5 talking points you won’t hear on TV tomorrow

PALINI R. SWAMY writes from Bangalore: Tomorrow, May 8, is results day for the Karnataka assembly elections. Since I am not going to be in front of a camera, here are five talking points I bet you won’t hear on your favourite news channel, but five points I sincerely wish TV anchors and analysts would use.


First, despite what everyone has said in the last month, there hasn’t been any discernible change in the fundamental poll dynamic since the elections were announced. What this means is that despite the month-long campaign and all that comes along with it (read money and other gifts to the voters), nothing much changed that actually altered the political climate.

What are the fundamentals that I refer to here?

The anti-incumbency of a largely ineffectual, scandal and dissension-ridden BJP government had created a small undercurrent of support for Congress. However, that advantage has been difficult to quantify and that’s because politics these days, especially at the state level, is local and very competitive. Further, political advantage doesn’t mean a wave in favor of a political party.

I am tempted to say the era of waves is over.

Congress stuck to its strategy, didn’t recruit too many outsiders (especially those who had ties with BJP), and focused mostly on consolidating its base.

True, its ticket distribution strategy seemed chaotic and the party took too much time to complete the process. There seemed to be much dissension, with ticket aspirants and activists demonstrating regularly in front of the party office. But much of this is media-driven to make the elections more interesting, and generate some stories.

BJP somehow managed to stop its bleeding just in time when its leaders managed to convince the four Lingayat ministers (Umesh Katti, Basavaraj Bommai, Murugesh Nirani and V. Somanna) not to leave the party.

This action enabled the state BJP leadership to save some credibility with its national leaders but more significantly increased its competitiveness in 12-15 constituencies and dealt a crushing blow to Yediyurappa’s dreams of consolidating his hold over Lingayats in north Karnataka.


Second, I want to submit that all the predictions, including the exit poll based ones, are bunkum.

I haven’t looked at the methodology and sample size closely. Yet, I suspect that extrapolating results from voting percentages is not accurate. The Janata Dal (Secular) and BJP are not strong in the same areas, which means that there are fewer triangular fights.

Hence, if Congress is competing strongly everywhere, even if its vote share goes up, it may not win a commensurate number of assembly segments.

This complementary nature of JD (S) and BJP’s support base introduces an element of uncertainty and I don’t know enough about our pollsters to believe they take into account all these variables.


My scepticism about predictions leads me to my third point: that the political culture in Karnataka (in fact, this is also a broader argument that could be made nationally too) has changed dramatically. Hence, history is not a good guide not only to make predictions but more importantly to assess political strategies.

What has changed in the last decade?

In a nutshell, Karnataka has seen a new breed of politician, who has had substantial business interests and is willing to plough back huge amounts of money back into electoral politics. This new politician is in politics to manipulate public policy, further his business interests and secure maximum profits.

He doesn’t have any ideological commitments or a substantial notion of public good.

His political strategy revolves around using his personal fortune (often ill-gotten from real estate, mining or some such natural resource owned by the state) to secure the loyalty of his constituents to himself and this has been the basis for a new form of populism in Karnataka.

There have been many consequences but let me list here only two.

First, the political space available for other kinds of politics, especially the ones inspired by ideology, socio-political movements and a substantial notion of public good, is entirely absent. Be surprised if any candidate who has spent less than five crores actually wins.

Second, even old-school politicians have reinvented themselves along the same lines. In order to understand the truth of this, you only have to look at Yediyurappa and the Deve Gowda family.

In this new political culture, we need a different theory of political strategies, especially in the electoral realm. But we haven’t even had a decent explanation until now about BJP’s own electoral success in 2008. So, I am not very hopeful that we will get a good theory in tomorrow’s shows when Ramachandra Guha and Yogendra Yadav hold forth on our TV screens.

There is much to say on this topic but in brief what we need to recognize is that BJP and JD(S) have recognized the changing tides very quickly and hence have been very nimble in making their strategies.

On the other hand, Congress is burdened by its past and seems like an elephant in its efforts to maneuver around the more nimble, more tiger like opponents. It still has to accommodate all the social classes and its base is largely made up of old time loyalists. The party continues to look to its high command for guidance.

Thus Congress continues to rely on its 20th century political culture/strategizing in what has been a dramatically different 21st century political reality. Most of the stories about Congress bungling (especially this OPED piece by James Manor in the Indian Express) its poll strategy do not recognize this simple fact: it couldn’t have avoided these pitfalls and the magical wand called leadership doesn’t exist.

So, if any analyst tells you that Congress lost because S.M. Krishna was ignored, consider that a load of bull crap. Active participation by Krishna wouldn’t have increased Congress’s total vote tally in the state by 100,000 votes. His counsel wouldn’t have made ticket distribution any more efficient.

If anyone says wrong ticket selection contributed to Congress losing, take that with some skepticism.

For example, at a constituency level there might have been mistakes but Congress had a larger goal. For example, giving tickets to C.K. Jaffer Sharief’s grandson in Hebbal and Shamanuru Shivashankarappa in Davanagere might have been problematic but if the goal is also to send a message to specific communities, then Congress will have succeeded.

This is where BJP, KJP and JD (S) are more nimble in picking candidates and they can afford to make tactical decisions in each constituency.

For example, former minister A.Krishnappa was fielded by JD (S) in Hiriyur after Congress refused to give him ticket in K.R. Puram. Krishnappa, a Golla (cowherd), is likely to win this constituency where his community is in large numbers and who along with Vokkaligas form a potent combintion. His opponent, D. Sudhakar, former minister who joined Congress just before the elections, was seen as a sure shot winner in this contest when elections began.

Here is the takeaway. Politics is extremely competitive and resourceful newcomers are ready to enter the electoral arena. They are trolling different parties in search of opportunities. Nobody can take elections easily these days.

If Siddaramaiah has sleepless nights caused by a political nobody, whose sole claim to fame is that he was Yediyurappa’s former aide and his sole strategy to secure political loyalty is to distribute large sums of money to all comers, then no leader is safe.


Fourth, I really, really wish our analysts would display a better understanding of the caste-politics equation. We really don’t have a good 21st century theory of caste loyalties inspire electoral politics. It is grating to see Yediyurappa described as the “sole leader” of Lingayats and Deve Gowda characterized as the Vokkaliga “strong man”.

Please internalize this: caste support to political parties and leaders is tactical and local; it is not strategic and translocal. I know this claim demands a research paper and not simply an assertion.

However here is the simple takeaway: Subcaste and matha-influence is more important than the kind of translocal caste loyalties that I referred to.

In Hiriyur, Kunchatiga vokkaligas are in large number but they are not strong supporters of the Gangadakara-dominated JD(S). If they vote for JD (S), it is not because of some caste loyalty to Deve Gowda. In fact, if you do a survey of Vokkaligas, most actually very strongly dislike the Gowda family, even if they vote for JD (S) most of the time.

In the same way, Lingayat solidarity across the state is a myth.

Surely, it is possible to secure broad based support from the community in favor of a party like BJP if someone like Yediyurappa is at the helm. But such a strategy would be predicated on finding the right sub caste candidate in each constituency.

Picking a Jangama candidate in a Sada or Panchamasali dominant area will result in huge electoral backlash.

Similarly, backward castes are also not a uniform entity. Siddaramaiah is a backward caste leader but unlike the 1970s and 80s when one could claim that mantle fairly easily these days all the backward castes have become highly politicized and do no want to be represented by someone from outside.

So, Siddharamaiah found himself challenged frequently by backward caste opponents, especially Nayakas, who are a large backward caste community spread across the state, just like the kuruba community to which Siddaramaiah belongs.

So, dear analyst, please do not speak use caste as an analytical category if you don’t understand the local dynamic. You will only sound like a fool.


Fifth, Karnataka saw the emergence of some new political outfits. B. PAC or the Bangalore Political Action Committee represented an alliance of new age entrepreneurs who wanted to influence electoral politics and public policy. This seemed to be inspired by American PACs, which play an enormous role in electoral politics.

Then there was Loksatta, which fielded several naïve, well meaning but political neophytes in urban areas.

All these efforts to build an alternative politics appeared half-assed, pretentious and frankly, quite insulting to the voter. It is not enough to claim that the political class is corrupt and inefficient. It is not enough to claim their own personal cleanliness, educational qualifications or industry experience.

What they lacked is a substantial movement or a public project that they could claim ownership over. Or if any of the candidates had even been a bureaucrat, something that would have brought them in contact with the public, where their conduct would have been monitored by people, such a person would have some claim to seek public trust.

A politician once told me: “What matters is not incorruptibility when you don’t have an opportunity to take a bribe. If you are incorruptible when you actually hold a public office and then work for public good, then you have a claim over public trust.”

The new, middle-class political aspirants seem to miss that simple truth.


2013 election coverage

12 ways Karnataka politicians con EC, buy votes

Why Modi will address only one rally in Karnataka

When a wife-beater campaigns for the Congress

Rahul Gandhi fails five tests in Karnataka poll

They cry before the polls, so we can cry after

‘Diminishing returns from aggressive Hindutva’

Why is corruption not an issue in Karnataka?

POLL 2013: Can the Karnataka opinion polls go awry?

POLL 2013: Has A. Ramdas not supplied ‘henda‘?

It’s unofficial: our democracy has a bribe future

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17 Responses to “5 talking points you won’t hear on TV tomorrow”

  1. harihara Says:

    All this big analysis is off themark , fact is that party which has the maximum number of kidari jogis at that point in time will win. that is all. At the end of the day whosoever comes will provide services of more or kless the same low sytandard as all of them have been giving, and all of then will work for market culture based personal GDP growth and incidentally as aby product public will get some ‘growth”. Sop better each pperson looks to his own GDP growth than worry about who governs

  2. Not A Witty Nick Says:

    Siddaramaiah’s opponent threw money to attract the non-Lingayat vote base in Varuna, it is the Lingayat vote share that is making Siddaramaiah sleep less.

    Yeddy with his sops for various religious institutions(mainly Lingayat maThs) might have backfired on him, all lingayat sub-castes supposedly established their maThs to avail Yeddy’s charity. And, like the Dalit Christians, many of them(identified by their pre-lingayat vocational sects) are now seeking more Backward Caste classification and some even want to be declared as a SC! This is supposedly harming the vary basic tenet of Lingayatism which vests the power only to the original five important maThs.

    There is also Pakistan like situation where Muslims don’t regard Ahmadis as Muslims and persecute them. There are a few subsects of Lingayats who are shunned by the majority of Lingayats.

    All these developments has irked important pontiffs of Lingayat maThs, hence their response to this election will be very interesting to see.

  3. AJ Says:

    In India, Political Strategy is a Sum of all Tactical Strategies.

  4. Balaji Says:

    this article is a masterpiece. kudos to the author.

  5. Ram Yerneni Says:

    I can’t subscribe to author’s comments on loksatta.
    How is it insulting to voter, when one is contesting elections in fair manner.One has to see how the candidate is contesting elections,history of party, does party has internal ombudsman to look into corruption charges within, the way candidates presents himself, candidates past etc.
    ,When all major partys are giving tickets to real mafia, liqour mafia, goons etc., and here when there are candidates with no corrupt background stood for elections, how it can be an insult to voter.Is author suggesting 200+ clean(retired) bureacrats should be given tickets.
    Though it is best case to have candidates with established clean public image,we cannot wait for them, while trying for those kind of profiles, LSP should keep contesting with best available candidates, you have to understand that house is on fire.

  6. Karnataka: BJP lost, Cong didn’t win, and 2014 is wide open - Firstpost Says:

    […] the elections, Palini Swamy suggested that castes are not monolithic in their voting patterns. He wrote in Churumuri, “We really don’t have a good 21st century theory of (how) caste loyalties inspire electoral […]

  7. Deepak Says:

    Congrats to Cong for their win. People of Karnataka have voted for Cong inspite of central scams simply because they didn’t want the risk of a coalition and wanted a stable Govt. Now Cong should stop its infighting and do what it said BJP didn’t do – governance!!

    And funny to see some political commentators jumping around saying BJP is finished. Same Karnataka will vote BJP in LS to punish corrupt Cong central Govt. So nothing is lost for BJP. And Cong has tough work ahead.

    Biggest loser is Yeddy, getting single digit seats, all his aides – Renuka, Shobha, Udasi defeated and Cong majority ensures he is politically irrelevant. Looks like in a couple of months, he will be back in BJP.

  8. Goldstar Says:

    I don’t buy your theory that the Loksatta candidates lacked substantial movement or a public project ownership.

    Most of them were involved in social causes and were known public figures before they stood for elections. For e.g Ashwin Mahesh was instrumental in conceptualising many BMTC innovations (G-* buses) and his work for saving lakes is also well-known. Similarly other candidates were known for their work in increasing voter registrations etc.

    Anyway a great start has been made by Loksatta in Urban Bangalore. They have generated an awareness and excitement at least among the middle classes that they are an alternative.

    As people become more politically aware, Loksatta will become an force to reckon with. I am very optimistic.

  9. krishna Says:

    “Loksatta” has fielded many professionals and real social workers.
    They have fielded for example “krishnappa” who fough hard against yerudappa (former CM) in land grabbing. he suffered various personal losses against this.

  10. sameershisodia Says:

    While the rest of the analysis is good, if cynical, I eventually got to this:

    “It is not enough to claim that the political class is corrupt and inefficient. It is not enough to claim their own personal cleanliness, educational qualifications or industry experience.”

    That’s rich! You’re clearly unaware of or ignoring the amount of work some of those “neophytes” have actually done for over 5 years now or the impact it has had, and clearly not gone through well thought through plans for bringing in systemic changes in politics as well. Plus the fact that this entire effort probably helped up the voting %age from 43 to 58, and got many a traditional party to actually talk about positive agendas, for a change.

    Why the extreme cynicism when someone is actually trying to change something, instead of merely crib?

  11. Deepak Says:

    @Goldstar @Krishna This election has proved that the likes of Loksatta are irrelevant and similar thing will happen to Aam Admi party (though they may gain couple of seats in Delhi). Loksatta guys are too idealistic and their ideals don’t work – people won’t waste their votes for non entities. If they are genuinely interested in doing something good, they should join one of the parties. The argument that all parties are bad is stupid. If you keep saying all parties are bad, how will you make them good? Answer is – when good people join and try to do something.

    Cong has some good people like Rajeev Gowda, BJP has many IT professionals. And national level too, both parties have sensible people. They all know their parties are imperfect, but they can try doing something through their party. It will bear more fruit than staying outside the system and contesting elections as independents and wasting everyone’s time.

  12. Goldstar Says:


    I hope you are aware that Loksatta has a seat (Jayaprakash Narayan in Kukatpally constituency) in AP assembly.

    The positive effect of candidates like Loksatta/AAP, if they win, will be that they will have an independent stand on many issues which could be different from their party’s. For e.g. on the Nuclear deal issue or the retail FDI issue, do you believe that all the BJP members are against these? But they vote en-bloc for or against issues, because of the party whip culture. The public will have some informed discussion on real issues.

    Second, I agree that mainstream parties also have good candidates. But there will be additional pressure on them now to put up these better candidates than outright goondas. That can only be better for our democracy.

  13. sameershisodia Says:

    Well, joining existing parties isn’t the only route. In fact they’re too deeply invested into the current way of doing things, and have no motivation or rational reason to give up on 200 Cr a day. A fundamental rethink of systems, while tough, is what’s needed. You can call it idealistic, but the truth is many such small changes have already been effected in Bangalore, and one’s got to make a start.

    They did not waste my time – so speak for yourself – please. The Big10 actually saves me time. And the hope that politics and governance can actually work for us is surely a welcome change.

    If anything, cynicism wastes our time, and inhibits us from moving ahead as a people.

  14. Nanu Nane Says:

    @Goldstar: And what has Jayaprakash Narayan achieved. AP is still corrupt as ever.

  15. Goldstar Says:

    @Nanu nene, corruption in AP has gone down by 1/2xx (replace xx by the number of assembly seats in AP). Good enough for me.

  16. Shr Says:

    When you write ‘caste support to political parties and leaders is tactical not strategic’ what do you mean? Can you throw some light as I am unable to make out any difference between tactical voting and strategic voting. (Ref http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tactical_voting )

  17. Deepak Says:

    @Goldstar – Yes, I know Jayaprakash is an MLA in AP. But as an indepedent MLA, has he been able to achieve anything? Answer is no!! Lets assume Ashwin Mahesh or someone had won, could one person have done anything? Answer is no. They have to be part of the mainstream parties and have numbers, else they won’t be able to deliver results. At the most, he could have developed his constituency, but even that’s not easy for an independent MLA.

    Concept of Loksatta/AAP is great, we need such good people. But unfortunately, this works on paper only. Ground reality is such people won’t get elected, or even if they do, they can get handful of seats and won’t be able to achieve much.

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