Karnataka: The Political Outlier In South India

  • Dravidian politics has failed to take root in Karnataka when compared to its southern neighbours.
  • The dominance of the Congress party throughout the state’s history shows that people in Karnataka think nationally.
  • The state has shown hospitability to right-wing parties, beginning with its incredible response to the Ayodhya movement.
  • Shrikanth KrishnamacharyFriday, June 15, 2018 2:10 pm IST
    The Karnataka VIdhan Soudha (Rajesh Vadlamani/Wikimedia Commons)
    The Karnataka VIdhan Soudha (Rajesh Vadlamani/Wikimedia Commons)

    Karnataka had its fifteenth assembly election in May – a much-discussed poll in the national media – that resulted in a hung assembly and a coalition government.

    One of the reasons why the election captured the attention of political observers across the country is that Karnataka is a promising battleground for the two national parties, and its results were analysed by political partisans with an eye on 2019.

    The two national parties – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress – accounted for 74.2 per cent of the votes cast in the assembly election. To put this remarkable number in perspective, let’s consider three other southern states –

    • In Tamil Nadu, the two national parties accounted for 9 per cent of the votes in the 2016 assembly election.
    • In Andhra Pradesh in 2014, the BJP and Congress got 15 per cent of the votes polled.
    • In Kerala in 2016, the two parties polled 34 per cent of the vote.

    That makes the corresponding figure of 74 per cent in Karnataka truly exceptional, given that the political narrative of Dravidian supremacy is almost all-pervasive in South India.

    Despite its distinctiveness as a cultural and political bloc for much of Indian history, Karnataka has, post-Independence, resisted regionalisation of its polity, unlike Tamil Nadu and even Andhra Pradesh. The complete failure of Dravidian politics and the consistent success of national parties in Karnataka have to be among the most remarkable conundrums in Indian political history.

    The Historical Dominance Of Indian National Congress

    Karnataka is arguably the last stronghold of the Indian National Congress. It is the state where the Grand Old Party has enjoyed more success than perhaps in any other major state.

    In fact, in the 66 years since 1952, the Congress party has enjoyed power in Karnataka for close to 50 years. In the 15 elections since that year, the Congress vote share has dropped below 30 per cent on just one occasion – in 1994 when Janata Dal stormed to power.

    Congress Vote Share In Karnataka Assembly Elections; *1952 elections correspond to the much smaller Mysore state before the States Reorganization Act of 1956; **1972 and 1978 figures correspond to Congress (Indira)
    Congress Vote Share In Karnataka Assembly Elections; *1952 elections correspond to the much smaller Mysore state before the States Reorganization Act of 1956; **1972 and 1978 figures correspond to Congress (Indira)

    Hospitability to Right-wing Parties

    The other feature of Karnataka that sets it apart from the rest of the south is its hospitability to right-wing parties. It was one of the earliest states to offer the BJP some serious encouragement. Very few states responded to the Ayodhya movement as viscerally as Karnataka did. Between 1989 and 1994, the BJP increased its vote share in Karnataka from 4 per cent to 17 per cent – a significant increase for which a parallel is hard to find.

    While the Ayodhya movement remains pivotal, a climate of opinion favourable to conservative Hindu politics has always existed in Karnataka right from the 1950s. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh contested its first election in Mysore state in 1952. Even in that year, it got 2.3 per cent of all votes.

    When the newly constituted BJP fought one of its first elections in Karnataka, in 1983, it got a whopping 7.9 per cent of the vote. This was actually higher than the 7.7 per cent that BJP got nationally in the elections of 1984.

    So clearly, the BJP is not a force that emerged out of nowhere in Karnataka in the mid-2000s under B S Yeddyurappa's stewardship. A culture amenable to right-wing politics has always existed in the state.

    Vote Shares of Centre-right Parties in Karnataka
    Vote Shares of Centre-right Parties in Karnataka

    What makes Karnataka special? Why has the state bucked the trend in its neighbouring states, which have voted heavily in favour of regionalism? Why has Karnataka stood by the Congress for as long as it has? And why has the BJP succeeded in Karnataka while failing miserably in the rest of the south?

    Let’s explore.

    Lingual Diversity

    One factor lies in the lingual diversity of the state, preventing language-based fundamentalism from emerging. This is despite the preponderance of Kannada as the lingua franca. As per the 2001 census, Kannada is the mother tongue for only about 66 per cent of the state’s inhabitants. This is in sharp contrast to say, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala, where Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam are spoken by 89 per cent, 84 per cent, and 97 per cent respectively of the population.

    Regional Subcultures

    Karnataka is also a state with significant regional subcultures. While south interior Karnataka (often dubbed “Old Mysore”) remains the heartland of the state with a dominant Kannada culture, this is less true for other parts of the state.

    The coastal areas have considerable Tulu and Konkani presence. The north-western part is usually dubbed “Bombay Karnataka” with a significant influence of Marathi culture. The north-eastern section is an arid desert with a significant Telugu minority.

    In fact, the town of Dharwad in north-west Karnataka is regarded as the capital of Hindustani music. It is regarded as a town where the north meets the south, and is probably emblematic of the state’s complex cosmopolitanism.

    The other distinctive aspect of Karnataka is the incredible cosmopolitanism of its capital city – Bengaluru. By most accounts, Bengaluru has less than 50 per cent native Kannada speakers. This is in sharp contrast to Chennai where Tamil is spoken by close to 80 per cent of its inhabitants.


    Let’s now turn to Karnataka’s social structure. The two dominant castes are Lingayats and Vokkaligas, both of whom account for nearly 30 per cent of the population. Brahmins number around 2-3 per cent. These are, at best, estimates, as exact caste enumeration has not been rendered public in census reports since 1952.

    Unlike the Madras Presidency, a culture of anti-Brahminism never developed in Karnataka to that extent. This is probably because the Brahmins in Karnataka have historically enjoyed greater success in Sanskritising the local language and culture as compared to Brahmins in other southern states.

    The Kannada language is arguably the most Sanskritised of the four southern languages, at least in terms of the widespread usage of “Tatsama” words (though some Malayalam and Telugu speakers may object to this assertion).

    The Sanskritisation is not limited to language. Karnataka is also home to one of the highest rates of vegetarianism outside of north India. Twenty-one per cent of the population is estimated to be vegetarian, in contrast to the rates of 1.3 per cent, 1.7 per cent, 2.4 per cent, and 3 per cent in Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. While in the other three southern states vegetarianism remains a mark of “Brahmin culture”, in Karnataka, vegetarianism is mass culture to a significant extent.


    It is not very surprising, then, that there never has been a “Dravidian” consolidation in Karnataka, given the lingual and cultural diversity, coupled with the northern influences on its culture and language over the past 2,000 years.

    But can things change? Can Karnataka turn “Dravidian” the way Tamil Nadu did back in 1967? It remains a possibility, especially in those regions of the state where diversity is the least, such as the Old Mysore area, which is staunchly Kannada and politically loyal to regional satrap Deve Gowda. But as we proceed upwards, the rigidity refracts, paving the way for a more inclusive and cosmopolitan state. An exceptionalism it can undoubtedly pride itself on.

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