Cong misread poll pitch

AICC President Rahul Gandhi seen with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah,during the special press conference, at Lalit Ashok Bengaluru on 10th May 2018. Photo/ B H Shivakumar

Months ahead of the May 12 Karnataka Assembly elections, public mood across the state was beginning to crystallise and subtle signals of its undercurrent could be picked. The essence of this undercurrent was that the ruling Congress under then chief minister Siddaramaiah was very vulnerable electorally. It was not an anti-incumbency sentiment against the Siddaramaiah government. There wasn’t any kind of a strong anti-government mood performance-wise. With his several “Bhagya” schemes, Siddaramaiah had persuaded himself to believe that his government faced no risks.

His assessment was correct. But he and his close aides missed a critical distinction: the distinction between the absence of an anti-incumbency sentiment and a positive pro-incumbency mood. The two are not synonymous. While Siddaramaiah did not face any anti-incumbency wrath, there was also no general enthusiasm to re-elect him. Politicians are generally good at assessing public mood, but Siddaramaiah obviously failed to pick on the signs.

Several factors might have blinded Siddaramaiah and his team. The foremost, perhaps, was misreading the party’s byelection triumph in the Nanjangud (SC) and Gundlupet constituencies last April. The twin bypoll victories had created an atmosphere of invincibility in the ruling party.

It was a make-believe world the ruling party had created for itself, given the fact that it had deployed enormous amount of resources to win these bypolls which were the last ones before the elections to the Assembly. The bypolls were held in the constituencies which are the extended backyard of Siddaramaiah’s home constituency of Varuna. However, it is impossible to deploy the same kind of resources when a party fights a general election in 224 constituencies.

True, the twin bypoll victories provided a much-needed momentum to prepare for the Assembly elections. But it certainly did not warrant any conclusion of invincibility. Here, Siddaramaiah’s intellectual constituency did a huge disservice to his cause as it enthusiastically reinforced this false sense of invincibility by presenting a rosy picture.

In the absence of a pro-incumbency enthusiasm, the advantage from the absence of an anti-incumbency sentiment was almost neutralised. Thus, the Congress neither had a pro-incumbency advantage nor an anti-incumbency disadvantage. It was, thus, a level-playing ground of rival political parties.

In this neutral poll pitch, the Congress, however, had to contend with constituency-level anti-incumbencies against almost a third of its 120-odd MLAs, which included outgoing Assembly Speaker, K B Koliwad. The reasons for this are many, including the most important public perception of them being part of local sand mafia. The Congress did not help itself as it re-nominated almost all its sitting MLAs.

In the fair electoral battleground, what really matters the most are the respective social bases of the competing parties, their organisational network, and the ability to effectively communicate their message to the target support base. That is where the Congress’ vulnerability started.

At best, its social/caste base has remained stagnant in the past 15 years, with symptoms of further erosion. Not many within the party or outside may have bothered to notice, but the fact is that the Congress’ victory in 2013 was by default. Voters had no choice but to hand over power to the Congress, as the BJP had split into three groups and the JD(S) continued to lack a pan-Karnataka presence.

Even in its victory in 2013, the Congress’ vote share had shown just a marginal improvement, not commensurate with the usual average vote share increases associated with incoming ruling parties in the country. In fact, in as many as 12 of the 30 districts in the state, the Congress’ vote share had actually registered a decline even in 2013. In another three districts, it had remained stagnant. The party is heavily dependent on the support from the minority communities, Dalits and OBCs — known by Siddaramaiah’s acronym, Ahinda.

Improved vote share

On the other, the BJP has been steadily improving its vote share, though its growth suffered a huge setback when the party split into three groups on the eve of the 2013 Assembly elections. The subsequent reunion of the factions and the results of the Lok Sabha elections showed that the organisational damage was almost repaired.

The party’s growing strength comes from its core social base of upper castes and Lingayats. It has expanded the base to cover sections of Dalits, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs, and to the extent the BJP has made inroads into these sections, it has cut into Siddaramaiah’s Ahinda base. This has provided the party its strength in North and Central Karnataka districts, Malnad and Coastal districts.

However, the BJP, unlike the Congress, is yet to establish itself as a truly pan-Karnataka party. It remains weak in many southern Karnataka districts, barring Bengaluru Urban. This explains the party’s difficulties in securing a simple majority in the Assembly.

The JD(S)’ reach is even more limited, essentially confined to the southern Karnataka region. The reason for this is its limited social base — mainly built around the Vokkaliga community. But the concentration of the community in around 10 districts lends the party the electoral muscle it wields in the region.

By design or default, in the run up to the Assembly elections, Siddaramaiah was presented as a religious polarising figure and the BJP fully exploited this to its advantage. The late moves to counter the religious polarisation with temple visits by Siddaramaiah and Rahul Gandhi failed to weaken the advantage passed on to the BJP. Another last minute move to weaken BJP’s Lingayat support failed to impress the voters.

As a result of its social base vulnerability and the higher level of polarisation along religious lines, the Congress lost the plot. The party got sandwiched between the BJP and the JD(S). The JD(S) took a majority of seats in southern Karnataka, while the BJP swept the Coastal and Malnad regions and did well in North and Central Karnataka districts.

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Cong misread poll pitch

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