When Democracy Itself Becomes a Distraction

With more state elections in India this year and then, the parliamentary elections next year, India is once more in election mode. Many are billing the assembly elections the semi-final before the finals in 2024. As far as the ruling BJP party is concerned, that could well be true. The first round of the semi-finals in the form of state assembly elections that took place in the north-eastern states went to the BJP. That is also a big blow for the Congress party which has long held sway in the region, what with its secular brand of politics and comfort with the English language.

In a few weeks from now, Karnataka a southern state and a bastion of both national parties will go to the polls. The Congress Party has already released its first list of candidates, while the BJP is holding its cards close to its chest, keeping the media and the nation in suspense. For the greater part, it will be a contest between these two parties, with the JD(S) seeking to increase its seats. In the event that both national parties fall short of a majority, JD(S) might play kingmaker, as they have in the past. None of the other southern regional parties contest in elections in Karnataka, and neither has the AAP shown any interest, even though they participated in elections in Goa and in Gujarat. I am surprised that even the NCP nor the Shiv Sena has shown any keenness to test the waters in Karnataka, given that a large part of north-western Karnataka has great affinity with Maharashtra.

Forget about testing the waters. Right now, a battle is brewing between milk cooperative federations of two states, Gujarat and Karnataka. With news that the Union home minister, Amit Shah, mooted the idea of the joining of forces between Amul and Nandini, milk cooperative brands from Gujarat and Karnataka. I think more is being made of it than necessary by mischievous and unprofessional PR agencies and the media, than warrants attention. Of course, any issue that affects farmers – even dairy farmers – can become a politically sensitive matter that can affect the vote. But on this one, I have my doubts.

The Vidhan Soudha Legislative Assembly in Karnataka; Image: Mohammad Mahdi Karim on Wikimedia Commons

The elections in Karnataka are not so much a battle between two national parties, the BJP and the Congress, as they are between the two dominant castes, Lingayats and the Volkaliggas. This has been the basis of voting in the state for decades and we shouldn’t expect much to change this time. Any party keen on winning elections in this state has to cultivate ties with both castes and these are indeed powerful constituencies. The other smaller groups are the Karnataka Muslims, and a small Tamil population that resides in Karnataka. The Muslims of Karnataka were handed a partisan decision by the state courts over a school uniform issue that erupted over a year ago, and that too seemed to me a deliberately hyped-up non-issue by the same unprofessional elements. That said, I wonder if we would apply the same logic and standards to the school uniform of male Sikh students anywhere in India.

Looking at the Karnataka elections and the ruling BJP’s prospects there, I think that it comes as a welcome distraction from more pressing and heated issues at hand. Issues such as economic growth, inclusive growth, job creation, high inflation and indeed the shrinking space for dissent and free speech which should all be relevant local issues as well for the Karnataka electorate, will be ignored or taken for granted and instead the BJP leaders will tout their infrastructure projects as examples of a government that has delivered. In fact, TV news on English channels made big news around Prime Minister Modi’s charm offensive of the south, as he went around announcing or inaugurating new projects recently.

These elections will also come as welcome distraction from the Adani issue, on which opposition parties have been demanding a JPC probe, from the opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from parliament, from the opposition issue of the CBI and ED being used as instruments of oppression and intimidation. On the last one, the Supreme Court dismissed their plea that the government was misusing these agencies. In my view, if the government was absolutely confident that there was no corruption involved in the Adani matter, they should have quickly agreed to a JPC and moved on. On the Rahul Gandhi disqualification, I don’t think either party can gain political mileage out of it, and it would be naïve of Congress party to expect a sympathy wave arising out of the disqualification and sentencing.

Long queue of voters in Bangalore 2008 State Assembly Elections; Image: Election Commission of India (under GODL) on Wikimedia Commons

And while the Karnataka elections will be welcome distractions for the ruling BJP from all this, it does not mean that the election would have turned on any of these issues. That is the sad and ironic aspect of what democracy has come to mean in India today. In any other country, any of these issues are serious and explosive enough to rouse the electorate to fight for and demand change. And I mean all the economic issues as well, such as high inflation and soaring unemployment. Not so in India anymore.

As I have been writing recently, the middle class, which are not merely the consuming class but the intelligentsia and in many ways conscience-keepers of a nation as well, have capitulated to the powers that be and have been coopted by the business-politics nexus that has evolved in the past couple of decades. In India, we also have a class of rural folk who have suddenly gotten rich overnight selling their land to businesses and governments for infrastructure and industrial projects. These people have made tangible, material progress in their lives in a short span of time but have lost the capacity for change on a larger scale.

This is true of Karnataka as well, that has seen reasonably good growth in the past few decades. In 2021-22, the state’s GDP has grown at 9.47% year on year, the third-fastest among the southern states, while Andhra Pradesh and Telangana lead with 11.42% and 10.88% respectively. Tamil Nadu and Kerala grew in the same period by 7.98% and 7.09%. All this according to RBI data. While Karnataka’s latest unemployment according to CMIE is much lower than other southern states at 2.3%, its poverty rate according to the same RBI data is much worse at 20.9%.

I have never lived in Karnataka, but have visited it on holiday as well as on work. However, from what I have read over the years, the state has never been able to shrug off the corruption tag and it’s mostly to do with land and real estate deals, mining, as well as the liquor mafia. Karnataka, and Bangalore to be more precise, were home to India’s largest spirits companies, United Spirits and United Breweries, both owned by the businessman-turned politician-turned fugitive, Vijay Mallya. Several smaller liquor companies too operate in the state, and are reported to have been part of a mafia for many decades.

Indian tech giant, Infosys’ headquarters in Bangalore; Image Ashwin Kumar CC by SA 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons

It is indeed unfortunate that a state that boasts of India’s best-known tech giants and of India’s Silicon Valley is in this sad condition. Bangalore is home to one of India’s leading science universities, Indian Institute of Science, that often leads India in international rankings. And yet, obscurantists abound. I know that the city of Bangalore also benefitted immensely from Calcutta’s decline; over many years, several prized multinational corporations, and some Indian companies shifted their headquarters from Calcutta to Bangalore in the 1980s and 1990s. I wonder if they too have been swamped by the culture of corruption and indifference that Bangalore has come to be known for. It is also sad that Karnataka’s traditional bastion of high learning and culture, Dharwad and its surroundings, are now captured by Hindutva ideologues and that several intellectuals there have been systematically murdered over the years.

Consider this on a national scale and one can see that what is true of any state of India is also true for all of India. In that sense we are all states part of one union of India. What is worrisome is that once a ruling party seeks diversionary tactics from important concerns, and once it has guaranteed itself a position in power for many terms on end, it could be the very unravelling of the famed Indian democracy. For it no longer feels compelled to work for the people; it takes their support for granted and no longer works to earn it.

Until one fine day, democracy itself becomes too much of a distraction, and not a welcome one at that. From a Congress-mukt (Congress-free) Bharat to an opposition-mukt Bharat, to eventually a democracy-mukt Bharat.

Water, milk or alcoholic spirits, whatever your beverage, everyone ought to be careful what they wish for. And vote with their heads, always. 

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