Are the conditions right for the lotus to bloom?
Karnataka is so tough on incumbents that no CM has been re-elected since 1985
Rough observations from Narendra Modi’s rally in Bengaluru, 4 February: So many people waiting for lunch. Thousands of rural families, bused in from around the state, wandering lost through the dust of the Palace Grounds, or crouched in the thin shade of trees, asking each other about the food. In the fenced maidan where the rally was actually taking place, it was nearly 5pm before the PM rose to speak, and much of the crowd was on its way out. By the time Modi reached his memorable remark about farmers being his top priority — “And by top I mean tomato, onion and potato”— half the audience, seated in the front, were still facing him, but the other half were facing the exit.
It’s a pity the news cameras did not catch it, because it was a revealing picture of the emerging stakes in the Karnataka election. The vast financial and organizational muscle of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was on full display, in the deep ranks of parked buses and the giant mass of people they brought in. But Modi’s message in Hindi failed to rouse many of them, visibly those from rural Karnataka. The PM would need to come back (as he did) with his lines learned in Kannada—– and with more to say to farmers, his top priority, if he wanted them to reciprocate.
The February rally was another signal that the BJP’s gateway to the South was not going to swing open on its own this year. In principle, it should have: Karnataka is so tough on incumbents that no CM has been re-elected since 1985. Polls haven’t revealed if there is a Modi wave; but a more serious threat to the government was the wave of droughts that scorched the state for three consecutive years of its term. It could have meant a walkover for the BJP. Siddaramaiah’s strong position, however, as he heads towards voting day, does not reflect just his ability to manoeuvre through a tough political climate, but also through the worsening natural climate in his state.
The welfare shock of Karnataka’s three-year drought was buffered by the government’s readiness to provision, through its series of Bhagya schemes, its vulnerable rural citizens against hunger. There’s no political genius to ratcheting up welfare schemes, or to presenting agricultural loan waivers, as the CM did last summer. What does deserve credit—and speaks in an unheard register to rural voters —are policies to restore the actual viability of farming, in not just financial but ecological terms. Expert reports, including one from the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, have stressed that Karnataka is more vulnerable than other states to a disrupted climate. Climate resilience might sound like a lofty concern in the context of a tooth-and-nail state election. But a marginal dry-land farmer doesn’t need an expert report to grasp its role in her future —she only needs the monsoon to stop two days early.
In Karnataka, where 70% of agriculture is rain-fed, the drought of 2014-16 motivated a long-overdue effort to create water conservation works; in one of his tweet storms, the CM claimed to have financed the construction of 200,000 farm ponds. A subtler policy, personally shepherded by agriculture minister Krishna Byre Gowda, incentivized and encouraged a return to farming consuming alternative crops, especially millets. This is not trivial. Millets are traditional but vanishing staples—they are also robustly heat-tolerant, with low input costs, and water-efficient to an exemplary degree compared to commercial crops, paddy, and even maize. Millets are “one definite option on the table to cope with climate change,” Byre Gowda has said; a more plausible one than “yogic farming”, which is endorsed by Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh.
It is unglamorous work preparing farmers for the “new normal” in which drought is the annual rule rather than the exception. It does not make national headlines, but it is not lost on rural voters. Modi has loosed a barrage of criticism at the state Congress, but despite rural distress, his instigation of Karnataka’s farmers hasn’t stuck. The odds in these polls suggest that the resilience of a party in power is increasingly linked to the resilience it extends to its agrarian families. The climate crisis is not going away. But parties can hope for a bedrock of support if they are attentive, not just to yesterday’s drought, but to the shifts in tomorrow’s weather—so farmers do not go hungry, except sometimes at rallies.
Raghu Karnad is author of Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War, which won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2016.