Karnataka, like India, is a place of extreme contrasts. One sees this in Hyderabad Karnataka’s human development Indicators being closer to that of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, while Coastal Karnataka’s is closer to Kerala. Karnataka, like India, is a place of great linguistic and cultural diversity: the Kannada spoken in Bengaluru sounds very different to the one spoken in Mangaluru, which in turn sounds very different to the one spoken in Hyderabad Karnataka. Like India, Karnataka is going through a severe agricultural crisis and an urban boom, changing the demographic of the state quite fundamentally.
It would be tempting, therefore, to draw a linear conclusion that how Karnataka votes in 2018 will tell us how India will vote in 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
It will do nothing of that sort. Indeed, if recent history is anything to go by, how Karnataka votes in 2018 will not even tell us anything useful about how Karnataka will vote in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. State and general elections have seen little in common by way of vote shares or seats, despite being held so close to each other.
But that is not why these elections are important.
It could mark the decisive end of the relevance two concepts that are relentlessly trotted out to explain Karnataka’s politics: “dominant castes" and “vote banks". Specifically, these elections may show that in Karnataka politics, it may not matter anymore how the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats vote. Or, at least, no party can reasonably hope to come to power by being seen to be a “Vokkaliga party" such as the Janata Dal (Secular), or JDS, or a “Lingayat party" (like the Bharatiya Janata Party). It is likely even if either of these two castes vote en masse for any party, it may not be enough for that party to win an election.
Surveys, on average, seem to show that the Congress is going to be the single largest party, though Vokkaligas seem to be backing the JDS in large numbers and Lingayats, the BJP. If this is indeed the outcome, it will prove to be a confirmation of the leaked numbers of the caste census conducted by the Karnataka government, which show that these two groups each constitute about 10% of the state’s population. On the other hand, the numbers seem to suggest that Dalits seem to form the single largest caste group in the state and surveys suggest that they are decisively backing the Congress.
Why does this matter nationally?
For two reasons: First, the larger national trend of hitherto dominant castes, such as the Patels, Marathas, and Jats, losing their grip on political power would continue in Karnataka—suggesting that perhaps we are seeing a large-scale shift in India’s electoral politics.
Second, that the space being vacated is probably not being filled by any one caste, but perhaps a coalition of subaltern communities, which in Karnataka would be religious minorities, backward castes and Dalits abbreviated to AHINDA. How this grouping votes will probably decide the outcome of the election. If the majority of these three communities back the Congress (as surveys seem to suggest), it is quite likely that the latter will win comfortably. If, on the other hand, the vote is diffused between the three parties, a hung assembly may very well be the result.
The results of Karnataka Elections 2018 might, therefore, mark not just a decisive shift in the state’s electoral politics but herald a similar one across India.
Alok Prasanna Kumar is an advocate based in Bengaluru and a keen observer of Karnataka politics.