Will Karnataka defy history?
By Shankar Raj*
Bengaluru: Curtains came down on the hectic poll campaign in Karnataka Monday, May 8 for the May 10, 2023, assembly elections with top leaders holding roadshows in a last-minute effort to woo voters. Now the focus will be on the polling on May 10 and the results on May 13.
Will Karnataka defy history is the big question. Since 1985, voters in Karnataka have stuck to the policy of ousting the party in power. And the Congress Party strongly believes the anti-incumbency factor and corruption charges against the Basavaraj Bommai-led Bharatiya Janata Party government are bound to have an impact this time.
But the BJP is determined to defy history. Never in recent times has a prime minister camped in a State for so long and addressed over 50 rallies. That shows the desperation and need for Narendra Modi and the BJP to defend its only saffron fort in the South.
Chief strategist for Karnataka election and Union Home Minister Amit Shah brushes aside history saying that the BJP proved history wrong in Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Manipur, and “we broke those records. That is our record and that is why we are confident in Karnataka,” he said in various interviews.
Equally determined to wrest Karnataka is the Congress which brought in the entire Gandhi Parivar and the All India Congress Committee (AICC) chief Mallikarjun Kharge to campaign and match word for word against Modi. The Congress Party’s determination was underscored when its leader Sonia Gandhi made a surprise entry in the late stages of the poll campaign. Her rally in Hubballi was the first since the last election campaign in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in her parliamentary constituency Rae Bareli.
Modi and the BJP want Karnataka in their kitty for two reasons: a victory will slam the doors on the efforts for Opposition unity ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and, secondly, it will open the doors for the BJP to enter the south where it plans to mop up maximum seats in the General Elections.
The Congress Party too wants Karnataka because a win will give political legitimacy for the party to lead a united opposition in the 2024 elections.
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Karnataka elections would hinge on a couple of factors. First, there is the dominant Lingayat community which has always voted for the BJP in recent times. With prominent Lingayat leaders — former CM Jagadish Shettar and former deputy CM Laxman Savadi – leaving the BJP accusing the party of insulting them, there was talk of a Lingayat backlash.
But the community is very practical and pragmatic. The Mutt seers, who determine which way the Lingayats would vote, have always stayed on the side of power. With various educational institutions and financial interests at stake, they would not risk going against the BJP; they would rather sacrifice a Shettar and Savadi to remain on the side of power.
Then there is the second largest community – the Vokkaligas. This time, the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) that represents the community has been on a strong campaign trail led by an ailing former prime minister HD Deve Gowda. The Vokkaligas are extremely loyal to the Gowdas and if they do well in the Old Mysuru region and a few seats outside the region, they would spell doom for the BJP and the Congress. That would lead to a hung assembly which Karnataka is famous for. In the last 25 years – 1999, 2004, 2008, 2013 and 2018, only two elections produced a clear mandate – 1999 and 2013.
If one were to go back in history again, since 1952, the combined representation of Lingayats and Vokkaligas has always oscillated between 48% and 59% of the seats. Karnataka has never witnessed an Assembly in which members of these two caste groups did not occupy a majority of the seats. It is said that regardless of which party wins, these two communities never lose!
In the current elections, the Congress has emerged stronger and united. The biggest factor is that the party has two strong chief ministerial candidates: Opposition leader Siddaramaiah and the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee chief DK Shivakumar. The BJP is struggling to put up a CM face and the JD(S) has to pick one from the Gowda clan.
Karnataka was once an impregnable bastion of the Congress. This time, the party is hopeful of capturing that bastion. Despite PM Modi’s hectic campaigning and the way he shredded the Grand Old Party, Congress functionaries are confident of a win, largely banking on its five pre-election guarantees and strong anti-incumbency against the BJP government. The party did well to keep up the heat on the BJP by discussing local issues during their month-long campaign and making corruption and ‘misgovernance’ of the Bommai-led BJP government the central theme.
While the party was going strong, it ostensibly blundered in the last leg of the campaign by calling Modi a poisonous snake and suggesting it may ban the Bajrang Dal.
Moreover, a Congress win would provide it access to resources it desperately needs to run its national campaign ahead of 2024.
Whether it is the BJP, Congress or the JD(S), one pattern is similar in all three parties — the extreme marginalisation of women candidates and elected representatives. Only six women were elected in 2018, something that is unlikely to change this year too as women barely make up 6% of all major parties’ candidates. Karnataka is extremely male-dominated despite Modi promising more power to women.
Karnataka’s assembly polls are always localised contests and results don’t carry much weight nationally or in the South. They also combine stable caste representation with high seat-level volatility
The other big question is that whether the Karnataka elections cast a shadow on the national political turf. A glance at history would show that Karnataka state elections have always been regional. But what is likely to tilt the scale in favour of the BJP is the way Modi put his heart, soul and prestige at stake in Karnataka.
Will Karnataka defy history and bring back the BJP? Will the Congress regain its fortress? While some opinion polls have favoured the Congress, others have given the BJP a strong chance. But Amit Shah says “The club of thinkers defeats us in all surveys, but we win on the ground.”
Wait till May 13.
*Shankar Raj is a former Editor of The New Indian Express, Karnataka and Kerala, and writes regularly on current affairs.