Dust plumes waft above poorly maintained roads as legions of motorists head to Ranebennur township in the state of Karnataka in southern India in April ahead of the upcoming polls, where not only religion but caste, too, is expected to take center stage
. As in most regions of the country the condition of the roads appears like a scar on the nation, reflecting years of poor governance. But things are changing, local people say, as they prepare for the May 12 elections. Shopkeepers and taxi drivers now speak openly about the "wave" of change that has been brought about in the last five years by the Indian National Congress
(INC or Congress party-led) government. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah came to power in 2013, unseating the government of Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP), which now rules most of India's 29 states as well as controlling the federal government in New Delhi. Siddaramaiah's popularity shot up in line with a plethora of welfare schemes he introduced at a grassroots level, as the public deals with numerous issues in addition to a lack of basic infrastructure and erratic water supplies.
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Citizens speak highly of one scheme that provides subsidized grain to over 12 million impoverished families. Another offered pregnant women and poor mothers hot cooked meals on a daily basis, along with essential ingredients like milk and eggs for their babies. "Those who do not have food, got food. Those children who did not have milk, got milk," says Imran Syed, a Muslim voter in Devangere town who supported the Siddaramaiah administration. "People have been voting for the Congress party and will continue to do so. Minority Christians and Muslims tend to do that because they feel the government, unlike its BJP predecessor, ensured their security," the Muslim man added. The BJP ruled for five straight years for the first time in the southern state, and is now applying those same mechanisms to try and wrest power back once more. However, the issue that most concerns religious minorities, particularly Christians, is the series of attacks orchestrated against them soon after the BJP came to power in 2008. "Congress is a secular party and backward or downtrodden people can always bank on it," Congress leader and legislative house speaker K. B. Koliwad said recently, exuding confidence about another victory for the party. Indian National Congress party president Rahul Gandhi (second from right), sits with party leaders as he arrives to observe a fast outside Raj Ghat, the memorial to the father of the Indian nation Mahatama Gandhi, in New Delhi on April 9. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)
Congress shimmered as the ruling party for most of India's 71 years of independence but it now only governs three states, including Karnataka. Retaining power here has become crucial as the party moves to galvanize its ranks to work for next year's parliamentary elections. "It can always fall back on its [traditional support bases]. Whenever Congress has been in trouble in the past, it was Karnataka that has helped to revive the party," Koliwad said. He was referring to the shocking defeat of Congress leader and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1977, which eventually resulted in Congress losing power. However, she won a by-election in Chikmagalur, a hill station in Karnataka, back in 1978, which catapulted her back into power two years later. "History will repeat itself once again, as her grandson Rahul Gandhi is now trying to return Congress to its former glory," Koliwad said. Others say the real electoral battle in Karnataka, as in most Indian states, will ultimately boil down to the two core issues of religion and caste. All major parties — Congress, BJP and Janata Dal, a regional party — are playing one or both of these cards to garner more votes. Dal leaders, including former prime minister H. D. Deve Gowda, draw much of their strength from the Vokkaliga caste, of which Gowda belongs. This is considered politically decisive as up to 8 percent of the state's 61 million people are of this caste. Meanwhile, the BJP has been massaging the collective ego of the Lingayat caste, to which its leader B. S. Yeddyurappa is affiliated. Support from this community, which represents close to 10 percent of the local population, already helped him to become the BJP's chief minister once. Despite having his name tainted by a number of scandals, he is tipped to resume the role by riding another wave of popular, caste-based support. In addition, the Congress Party's chief minister, Siddaramiah, belongs to the Kruba caste. This community of shepherds makes up 9 percent of the state. While these castes are primarily Hindu, the BJP is having little success winning them over despite projecting an image of itself as a protector of the rights of Hindus. Indian Congress Party supporters wear masks of the party's election candidate in Bangalore in this April 2014 file photo. Now Rahul Gandhi, grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, is trying to restore the party to its former glory, with Karnataka seen as a vital state in the upcoming May election. (Photo by Manjunath Kiran/AFP)
Its fortunes appear to be further damaged by the image the Congress party is promulgating of itself as a defender of religious minorities. Deepak Jamkhandi, the BJP's leader in Belgaum, a city in the northern part of Karnataka, has called Congress out for churning out "populist" policies merely to entice voters, which he claims would ultimately drive the local economy into the ground if left unchecked. He told ucanews.com that its welfare schemes are causing an unsustainable level of expenditure on the state that is overburdening taxpayers. Strategically, the BJP is banking on the "Narendra Modi" factor, which is drawing diehard fans of the BJP leader and prime minister to vote for its candidate irrespective of that person's religion, caste or other merits as a politician. This is on top of the BJP's pro-Hindu slant. "People are proud of the party's pro-Hindu ideology. Hindus really think that, under the rule of Congress, Christians and Muslims have always received preferential treatment. We Hindus must band together," said Rahul Virkar, a resident of Belgaum. BJP poll managers in many parts of the state believe the party can retain its traditional support base among upper-caste voters, especially Brahmins and Lingayats, while also winning over neglected sections of the Dalit people.