Karnataka polls set to be biggest slugfest of the year

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Without taking any credit away from the BJP, it must be pointed out that there was only one state, Gujarat, where it had retained power since 2014. All other states were under opposition rule. Congress, on the other hand, has lost all except Punjab where the credit must go to chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh for his personal aura and acceptability.

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Now, all eyes are on Karnataka for two major reasons: One is of course the fate of the Congress party and its central leadership. Though the party has declared Siddaramaiah as its chief ministerial candidate and has supposedly given him a free hand, the central leadership of the party is also interfering in the distribution of tickets. Second, and more important, is that the outcome in the state would lay down the contours of the 2019 General Elections. For the BJP battling anti-incumbency at the Centre and getting cornered over several issues, a victory in Karnataka would give it the breather it sorely needs.

No wonder the two main rivals are going to extraordinary lengths to win in Karnataka. Siddaramaiah, an astute politician, has touched the raw nerve of the BJP by taking up the demand of minority status for the Lingayat community. Lingayats, who constitute 17 per cent of the voters are known to be BJP supporters. With the ball in the Centre’s court, as only the central government can grant such a status, the BJP is in a quandary. Lingayats are an important factor in about 100 of the 232 Assembly constituencies in the state.

The Siddaramaiah Government, accepting the recommendations of the State Minority Commission, sent a communication to the Ministry of Home Affairs on seeking recognition of Lingayats and Veerashaivas, who follow Basavanna’s teachings, as a religious minority under section 2(c) of the National Commission of Minorities Act, 1992. Lingayats, considered a Hindu sect because they share several beliefs associated with Hindu religion, have been demanding a minority status as they don’t accept the concepts of the Vedas, the caste system and the Hindu beliefs of reincarnation and karma. The grant of minority status goes against the Hindutva agenda of the BJP which believes in consolidation of the Hindu society. It also feels that if Lingayats are given the status of a minority, several others like the Arya Samaj, Radha Swami, Vaishnava and other sects of the Hinduism which do not believe in typical Brahminical Hinduism, would also demand minority status. That would be a body blow to the Hindu consolidation agenda of the BJP and the RSS.

Congress is also trying to strengthen its own “Hindutva agenda” to counter the BJP propaganda. Party chief Rahul Gandhi has been taking rounds of mutts and temples across the state to prove his respect for religion. He would be putting in a little more efforts than he did in Gujarat to ensure that his party retains power in the state. Though the Congress had lost the elections in Gujarat, it was able to give a scare to the ruling BJP and was close to staging an upset in the home state of prime minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah.
For the BJP, another factor that is very important in Karnataka is that the state is the gateway to its ambitions in the South. The party has ‘conquered’ virtually the entire north, west and east but has been so far unable to make a dent in the southern states. It had formed a government in Karnataka in 2008 with the help of independents. It would like to establish its own government to pave way for power in the other southern states which together accounts for 131 Lok Sabha seats.

The BJP had done exceedingly well in 2014 Lok Sabha elections winning 17 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats from the state and cornering 43.37 per cent of the vote share. It had managed to score more votes in 132 of the 224 Assembly segments which was much ahead of the half way figure of 113 seats needed to win Assembly elections.

Siddaramaiah has touched the raw nerve of the BJP by taking up the demand of minority status for the Lingayat community, who constitute 17% of the total voters

It can also take heart from the fact that the state has not returned the ruling party to power since 1985. Wresting power in Karnataka would be a big morale booster for the BJP ahead of the Assembly elections in the major states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh held by it.

But it shall have to keep in mind that even the Congress had not fared too badly as far as vote percentage in 2014 was concerned. It had bagged 41.15 per cent of vote share although it won only nine seats. The party also has a record of never bagging less than 35 per cent votes in any elections in the state.

A crucial factor behind the final outcome would be the impact of ticket distribution. The Congress has denied tickets to at least 11 sitting legislators. This may lead to rebellion in some of the constituencies. The BJP has included over 20 candidates who are facing criminal and civil charges. The actual impact of these decisions would be felt a couple of days before the polling.

The two main rivals appear to be evenly poised and that’s where the role of Janata Dal (S) would be crucial. The party, with former prime minister H D Deve Gowda as its patriarch, has significant areas of influence. Political analysts estimate that the party has good chances of winning 30 to 40 seats. The party has also received a boost with the Muslim community leader Asauddin Owaisi lending support to the JD (S).

Owaisi said his All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen will not be in the fray in the poll-bound state and that he himself will address public meetings of the JD(S) in case the need arises. Asserting that both BJP and Congress have failed the people of the state, he said on Twitter : “We want a non-Congress and non-BJP govt in Karnataka for a qualitative development. MIM will not be fielding any candidates I will address public meetings support of JD(S) if there is a need.”

This is likely to further strengthen the party and given the fact that the main rivals appear to be evenly poised and if they fail to get absolute majority it may turn out to be the king maker.

An exciting contest is on the cards but one can only hope that the political discourse remains within the realms of decency and away from communalism.

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