BJP is on a sticky wicket in Karnataka

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being felicitated by Karnataka BJP chief Pralhad Joshi, Union Chemicals and Fertilizers Ministers Anantha Kumar ad others at HAL Airport, in Bangalore,  on Sept. 23, 2014. (Photo: IANS)

Karnataka is the only major state that’s in the Congress’ grip and is seen as an obstacle before the BJP’s mission of achieving a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’. With just a few days to go for the Karnataka Assembly elections, one of the most-awaited electoral battles before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the political fights are heating up the southern state with political fronts of the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, and Janata Dal (Secular)-Bahujan Samaj Party combine and the Left. The campaign has already had a contentious kick-start since the BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya and also, Times Now tweeted the date of polls even before the Election Commission of India announced it. In spite of a lively tenure of the current Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah, the Congress is facing a tough battle against a reviving BJP and an optimistic JD(S).

Siddaramaiah with a great mass appeal has managed to smartly realign caste groupings in his favour, something which the BJP successfully did in Uttar Pradesh. At the same time, the BJP, through a mix of its Hindutva communal rhetoric and it support of a ‘market-driven development model’, has been trying to diffuse Siddaramaiah’s electoral formula. As a former finance minister and deputy chief minister who oversaw the establishment of the VAT regime in the state, Siddaramaiah is well-versed with the complexities of national and international economies.

As far as the BJP is concerned, since Mission Karnataka was launched in August 2017, state BJP leaders have been happy to let Amit Shah have the final word. Uplifted by the Tripura election victory, the BJP is now likely to channel all its energy to dethrone Congress in Karnataka. Amit Shah is micromanaging every detail ahead of the 12 May polls. Amit Shah has emerged as the face of the Karnataka campaign. While Rahul Gandhi seems to have let Siddaramaiah lead the way for the Congress, BS Yeddyurappa, the chief ministerial face of the BJP, has outsourced it to Shah.

Yeddyurappa’s candidature has several disadvantages. The two most obvious minuses are his age and his tainted past. This has led to a noticeable difference in the way the BJP and the Congress are approaching this election. The BJP is fighting this election as a national party while the Congress is playing it like a regional force. With a ‘Non-Kannadiga’ like Amit Shah at the helm of affairs, Siddaramaiah, in a clever shift of strategy, has harped more on Kannada regional identity to blunt the BJP’s card of nationalism. By highlighting the local culture, flag, language, the Congress is seizing the narrative. Even in the online space, the BJP and Congress social media teams target Siddaramaiah and Shah respectively.

At the other end, the JD(S) is said to be relying on to its conventional base of Vokkaligas, another dominant section of the population, in many regions. Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA (a Kannada acronym for backward classes, Dalits and minorities) jibe as a united block has destabilised the former political equations, earlier dominated by the powerful Lingayats and Vokkaligas. While trying to create this group, Siddaramaiah, a Kuruba leader (Kurubas make up around 7-9% of the state’s population), has also ensured that the less-prosperous sections among Lingayats and Vokkaligas also get the benefits of welfare measures he initiated for a range of unprivileged caste groups.

Now, with his Siddaramaiah’s notable decision to grant a separate religion status to the Lingayat community and declaring it among minorities, he has clearly caught the BJP off-guard. Giving political legitimacy to the Lingayat community’s age-old demand may prove to be a political gamble ultimately but he has clearly hit at the BJP’s core vote base.What also helps Siddaramaiah is the language factor. His ability to connect with the people in Kannada gives him the advantage while Shah has to depend on a translator.

Although effective in voicing socio-economic issues in Karnataka, representation of Left parties in the assembly has been limited over the years. Reduced to very low numbers in the state, the Left parties Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India-Marxist CPI (M) are trying to stage a comeback in the assembly elections eyeing on a handful of seats across the state, including a few in Bengaluru. The CPI (M) decided to support the “strongest candidates” who would be in a position to defeat the saffron party, besides fielding its own nominees in 19 seats. Former party General Secretary Prakash Karat was more forthright and said that the CPI (M) can support the Congress as well as the JD (S) in seats where it was not contesting, and help defeat the BJP.

For the JD(S), there are two possible outcomes in the Karnataka election 2018. It could either play kingmaker or become completely irrelevant. Many within the party and in political circles feel that the coming election is a challenging one for the JD(S) to remain politically relevant as it has been out of power for over 10 years now. The party has considerable presence in old Mysuru region, where the Vokkaliga community has a dominant presence and is restricted to a few pockets in the rest of the state. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, the one-time confidant of Gowda, was expelled from the JD(S) in 2006, after which he joined the Congress. He has several times alleged he was expelled to favour prospects of Deve Gowda’s son Kumaraswamy in the JD(S). The old Mysore region is primarily dominated by the Vokkaligas, estimated to be around 11% of the state’s population. The contest here is estimated should be a bipolar fight between the JD(S) and the Congress. Although Vokkaligas are spread all over South Karnataka, they are dominant in seven districts — Mandya, Hassan, Ramanagara, Tumkur, Kolar, Chikballapur, and Bengaluru Rural. Whatever be the results, Congress at present appears to be the only party that has a pan-Karnataka presence.

For the first time since he came to power in 2014, Narendra Modi who always led from the front is taking a backseat in a major state election. That’s why, and also in a reversal of the trend, the BJP has put up a chief ministerial candidate in the Karnataka elections. Making BS Yeddyurappa the party’s chief ministerial candidate was an admission of the fact that the BJP is on a sticky wicket in Karnataka. Modi is not leading the campaign in Karnataka unlike Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and most recently Gujarat, where the BJP didn’t project chief ministerial candidates and Modi led from the front. Yeddyurappa is going to wear the cross, not Modi if the BJP loses Karnataka.