-strewn, Deccan terrain but also in the geo-politics and geo-economics.

Tamil Nadu is quite different, in particular because of two things: The prevalence of the so-called 'Dravidian' ideology that in essence is an imperialist perspective; and in the pattern of development -- there are several centers of power in the state, and it is not dominated by the capital city to the same extent that AP and Karnataka are.

Kerala, of course, is a strange animal, partly because the entire state is a gigantic city (although it looks deceptively rural) in terms of consumption patterns, the way marketing and distribution happens, and the way information is handled: From that perspective, Kerala is more like New York City than like Iowa. Besides, the money-order economy, the knee-jerk Communist ideology and the fact the Christians and Mohammedans together are a majority make Kerala very unusual indeed.

Thus, while there is no doubt that coming to power in Karnataka is a signal achievement for the BJP, laying to rest forever the canard that they only appeal to the Hindi belt, there needs to be a lot of thought put into how this beach-head can be used to expand to the rest of the South.

Rajeev Srinivasan