A state assembly election is supposed to be a process where state’s residents elect legislators to make laws and a government to implement them. Over the years though, members of legislative assembly (MLAs) have become de facto executive authorities over their constituencies, acquiring power over everything from land use, licensing, public service delivery, police and the myriad other things in the citizen-government relationship.

In cities, MLAs have “downgraded" themselves into uber-municipal councillors. Many city members of Parliament (MPs) in Bengaluru, for instance, are more deeply involved in matters concerning BBMP, the municipal corporation, than making laws for the state. The local area development funds allocated to MPs and MLAs deepens their downgrade from lawmakers to municipal executives. While this makes political and financial sense for the political class, it has resulted in the hollowing out of political leadership at local levels, and a disempowered civil service and police force that is more sensitive to the MLA’s wishes than their constitutional duties.

This is a worsening problem in Karnataka as it is in every other state. The government is not working as it should. Perhaps due to the absence of formal decentralization—as state governments are loathe to devolve power to local bodies —we have a perverted form of political decentralization that creates democratically elected feudal lords, not legislators.

Elections are great opportunities for the feudal lords to engage in redistribution of wealth, as many families can “earn" a few thousand rupees during the election season. In the make-believe world of Indian public life, a candidate cannot spend more than Rs28 lakh on her campaign. Making absurd rules and pretending that they are being followed in the full knowledge that they are not is one of our delightful national character traits. So we ignore such growing holes in our boat and preoccupy ourselves with the seats tally.

This time, in addition to these old concerns, is a new one. The Karnataka election has become crucial in determining the fate of national politics. It is unclear if star campaigners from New Delhi and other states care about the issues that are important to voters in Karnataka. Beyond slogans, dramatic allegations and exaggerated claims, the phenomenon of star campaigners does little to highlight important issues, much less offer ideas on how the party would address them if elected.

Identity politics is not merely on offer. It seems to be the only thing on offer.

It would seem that voters who don’t care about identity politics merely have to choose which type of identity politics they prefer. Yet that is only part of the story. For one, the choice is also about which of the parties will allow pragmatic forward-looking politicians to become ministers if they form a government. More importantly, though, the choice is also the direction this generation of voters in Karnataka want to set the Indian republic towards.

In many ways, Karnataka is a future state of India. From that perspective, it will be interesting to see if the state can assert its voice, values and vision in a national political discourse dominated by the past states of India.

Nitin Pai is director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent research centre and school of public policy

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