BJP and Congress gear up for Karnataka with the JD(S) prepared to play kingmaker

Last Updated: Fri, Mar 30, 2018 09:40 hrs
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders from the state look on as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2L) waves to his supporters on his arrival for a gathering 'Parivarthana Rally' in Bangalore

May 12 and May 15 are the dates to watch out for as the Karnataka goes to the polls in just over a month. The stage is set for a heated electoral battle. As customary, the ruling government led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, is forced to follow the model code of conduct – no announcements of programmes or schemes, no transfer of officials among other rules set by the Election Commission. Former Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid was named the brand ambassador of the Karnataka elections.

The Congress President Rahul Gandhi will release the state Congress election manifesto in April. The manifesto committee is headed by Veerappa Moliy, who stated that programmes will be announced which are in line with the party’s ‘Nava Karnataka’ slogan. If the Congress wins in Karnataka, it will be first time since 1985 that an incumbent government would be retaining power.

The BJP wasted no time in going on the offensive. Party president Amit Shah accused the Congress led government in the state of divisive politics and rhetoric by pitting communities against each other for votes. At a rally, he criticized the Chief Minister of ignoring the plight of farmers.

Prior to the announcement of the poll dates, he already hit the ground running in the state.

The implications and stakes for the elections are high. The Congress over the past two years has lost a lot of ground to the BJP. South India however, remains a tough but to crack for the BJP. The Times of India editorial lays it out in terms of what’s at stake for the two parties –

“It is a matter of do-or-die for Congress, which has not won a major state election except Punjab since 2014. Similarly, BJP is hoping the Modi-Shah juggernaut will reclaim its gateway to the south and quell doubts about its flagging potency”.

General consensus would be to think that the Hindutva message and wave which hasn’t necessarily worked down south might break through this time; appeal to the Hindu masses. However, given Siddaramaiah’s recent lobbying for the granting of minority status for the Lingayat community, which is a traditional BJP voting bloc, they could be the key.

“Hopefully, both sides can move the debate beyond slicing and dicing up the electorate in various ways and focus on economic issues that affect everybody”.

The elections in Karnataka may be a bellwether for assembly elections scheduled for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram later this year. It could also have an impact on potential alliances going forward. With regards to alliances, the third party in play is the JD(S). Rahul Gandhi during a public meeting asked the JD(S) to clarify if it’s supporting the BJP.

If apart from outright wins by either party; the result is a hung assembly, then all eyes turn to the JD(S). They have entered into a pre-poll alliance with the BSP. This alliance alone likely will not get the required number of votes on its own; hence they could very well decide who forms the government in the state. Nistula Hebbar, in a column for The Hindu, states the factors that will play a role in an election that’s not easy to read let alone predict –

“Karnataka’s record of voting against the national trend has always made elections here special. The set pieces of caste equations, Hindutva plank, and alliances are being rearranged everyday in one of the most electorally contrarian States in the country”.

For the BJP, the recent bypoll results did not make for good reading. There is pressure to show that the Modi-Shah duo still has impact. A win in Karnataka could help them in the other state elections this year. Given the TDP’s decision to remove itself from any alliances, the BJP will need strong results this year to set up a 2019 sweep.

The Congress has in Siddaramaiah, someone who seems to have placed a lot of faith in his support for the minority religion status for the Lingayat community, which makes up a significant portion of the state population.

“Mr. Siddaramaiah, unlike other Congress members, is following his own playbook with little reference to the high command in Delhi. If he succeeds, he may pave the way for a more localized Congress and if he doesn’t, Delhi may have the last say again”.

In the 2013 assembly elections, the JD(S) secured a little over 20% of the vote, the BJP 19%, while the Congress secured 36%. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 17 of the 25 seats in the state with 43% of the vote. What’s at stake for the Congress is that if it doesn’t win in the state, the notion of it not being the unanimous face of the opposition to the BJP only increases. This is where someone like a Siddaramaiah could be important. The Hindu editorial states the significance of him in this race and the challenges for the BJP –

“His government aided demands for religious minority status for Lingayats; he indulged regional sentiments by unveiling a Karnataka State flag. Agitations against the use of Hindi in Metro stations are also being turned to the disadvantage of the BJP, which is trying to refurbish its image as a Hindu-Hindi party by stressing solely on the Hindu aspect”.

The election could well be, like most elections are, about the personalities involved. The National figures from both parties and those in the state, particularly Siddaramaiah and Deve Gowda of the JD(S); there are two main issues that seem to be at play, the rural distress and religious identity. Both parties have played to these issues quite clearly in the run up to the polls. The party which get this combination right; personalities, development and identity will be in good shape to secure a win.

More columns by Varun Sukumar