BJP setback in Karnataka product of misplaced priorities in agriculture, water distribution & tribal land policies

Loss of 8 seats linked to several missteps amid rising anti-incumbency sentiment

Member of parliament from Bangalore South constituency Tejasvi Surya (Right) with former Prime Minister of India HD Deve Gowda. Photo: @Tejasvi_Surya / X (formerly Twitter)

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has maintained a brave face in Karnataka in the Lok Sabha 2024 elections, despite losing eight seats to its arch-rival Indian National Congress. The underlying issues that have fueled its decline point to misplaced priorities, particularly in agriculture, horticulture, water distribution for farming and wildlife management on the Western Ghats’ fringes. The previous BJP government that ruled the state had a strong anti-incumbency factor.

Karnataka elects 28 of 543 Lok Sabha seats. BJP’s hold went down from 25 seats last time to 17 in the 2024 general elections. 

Between 2018 and 2023, the BJP government stalled many issues that directly impacted farmers. This included interstate water distribution across Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Goa and Maharashtra via the Cauvery and Mahadayi rivers. 

Read more: Verdict 2024: Farmers in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur vote in INDIA bloc over Cauvery water scarcity, drought & MSP

Congress had proposed a buffering dam at Mekedatu on the Karnataka side of the border with Tamil Nadu. Despite being fully aware of the benefits of this dam, successive Chief Ministers of Karnataka under BJP rule politicised it beyond repair in order to deny Congress leaders DK Shivakumar and S Siddaramaiah credit for initiating the project with Tamil Nadu. 

Congress first raised the issue in the 2023 assembly elections and continued throughout the first year of the Congress government, from May 2023 to May 2024, leading up to the general elections.

Although this issue did not cause significant damage in the constituencies surrounding the Cauvery basin, it sent a message to farmers in the drier areas of central Karnataka and Kalyana Karnataka that the BJP-led central government would not assist them in overcoming their irrigation water problems. In this region, the BJP lost six of its seats in 2019.

The second source of concern was Karnataka’s ecologically sensitive Western Ghats, where tribal farmers are vying for space, particularly in Dakshina Kannada, Udupi, Chikkamagaluru, Shivamogga and Chamarajanagar districts.

Successive Karnataka governments have issued orders threatening to evict tribal farmers from their ancestral lands, where they have lived for over 250 years. Some have even obtained titles to their properties. 

This was evident in the 2023 assembly election results, which showed resentment in these districts. 

“This also significantly increased anti-incumbency sentiment against governments, particularly BJP government in the state, from 2018 to 2023. In the 2024 elections, this resentment was evident in the Chamarajanagar Lok Sabha constituency, which the BJP lost. This district has many forest areas and wildlife corridors now being promoted for wildlife safaris and forest resort tourism, destroying the natural forest ecosystem,” said Nanjundappa, leader of the Chamarajanagar district Village Forest Committee cluster.

Read more: Verdict 2024: Migrant hub western Odisha voted for change, shows BJP overthrow of BJD strongholds

The BJP anticipated that this decline would occur following the 2023 state assembly elections, a scribe with CM Siddaramaiah’s election strategy team told Down To Earth on condition of anonymity.

“Losing nine seats for a party with such good leadership and international acclaim was nothing short of disastrous for the BJP. Their Karnataka campaigners for the 2024 elections did not bother to assure government support to forest dwellers, hilly farmers and Micro Other Backward Classes from very backward communities in Karnataka’s Malnad districts,” they stated.

This distrust further permeated the associations of marginal farmers, hilly areas and forest dwellers and later spread to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes communities through non-governmental organisations working in central Karnataka and Kalyana Karnataka regions, the scribe said.

“Old Mysore region is dominated by Vokkaliga (landowners and tillers) and Kuruba (shepherds and cowherds) communities. The communities have representatives in leaders like HD Kumaraswamy (Janata Dal (Secular)), Siddaramaiah (INC), DK Shivakumar (INC), Puttawamy Gowda (INC) and R Ashok (BJP). This time, the region flipped to support the BJP-JD(S) alliance,” they added.

There were also issues related to livelihood as well, said Kalkuli Vittal Hegde, an environmentalist and advocate for tribal communities in Chikkamagaluru district. “Successive governments had unleashed a reign of fear on the tribal communities in the Western Ghats through evictions, movement restrictions and proposals to convert many reserve forests into wildlife conservation areas and reintroduce tigers into the forests,” he said.

Read more: Verdict 2024: Did farmer grievances about paddy MSP lead to BJD’s defeat in Odisha?

The forest department was used to instill fear in these communities, first by erecting gates on paths leading to tribal habitations and making frequent visits by department officials, harassing forest inhabitants and prohibiting them from collecting minor forest products and medicinal plants, as well as cultivating them — all of which are coercive methods, Hegde said.

Finally, there is more awareness among people in Karnataka’s eco-sensitive zones and farming communities. They understand that hollow poll promises will not help them and that they must seek change in the political climate at the state level and then replicate it at the national level.

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