Never in the past did Karnataka witness such a vitriolic campaign bordering on personal attacks and unabashed display of identity politics. As the curtains finally came down on a high-decibel electioneering, it essentially reflected a contest between belligerent nationalism of the BJP and the politics of regional and linguistic identity pursued by the Congress. The religious assertion was also thrown in to make the electoral battle more intense, with the Siddaramaiah government according religious minority status to the numerically strong and influential Lingayat community. It remains to be seen whether this poll-eve gambit would help the Congress outwit the saffron party and retain power in a State that never returned the incumbent government to power since 1985. Karnataka’s poll outcome is bound to have a profound impact on national politics ahead of the 2019 general elections. For the Congress, which has made a habit of losing Assembly elections State after State since its worst drubbing in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the southern State poses an existential challenge while for the BJP and its star campaigner Narendra Modi, it would serve as a reality check ahead of the main battle next year. The campaign had hit a new low with the major contenders for power trading no-holds-barred personal charges. Politicians of all hues were seen queuing up to seek blessings of the heads of various religious mutts, which hold a sway over Karnataka politics. Whether it was the temple-hopping of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, his challenge to the Prime Minister for a 15-minute debate in Parliament or the jibes fired by Modi targeting the Congress’ first family, the campaign had rancour written all over it.
Unlike in the past, the Congress gave a free hand to its Chief Minister who sought to locate his politics in the assertion of regional identity and ethnic pride as a counter to majoritarian triumphalism of the BJP. The campaign saw Siddaramaiah mocking the rival party for ‘importing’ North Indian leaders for the campaign and made Kannada pride a key feature of his poll strategy. He even advocated a separate flag for the State and personally ordered that the Hindi signboards on the city subways be taken down and replaced with those in Kannada. The North-South divide became a dominant theme of his rallies. Unfortunately, pressing public issues like the near-collapse of civic infrastructure in Bengaluru, touted as India’s Silicon Valley, the agrarian crisis and poor law and order had taken a backseat as the electioneering was dominated by identity politics and personal attacks. It is ironical that Karnataka, one of the high-growth and progressive States, was turned into a hunting ground for a divisive campaign based on identity instead of debating over development issues.