Karnataka Elections
Aamod Hegde
Pre-election political scene in Karnataka
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

Where do parties stand?

Karnataka is going to polls on May 5, 2013. The state assembly elections have gained national importance in the context of a possible general election in November along with elections to state assemblies of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh. It has also become a point of national interest because it comes right after the possible Prime Ministerial candidates from BJP and Congress have been elevated to high positions within their parties- Narendra Modi was recently inducted into the party’s highest decision making body that is the Central Parliamentary Board and Rahul Gandhi was made the Vice President of the Indian National Congress. A win in the state might boost the morale of the Congress workers and enthuse the cadre elsewhere.

Karnataka’s political landscape is quite unique, unlike the political turf in the Hindi heartland. The national media’s coverage of the state elections will thus be largely based on perception unless they rope in a regional expert. With the exception of 1985 when Ramakrishna Hegde stormed back to power with a huge mandate, Karnataka has never elected an incumbent government back to power since 1983 when the Janata Dal destroyed Congress’ monopoly on state politics forever.

For the last 3 decades, the state has always gone against the national political currents. After the emergency, when Indira Gandhi’s Congress party was uprooted all over the country Karnataka remained a Congress bastion and she contested from Chikmagalur. When the whole country was riding on the Rajiv wave, Janata Dal became all-powerful in the state. When the Hindi heartland was soaked in the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement in the 90s, Karnataka remained a bastion of the Congress and the Janata Dal. When Vajpayee developed a cult status and became the Prime Minister of the NDA government in 1999, we elected the Congress party led by SM Krishna. When UPA led by the Congress rode to power in 2004, we entered a state of political turmoil and an era of coalition government in the state. When we gave near majority to the BJP in 2008, Congress won the national elections in 2009.

Karnataka has always been a psephologist’s nightmare. Let me just try to analyze where the different parties stand as of today. Every party in the fray has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

  1. Bharatiya Janata Party- It is only apt that we start with the ruling party. BJP has many woes this time on many different fronts. There is a strong anti-incumbency wave in the state due to the many corruption and criminal cases during its tenure. Even though the governance was satisfactory during its entire tenure, the party and the government have failed miserably to effectively market their achievements. Many of its MLAs, ministers and local leaders have deserted the BJP to join Yeddyurappa’s KJP. He will into BJP’s core vote base. Its cadre is so disheartened that many of them might not even openly campaign for the party. But frankly, today, the silver lining for the BJP is it has an excellent shot at reinventing itself. Many of its warring leaders stand united today (that may also be because they have conceded defeat already). With Yeddyurappa, many of the overt casteists and all kinds of incorrigible political elements have left the party. BJP’s political space is empty in many of the constituencies where it can bring in dedicated workers, recognise them and make a genuine attempt at rebuilding the party. As of today, BJP stands to lose with its political base largely eroded.
  2. Congress- Though there is no Congress wave as such in the state, due to the strong anti-BJP sentiment Congress stands to gain in this round of assembly elections. It has become the most sought after party especially due to its pan Karnataka presence. But with the party’s rejuvenation has come a particular set of woes that is not very new to the Congress. The party has too many ticket aspirants and it has become increasingly difficult for the party to pacify them. Many of the disgruntled leaders will eventually contest as rebels and might work a great deal to defeat the official candidates. Even among the state level leaders, intense lobbying is underway as to who should occupy the CM’s chair. Many of the Lok Sabha/ Rajya Sabha MPs from the party are looking forward to come back to state politics since the party is looking at a bleak future at the centre. All this while the party hasn’t even won. All the fissures within the party will become more evident in the days to come. But if the party adopts an effective strategy to neutralise rebels and fight local level anti-incumbency in the Congress represented assembly seats, comfortable majority is not a long shot.
  3. Janata Dal (Secular)- Deve Gowda led JD(S) has restricted itself mostly to the Old Mysore region for over a decade now ever since it split from the erstwhile Janata Dal. But in the last 5 years, Kumarswamy has inducted many local leaders from the former Janata Dal especially in the North Karnataka region into the party and has tried immensely in building the party from scratch. That reflected in the ULB poll results where JD(S) performed fairly well and made certain inroads into some pockets in Northern Karnataka. While doing all this, Kumarswamy failed to take note of the rebellion brewing in his own backyard. As a result, the party is facing rebels in many constituencies in the Old Mysore region. It is surely not a comforting factor for the party that both they and the Congress are looking at the same votebank. Though they are not a hot favourite, with Kumarswamy’s charisma, effective use of Congress rebels and recent shift of a percentage of the minority vote in favour of the party, it can surely better its performance. The party stands to gain from a secret pre-poll understanding with BJP and BSR Congress. It can also provide BJP a platform to fight the Congress.
  4. Karnataka Janata Party- BS Yeddyurappa has clearly not lost his penchant for building a party from the grassroots. But the difference is, this time around instead of the Jan Sangh loyalists he has surrounded himself with selfish and casteist elements. The party’s future clearly depends on the percentage of Lingayat and backward class vote it is able to attract away from the BJP especially in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region. They enjoy a tacit understanding with the Congress and stand to gain if the Congress falls short of a simple majority. In most other parts of the state, KJP doesn’t enjoy an extensive organizational support. In a land where the electorate is so divided, elections can be won only through effective booth management and requires organizational support on the ground. This election is going to be a make/break event for KJP. If it fails to make an impact and Congress wins a clear majority, the party might fade into oblivion and bring Yeddyurappa to crossroads again.
  5. Badava Shramika Raitha Congress- The party floated by B Sriramulu with the support of Janardhan Reddy after they were neglected in the ruling BJP has been just a decorative piece in the colourful world of Karnataka politics. Though it generated interest among many initially since Sriramulu belongs to a numerically powerful Valmiki Nayak community, it has just failed to take off. It should just be content with winning 1-2 seats that too with the help of BJP and JD(S).

At this stage, due to the triangular nature of fights in more than 100 constituencies and complex caste equation, no pre-poll survey will be accurate. BJP can come back to power only if it retains all its core constituencies and also help the JD(S) maximise its wins in the Old Mysore region. KJP’s political future depends largely on the Congress falling short of an absolute majority. Sriramulu can secure his political future only by merging his BSR Congress with the BJP after the polls. Congress will be the biggest loser if it stops at anything short of 113.