February 24, 2020
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A Gateway To Reclaim

The BJP pulls no punches in Karnataka, where the Congress cannot afford to lose

A Gateway To Reclaim
The Modi Hand
PM Modi greets former CMs S.M. Krishna and B.S. Yediyurappa, who is the BJP state chief
Photograph by PTI
A Gateway To Reclaim

Karnataka Assembly Poll 2013

40 ⁄ 223

  • Congress returned to power on its own after nine years, winning 122 seats, 42 more than its tally in the 2008 election, while BJP got 70 less than its previous score.


If there were any doubts that the forthcoming Karnataka assembly polls were going to be a rancorous affair, those were put to rest this week with some freshly minted phra­ses—“ease of doing murder” and “10 per cent commission sarkar”— entering the election glossary. It was PM Narendra Modi flagging off his party’s campaign for the southern state ruled by a combative Congress. It’s a key election for both the rival parties—the Congress cannot afford to be Karnataka-mukt and the BJP wouldn’t want to be saddled with a defeat at this point.

“Winning Karnataka is very crucial for 2019 as losing here would raise the pressure in three states,” says a BJP functionary, referring to the year-end polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where anti-incumbency would be a worry for the party.  At Modi’s rally in Bangalore this week, meant to enthuse party workers ahead of the polls due in two months, ‘vikas’ and corruption figured high on the agenda. “In Karnataka, the Congress is at the exit gate,” said the PM, whose taunts riled CM Siddaramaiah, who hit back at a press conference the next day. The CM reminded the BJP of its disastrous previous term tainted by a mining scam. “He has called our government a ‘10 per cent sarkar’. It’s an irresponsible allegation. (BJP state president and former CM) B.S. Yediyurappa was sitting next to him.... Modi could have asked him what all happened when the BJP was in power here.”

That, in many ways, sums up the battle at hand. The BJP is relying heavily on the Modi factor to see it through, but it has also pulled in others like Yogi Adityanath, who addre­ssed a few rallies here last month and got into a slanging match with the CM over beef.  With Siddaramaiah as the face of the Congress campaign, it’s thus a local-versus-central poll plank on which regional issues, the Mahadayi river water dispute between Karnataka and Goa, and Kannada swabhimana (self-esteem) have been brought in.

On many counts, observers note, the Congress has been quick on the uptake—for instance, Siddaramaiah came up with a farm loan waiver last year in the midst of a severe drought situation and still taunts the Centre for not doing enough to help farmers, forcing Modi to declare at his rally that farmers are top priority for the BJP. Similarly, when the PM took a potshot at the law-and-order situation in Karnataka, Siddaramaiah came up with the retort: “If law and order was so poor, how could we have topped the investment rankings? Is there law and order in Haryana today?”

BJP members will tell you it’s a neck-and-neck race at the moment. The Congress, meanwhile, is upbeat—given Siddaramaiah’s pro-poor image and populist programmes—but also wary, especially of knee-jerk reactions to the BJP’s communal polarisation gambit. The approach to the parliamentary polls will be no different, reckons AICC member Manickam Tagore, who is part of the Congress’s Karnataka election apparatus. “We will not react on the communal part. We will speak about jobs and agriculture, which is hurting the BJP,” he says.

Siddaramaiah is the face of the Congress campaign, giving it a local versus central plank as the BJP relies heavily on Modi.

Likewise, the BJP has been largely silent on the vocal demand for recognising the Lingayats as a religious minority, hoping it would backfire on the Congress, which is seen to be supporting the cause.

The BJP has, since 2004, been winning around two-thirds of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka, the party’s “gateway to the south”. Given the battle at hand, the Lok Sabha election is still a long way off. But some in the party reckon it can better its 2014 tally. “We can aim for 23-24 seats,” says the BJP functionary. “If you take out around three constituencies (out of 28), the remaining would be a reasonable target.”

Karnataka’s voting patterns, as observers have long poi­nted out, are in some ways unique. “The Karnataka voter has always distinguished bet­ween a national and a state election,” says political commentator Sandeep Shastri. “In 1984, they voted for Rajiv Gandhi, but three months later they voted for the Janata Dal and Ramakrishna Hegde became CM.”

In 2004, the BJP had won 18 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats, but although it emerged as the single largest party in the state assembly, the election for which was held at the same time, it could not get a full majority. Closer still, in 2013, the Congress won a resounding victory in the assembly election, but couldn’t repeat that performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It did manage to wrest a couple of seats from the BJP, which held on to 17 constituencies. In the last parliamentary election, the Congress and the BJP enjoyed a vote share of 41 per cent and 43 per cent, respectively.

“What happened in 2013 and 2014 is in some sense unique. Rarely, if ever, does a party win an assembly election and go on to lose the Lok Sabha polls from the same state within a year,” says Shastri.

At the moment, both the big parties are focussing on their grassroots outreach for the assembly election. “This would be key when the parliamentary election comes around,” says a Congress leader. “We need to identify candidates for the Lok Sabha polls right now. We were able to win back some seats in the last parliamentary polls because we put our best foot forward.”

“If the BJP were to win Karnataka this year, then the road to the Lok Sabha election would look much easier for the party,” says Shastri. “If, on the contrary, the Congress were to retain the state, the situation would be a bit different, though I don’t think it would be a walkover for the Congress. The 2019 Lok Sabha election will be pitched on the performance of the central government and the question of who should come to power in Delhi. I think the competition will remain open till the last and I would not be surprised if the BJP ends up having an upper hand, even if the Congress were to retain power in Karnataka.”

By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore

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