Ayswarya Murthy (Twitter: @luvnbeer) does a SWOT of the political parties contesting the 2018 Assembly elections in Karnataka scheduled for early May.
After swinging Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya in its favour, the election machine that is Bharatiya Janata Party turns its gaze to Karnataka, which is set to go to polls this summer. “Ab Karnatak ko toh jeetenge hi jeetenge,” declared an exuberant Amit Shah after the announcement of the results in Northeast.
The Siddaramaiah led Congress is completing a term seen as relatively spot-free, important for the national party which leads governments in only two other states. The BJP looks stronger after BS Yeddyurappa’s return to the saffron party. Janata Dal (Secular), too, which rose from winning 28 seats in 2008 assembly polls to 40 seats in 2013, is hoping to earn a bigger share of power and “not just be a kingmaker”. With such equations, Karnataka is going to be a high-stakes battleground, where some parties will fight for absolute power and others for relevance.
Senior BJP member and spokesperson Vaman Acharya says “with BJP reunited, the party is already jumping off from a higher platform.” That could be true. While BJP won 110 seats to form the government in 2008, the dent that BSY made on the party in the subsequent polls by launching his own outfit, Karnataka Janata Paksha, was major. The saffron party’s members in the assembly came down to 40, and their candidates lost deposit in 110 seats. Soon, Yeddyurappa was called back to the party with national chief Amit Shah’s blessings. Another thing that works for BJP is its organisational ability to run a resolute and committed workforce that doesn’t think in terms of power all the time. “Consider the RSS workers who normally don’t come into the picture. Their motivations are different. So the party’s most committed worker is often a school teacher or auto driver who will ensure that people go out to vote for their party, which is not going to happen with the Congress for a variety of reasons. With Congress, those who work for them will always aspire for power,” says Harish Ramaswamy, political commentator and professor of political science at the Karnataka University. Ironically, it’s the BJP spokesperson who exalted the improved career prospects for its members. “Nothing succeeds like success,” chuckles Acharya. He says the party workers are more enthusiastic after their sweep in the northeast, especially Tripura. “And Shah and Modi are like fire and wind — no one can stop them.”
Like in the northeast, Acharya expects important opposition leaders in the state to join BJP — “because they have to look at their careers”. “With BJP in power in both state and centre, workers and leaders from other parties who want a good career in politics in order to serve society will turn to us. We are a party with a future,” says Acharya.
Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) vice-president KE Radhakrishna hits back saying he isn’t surprised BJP would turn politics into a profession and a business with good career prospects. “The Congress party believes that politics is a service. An inner urge to serve society is what brings people into politics.” With key Congress leaders KJ George and DK Shivakumar under the scanner of CBI and income tax department, not everyone may buy that image.
The induction of Bidar South MLA Ashok Kheny, a Lingayat face, into Congress is another questionable move. Not only is he a controversial figure for his role in the execution of the Bengaluru-Mysuru Infrastructure Corridor (BMIC), irked Congress workers on the ground say they resent his fasttrack entry bypassing long-serving local leaders. KPCC president Dr G Parameshwar was quoted saying that Kheny’s induction “will help strengthen the party in Bidar district and thereby ensure the party’s victory in all six assembly constituencies there”.
BJP, on the other hand, is not concerned that the alternative it presents to the status quo is a baggage-ridden Yeddyurappa. “He has just not been marketed well,” defends Acharya. “But we have a wonderful national leadership. The 50 lakh or so new voters this time are all people who chant ‘Modi, Modi, Modi’ and nothing else.”
What’s problematic about BJP’s approach, and something the opposition will certainly capitalise on, is its lack of local leadership. At the mega-rallies BJP organises in the state around Amit Shah, Modi and Yogi Adityanath, even Yeddyurappa often feels like an afterthought, let alone other state BJP leaders. This hasn’t gone unnoticed, mostly because it especially irks Kannadiga sentiments to have someone from Delhi and UP come down and tell them what their state government has been doing wrong. Ramaswamy says “BJP has referred to their national leaders so much, that other than Modi and Shah, nobody else seems to be recognised. Even the regional leadership in MP, Rajasthan and Gujarat — no one even knows the chief ministers.” The Congress seems better positioned in that sense, with more visible local leaders. Although Rahul Gandhi is among the only few national leaders the party can count on right now, he has put in some serious campaign time in North Karnataka, like his mother Sonia Gandhi in the yesteryears, wooing the rural populace and backward castes.
The fate of JD(S)
While HD Kumaraswamy, former Karnataka chief minister and son of JD(S) chief HD Deve Gowda, says his party will win majority of the total 224 seats in the state, it is telling that Congress or BJP barely mention the party. “JD(S) has to decide — are they representing the interests of the state as a whole or just a particular region? Then they need to work on how they can mobilise and deliver an alternative politics to Karnataka,” says Ramaswamy.
JD(S) leader Ramesh Babu says his party’s fight will continue for regional issues, water and language. Additionally this time, they plan to confront Congress and BJP on the high farmer suicide rates and pending farm loan waivers. Data from the state agricultural department says as many as 3,515 farmers in Karnataka committed suicide between April 2013 and November 2017, out of which 2,525 were due to drought and farm failure. Babu says it’s a matter of great shame for Congress. “Siddaramaiah says we have provided Anna Bhagya so everyone is happy across the state and no one is hungry. If that is true, why are there so many suicides? The Congress government is morally and legally answerable for this. It is corrupt, embroiled in scams, and that they intend to continue with the same kind of attitude is obvious from their welcoming of Ashok Kheny, a gambler who cheated the state exchequer of crores of rupees.”
The party has tied up with BSP, which is contesting from 20 seats, and intends to announce their partnership with NCP soon. No pre-poll alliance is expected with BJP or Congress. “Both parties are trying to finish JD(S) in Karnataka,” Babu says. “They are two faces of the same coin. What have they done for the state? Both parties have failed to deliver justice in Cauvery, Mahadayi or Krishna river issues. Why should we continue supporting these national parties?” Of course, a post-poll alliance with either party can’t be ruled out, Babu added. In such a polarised election, this stance may be strategically correct but nonetheless unfair to voters. “Even as an ally, their bargaining power is very limited. Within state what can you bargain for? Mandya?” asks Ramaswamy. He is referring to the Supreme Court’s “pro-Karnataka” verdict on the Cauvery dispute this February, out of which the Siddaramaiah government has come out looking stronger. The Congress’ stubborn pursuance of such a judgment has undercut the traditional hold of JD(S) in the south Karnataka region where the Cauvery is a major issue.
‘Anti-incumbency sentiment weak’
What works in Congress’ favour is also that an anti-incumbency sentiment might only be marginal this time around. “For the time being, anti-incumbency is a thin line, especially in the arid regions of North Karnataka, where the Congress government has handled the drought situation very well by delivering alternatives like the ‘bhagya’ schemes. And that has actually helped them in terms of convertibility of rural votes. Having said that, Congress can’t be complacent,” says Ramaswamy.
And what about BJP’s focused attempt to consolidate Hindu votes in the state? Acharya doesn’t mention the elephant in the room, but Ramaswamy warns that “BJP needs to think hard whether the promotion of Hindutva is feasible in Karnataka. Because except in coastal region, no other region seems to be going for that.” “In fact, Karnataka may be the beginning of the fall of Modi-Shah-led BJP,” says Ramaswamy. “I am not saying BJP, but Modi-Shah-led BJP.”
(Ayswarya Murthy is a Chennai - based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)