Polls and the paradox in Karnataka: Casting their shadow on 2024

Herein lies the paradox of Karnataka. The rest of educated India and the world knows the state mostly through the stories of its tech leaders and the vibrancy of Bengaluru, which has sometimes been voted as the top city to work for many and certainly for IT professionals. On the other hand, the state of Karnataka has become a tinderbox of communal strife. 

Jagdish Rattanani May 09, 2023
Representational Photo

Without delving into what the Karnataka elections hold and which way the wind will blow, it can be safely said that this is an election that has significance well beyond the immediate. In fact, rarely has an Indian state election been as important for the nation as the one in Karnataka now.  For what we are seeing is not just one election battle but a fight for a larger message that this electoral outcome will send out to India and the world. Most observers, irrespective of political leanings, would agree that the results of this election will carry significant implications for Indian politics into 2024 and beyond.

This is a place of privilege for the state and its electorate of over 52 million. It also places an enormous responsibility on the people of Karnakata, a state that has been a pioneer in science, technology and innovation. In popular Indian imagination, the state continues to be at the top in building new and modern tech-based solutions. For example, it leads the nation in total installed power of grid-interactive renewable energy. It is fertile ground for a host of start-ups and the angels who give start-ups their fuel to play around and experiment. The state has 42 per cent of India’s total of 95 unicorns. It has over 13,000 start-ups now.

More than 40 years ago in this state was etched the story of Infosys that went on to showcase India as a global software services powerhouse, kickstarting - alongside TCS and others - a revolution that has over five million people in direct employment and many times that number indirectly. Infosys and its best-known founder N R Narayana Murthy poularised messages of integrity and how a straight path can help build a long-term business. These stories have been told again and again in educational and business institutions across India. They marked a modern story of growth with values.

Karnataka's business lore

A new high in this story of business for good, values in the lead, and a spiritual outlook of giving away came again from Karnataka in the leadership of Azim Premji and his giving pledge: “I strongly believe that those of us, who are privileged to have wealth, should contribute significantly to try and create a better world for the millions who are far less privileged. I will continue to act on this belief.” Premji, himself the creator of Wipro as an IT giant, cut new ground and became India’s tallest business leader when he pledged to raise his total lifetime giving to USD 21 billion in 2019.

Every student in India knows these stories. They showcase Karnataka as a state that looks to the future and pushes ahead to meet the needs of a bold, modern, globalised India where Indians are not only the consumers but important suppliers of talent and ideas. It epitomized professional excellence, a spirit of service as well as resilience and humility. 

Vitiated by a communal agenda

Yet, this is also the state that has hit the national headlines for other reasons, like the ugly controversy force-created by interested groups on whether Muslim girls can wear the hijab in colleges – the so-called hijab row. The pictures and utterances that emerged at the height of the controversy in February 2022 presented Karnataka in a less than favourable light, a state that was seen a recent increase in cases of communal violence.  Last year, the state Home Minister Araga Jnanendra told the legislative assembly that the state had recorded 63 instances of communal violence since January 2019 (Jan. 1, 2019 to Feb. 15, 2022), with no convictions as of February 2022. This translated to one communal disturbance every 18 days in a little over three years.

The last days of a bitterly contested and important election are once against seeing the push towards a communal agenda, with the BJP putting its energies in defence of the Bajrang Dal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself led with ‘Bajrang Bali Ki Jai’ and asked voters to chant the same as they cast their vote. It is clear that the veneer, if any, is gone and the appeal on religious grounds is as direct as it gets. 

One reason could be the BJP’s worry that it is losing ground. It thinks that a dose of religion will help it sail through in the face of challenges like internal local area squabbles within the BJP and the Congress hammering away on the monumental corruption that has allegedly become the signature of the BJP rule in Karnataka. The BJP pushback is on a point in the Congress manifesto that promises “decisive action as per the law including imposing a ban” on organisations like the Bajrang Dal and the PFI ({Popular Front of India), the Islamic political organisation, which have been known to be spreading hatred.

The worryiung social indicators 

Herein lies the paradox of Karnataka. The rest of educated India and the world knows the state mostly through the stories of its tech leaders and the vibrancy of Bengaluru, which has sometimes been voted as the top city to work for many and certainly for IT professionals. People from across the country flock to Bengaluru and grow their careers here. On the other hand, the state of Karnataka has become a tinderbox of communal strife. 

True, the politics of the state has changed, the BJP has taken power and grown roots but equally a section of the people have taken to the new and acerbic messaging that pits one against the other. The hijab row had political motivations but it also had to have people on the ground warming up to the message. While it is fair to argue that a lot of the strife is politically created, the headline messaging is equally that the politics of Hindutva has entered the South, and Karnataka is its gateway.

In the process, the message of growth with values may be lost. In the absence of a robust political adoption and translation, that story has not seeped in. Today, headline growth is up but the story beneath the surface is different. The Economic Survey document of the state government noted that the per-capita Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) of INR 3.05 lakhs (estimated for FY 22) is the highest among the top five Indian states. Yet, other critical indicators have not kept up. For example, NFHS data show that Karnataka has fallen over the years in national ranking in terms of stunting in children (low height-for-age). Height-for-age is a measure of linear growth retardation and cumulative growth deficits. In Karnataka, 35.4 per cent of children were stunted in 2019-21. According to a report, this ranked 24 out of the 30 states, falling three spots in 2019-21 from 2015-16. The point is that social indicators and how they are moving have hardly been discussed during the election campaign that is rolling by a divisive agenda.  

The results will help navigate this complex territory. They will speak for now. In doing so, they will cast their long shadow on the 2024 national elections as well.

(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR, Mumbai. Views are personal. By special arrangement with The Billion Press) 

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