Karnataka elections: a wide-open contest

Karnataka elections: a wide-open contest

The upcoming assembly election in Karnataka has triggered great interest at the state and national level because of its possible implications for national politics, especially for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as a win or loss in Karnataka will affect the political calculations for the 2019 Lok Sabha election significantly. A win for the BJP here and possibly in Madhya Pradesh later this year might lead Modi to advance the Lok Sabha election to end-2018; a loss, either in Karnataka or Madhya Pradesh would make the BJP cautious on that front. The short is, therefore, that Karnataka holds the key, and therein lies its importance.

It must be noted that Karnataka politics has been for over a decade witnessing a 'two-plus party' or a 'bipolar-plus' contest for power. The presence of the Janata Dal(S), which shared power for the first time in a coalition government with the Congress and later with the BJP between 2004 and 2007, is the reason for this. In a way, it is a reflection of the national trend.

The Congress party, under Siddaramaiah, has completed its five-year term under one chief minister, a 'distinction' that had eluded the party for long. As an umbrella party, it has accommodated under its fold the dominant Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities, the forward castes, SC/STs, OBCs, Muslims and Christians.

The much-talked-about 'Ahinda-isation' of the party under Siddaramaiah seems true on the face of it, but what has happened actually is merely the elevation of the Kuruba leader Siddaramaiah to the office of chief minister in 2013 just as the elevation of Devaraj Urs, belonging to the Arasu community among the OBCs, to power in 1972 and 1978. Otherwise, the rise of the Ahinda group has not altered the umbrella character of the Congress, as its socio-political base has remained largely the same.

In the coming elections, the Congress is fighting to be re-elected on the claim of providing a stable government, conferring benefits on the poor and the common man through Anna Bhagya and other Bhagya schemes. The Anna Bhagya scheme is touted to have been a unique measure aimed at removing hunger among the poor. The Indira Canteens are also an effort to provide food at low cost to the common man. The party is also trying to impress Bengaluru voters claiming its success in expanding the metro rail network and other infrastructure facilities, though the city voters are unhappy with the government over the management of garbage, traffic, and other urban problems.

Among the minuses, the Congress has to contend with the anti-incumbency factor, the deteriorating law and order situation in the coastal region resulting in the killings of some RSS workers, the Gauri Lankesh murder in Bengaluru, the attack on the Lokayukta recently in his office, etc.

The Lingayat-Veerashaiva issue and the according of minority status to Lingayats, which is perceived largely as an electoral ploy to divide the community's votes, is also going to bother the Congress, specially as the central government has decided to reserve its decision until after the elections.

As for the electoral campaign, Siddaramaiah is the main campaigner and vote-catcher, with the party high command and other state leaders playing a supplementary role.

As for the BJP, the party is raising the issue of law and order in the capital and in the coastal region, corruption cases against some influential Congress leaders, problems faced by people of Bengaluru and the sensitive Lingayat-Veerashaiva divide the government has created. The party has endorsed the stand of the All-India Veerashaiva Mahasabha. The party in a way seems to be happy that the central government has put off a decision on the issue.

Prime Minister Modi is their mascot and prime campaigner and vote-getter and Amit Shah is their strategist. Modi and Shah have toured the state several rounds and will do so when the campaign is in full swing. The state party president Yeddyurappa, who has a mass base among farmers, is the lead campaigner.

The JD(S) is the third important player in the Assembly elections. The main issues being projected by the party are the farmers' suicides, loan waiver and support prices for crops. The party is also vocal on the Cauvery water issue and on the Mahadayi water issue, too, though marginally in view of its narrow support base in north Karnataka.

Former prime minister Deve Gowda is their prime vote catcher and campaigner in view of his pan-Karnataka image, though former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy, too, is a popular leader. The recent desertions from the party may affect its electoral fortunes to some extent.

Several surveys are out on the election outcome, some projecting a Congress victory, some a BJP victory and others talking of a hung assembly. Karnataka voters are discerning, they judge parties and have often voted different parties to power at the state and national levels. However, if the youth and women, who constitute a good chunk of the voters, decide to go with Modi, the BJP may come to power.

If the SC/ST, minorities and OBCs, who constitute over 50% of the voters, decide to vote for the Congress in a decisive way, the Congress will romp back to power; and if the votes in all the above categories get divided, along with a division of the Lingayat and Vokkaliga votes, which cannot be ruled out, the state may witness a hung assembly resulting in ugly horse-trading, and the coming to power of either of the main parties with the support of the JD(S). May 15 will, however, provide the answer.

(The writer is a former professor of Political Science, Bangalore University, and is presently Senior Fellow, ICSSR)

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