The indelible imprint of the Fifth Estate, in Karnataka

The recent elections in Karnataka should be considered a model for the power of people’s democracy, as civil society made the difference

May 30, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 11:48 am IST

‘It sets an example for voters to fight against spin doctors and manipulative political pundits’

‘It sets an example for voters to fight against spin doctors and manipulative political pundits’ | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

While political parties fought bitter battles in Karnataka in the run-up to the Assembly election, civil society in the State, without any alliance or imbibing any particular political hue, made an indelible mark in the history of elections in India. Civil society, with 102 associations or organisations, came together and fought against the strategies of the political parties. They struggled for around six months before the elections under the umbrella “Eddelu Karnataka (Wake-up, Karnataka)”, and the result is there for the nation to see.

They did not argue with the public, or campaign against any party, but just asked the people to wake up. They listened to the people intensely. They put forth the real issues confronting them. They fought against the powerful politics of bigotry orchestrated by communal forces that were stoking the issues around the hijab, azaan, and ‘love jihad’ to name a few. Their intervention opened new vistas for positive politics, secularism and peace. They did not talk about “Operation Kamala”, i.e. the dubious defection drama practised by one major party, followed by judicial interventions that involve a legal interplay of words and bizarre interpretations in court halls with a selective use of constitutional means to whitewash criminal acts. Indeed, political manipulation has become everyday play. One such political party, the Janata Dal (Secular), failed in a big way in the elections. The people of Karnataka rejected it. Dishonest game players were defeated.

As a campaign of awareness

A professor at Hyderabad University, and human rights activist G. Haragopal, said that “Eddelu Karnataka” had the singularity of a movement to wake people up from political inactivity during election time. He noted that in Karnataka, civil society comprised writers, poets, artists, and cinema makers who moved in unison during these polls. Revolutionary writers such as Basavanna and Devanur Mahadeva had influenced the people, campaigned for fraternity and fought against divisive forces. The campaign was intended to make people identify communal elements and parties.

Prof. Haragopal said that the campaign generated live discussion and debate within civil society during elections and won people over. More than 100 people from various social groups worked together for six months, held 250 workshops, met people in 103 constituencies, formed 192 groups, and over 2,000 workers campaigned among voters. They collected data from 41,000 families, distributed 650 posters, and produced 80 videos. Around 100 meetings with journalists were organised, and more than 50 dharnas involving farmers, labour, Dalits, women, students and tribals were organised. The campaign quietly spread to 151 taluk areas in 31 districts. It was a distinctive campaign to raise voter consciousness against the communal agenda, divisive politics and hate campaigns. Their commitment could not be questioned. One lakh pamphlets were printed and distributed. They were not political leaders but simple workers. These social groups did not campaign against any political party; instead, they worked by asking the people to vote in the polls, promoting friendship and opposing hate. They awakened civil society and supported democracy, the Constitution, and the unity of the people.

Generally, all the known political parties put up some candidates in order to ensure that the votes of particular candidates are split. But this time, civil society groups met 49 candidates, negotiated over several weeks and successfully convinced them to withdraw from the contest so that the votes did not split so as to defeat candidates with a communal agenda. This was no mean achievement. They knew the strategies of splitting votes and ‘purchasing’ elected Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). The campaign has grasped election politics and mastered the art of getting to know the public pulse in the elections.

Defections, overnight governments

The people of Karnataka have been the victims of defection dramas, as seen in elections in recent years in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Manipur. In an article, “Maharashtra Political Crisis: The Limits of Supreme Court’s Expiations” (May 15, 2023), the writer has called defection as ‘political skulduggery’. These Chanakya-like manoeuvres have resulted in the dislodging of the Uddhav Thackeray-led coalition government and the overnight formation of a new government led by Eknath Shinde that consists of a coalition of a faction of the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The drama shifted to the High Court and the Supreme Court of India too. The top court observed that it could not ordinarily adjudicate petitions for disqualification under the Tenth Schedule. Relying on Kihoto Hollohan vs Zachillhu And Others and Rajendra Singh Rana And Ors. vs Swami Prasad Maurya And Ors., the top court held that the disqualification of MLAs was up to the Speaker of the House, who must decide on the disqualification proceedings within a reasonable period.

The top court has also held that the Maharashtra Governor “did not act in accordance with the law in calling for a floor test” and that “the communications relied upon by the Governor did not indicate that the ‘rebel’ MLAs intended to withdraw their support to the Chief Minister”. This should have been a severe admonishment of the government at the Centre and the political party concerned. But nobody is bothered. The top court added that the Constitution does not “empower the Governor to enter the political arena and play a role (however minute) in inter-party or intra-party disputes”. The system of the Constitution has not thought about the rule of law.

Model role in civil society

The recent elections in Karnataka should be considered a model for the power of people’s democracy amid the thickets of criminal, religious and communal manipulations and in the backdrop of institutions being disembowelled. It sets an example for voters to fight against spin doctors and manipulative political pundits. Whenever defections are engineered to defeat definite electoral victors and manipulate judicial verdicts, the people should enhance the strength of the democratic power, just like the people of Karnataka, to defeat such political shenanigans.

Parliament, the executive and the judiciary (the three Estates) and the Fourth Estate appear to be in the iron grip of the regime in power. The ‘state’ is in control of money power. There is only one resort for the people — wielding the power of civil society. Some people call it the Fifth Estate. This is because we see that even the judiciary has largely failed to stop the chicanery and the tyranny of the mis-rulers. The thinking people should take the constitutional system into their hands and take charge of the situation, just like the people of Karnataka did. Compliments to Karnataka.

M. Sridhar Acharyulu is a former Central Information Commissioner, and now Dean, School of Law, Mahindra University, Hyderabad

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