“Thumba thappu madidivi.” Kannada for, “We have made a lot of mistakes.” For watchers of Karnataka politics, that should sound like a confession the ruling BJP might make to voters. Indeed, chief minister Jagadish Shettar and leaders like Sushma Swaraj are saying so to supporters in speeches, statements and public utterances, hoping to earn forgiveness and a second chance. But, in another context, Congress workers from the Old Mysore region are saying the same: the mistakes, in this case, relate to the selection of candidates and the heartburn it has caused. Not unusual in the Congress, which seems to have mastered the art of messing up this most vital part of elections. A disappointed woman worker who had been sure of getting a ticket says, “It’s like making us smell the flower but not allowing us to put it in our hair.”
The Congress, many workers say, has erred by choosing candidates of the wrong caste in a state where caste or sub-caste is a dominant marker of electoral viability. They say that, despite having resourceful candidates who might have won on the regional strength of their community, the party has not fielded them. Another mistake, they say, is not having accommodated sub-dominant communities by offering their members candidature in adjoining constituencies; instead, two or more candidates of a single community were fielded from adjoining constituencies.
So widespread are the complaints—of powerful leaders ensuring tickets for their supporters, regardless of their winnability—that to an outsider only sabotage would offer a reasonable explanation! Anyway, the central leadership of the party acted fast. Observers were sent to the districts and they were able to obtain the withdrawal from the contest of 32 of the 43 rebels who had filed their own nominations. A week into the campaign, there are still no indications that party workers are as enthusiastic as they should be in campaigning. “We are neutral. With what face do we go and campaign?” asks a party leader from Bellary, a district that in fact could go the Congress way with just a little effort. “It’s not just the party workers who know us and what we have done. Everyone does.”
For an example of the mess, look no further than Mandya, home district of former chief minister and external affairs minister S.M. Krishna. Krishna’s candidate in Srirangapatnam had to withdraw in favour of a mutinous Ambareesh, better known as the ‘rebel star’ of Kannada cinema. This, at a time when the party is facing a tough battle from the Janata Dal (S) of the father-son duo of H.D. Deve Gowda-H.D. Kumaraswamy. The last-minute change in favour of Ambareesh has left a sulking Krishna quietly campaigning in Bangalore. “We are blessed that he is not campaigning in the Old Mysore region,” says a senior JD(S) leader after speculative reports appeared in some newspapers and news channels of an upset Krishna leaving for the US to avoid campaigning. On the surface, JD(S) workers were a touch scornful. “Pray, how does his campaign matter? Does he still have that kind of influence in the Vokkaliga belt?” asks one. (The Vokkaligas dominate the Old Mysore region.) But he admits, “If he’s not campaigning, we’ll surely win some 15-20 seats more.”
The political hold of the JD(S) in the Old Mysore region is as good as the hold of B.S. Yediyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Party (KJP) over northern Karnataka, where his community, the Lingayats, live in large numbers. The BJP, which has entered the fray with a defensive bat—for it, corruption and infighting have added to the anti-incumbency factor—has strategically made Shettar the chief campaigner here in a determined bid to stanch the bleeding of its Lingayat vote to Yediyurappa’s party. Nearly 60 of its candidates are Lingayats. Kumaraswamy has naturally fielded 48 Vokkaliga candidates, hoping to win with community support plus anti-incumbency. The Congress has given primacy to its traditional votebank—the backward castes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. This may not be the best strategy for winning elections. But to appease the Lingayats, it has nominated 61 candidates from the community.
What the Congress lacks is a strategy and a united approach, a planned disposition of ranks into election formations. This is going to prove costly. For it is generally accepted across the political spectrum that the anti-incumbency against the BJP is more than evident, one week into the campaign, and the Congress could have easily built on this advantage. But the Congress has done nothing to convert this negative vote against the BJP into one in its favour. It does not even have a strategy for the nearly 70 urban constituencies, despite it being evident that the urban middle class is a constituency that has gathered much strength of late and must be carefully nurtured.
In 1999, Krishna hired a bus and got all the leaders to travel with him to campaign across the state. The idea was to drive home the point that the Congress was a united force, unlike the Janata, which was torn apart in the legendary fight between Deve Gowda and Ramakrishna Hegde. Today, when asked to name one leader who has the charisma to hold all factions united as one Congress party, leaders usually say, “There seems to be none.”
It is this leaderless “movement”, as the Congress prefers to describe itself, that is fighting hard-nosed strategists like Kumaraswamy in Old Mysore and Yediyurappa in northern Karnataka. “Look at Kumaraswamy,” says a senior Congress leader. “He was the lone politician who was touring the state for the last two years to find candidates and garner support. His focus is not on all the 224 constituencies but just 100 seats.”
Yediyurappa’s selection of candidates in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region in the north has made even BJP leaders admit privately that he has made it a Congress versus KJP contest when it should have been a Congress versus BJP battle. Yediyurappa may not win a remarkable number of seats, but it is clear to all, more particularly the BJP, that he will cut his old party to size just to show that it cannot think of coming to power without him.
So, which one of them will be the king or kingmaker—that’s the hottest debate among political campaigners and analysts. The discussion revolves around who would align with whom in the event of the Congress falling short of a majority. Will Kumaraswamy defy his father yet again, like in 2006, and join hands with the BJP just to avoid being a junior partner to the Congress? Or will the Congress prefer a junior partner like the KJP as it would then be able to play Yediyurappa in the way the UPA is playing Mulayam Singh Yadav, using cases and inquiries as weapons? Against the backdrop of this debate, parties have gone for door-to-door campaigning, in which they hope to gain much over the next week. D-Day is May 5.
But there is a disclaimer. For all the infighting and despondency of loyal partymen, there is no party other than the Congress in Karnataka which can get its act together by default in the last stages of campaign for an assembly election. If the anti-incumbency factor against the BJP gets converted into a wave, the voters of Karnataka are quite adept at deciding to go for the ‘hand’ on the EVM—and overwhelmingly, the way they did in the 1984 elections, sending the Congress to the Lok Sabha. They are, after all, the only ones who told Rajiv Gandhi in a span of a mere three months that they trusted Ramakrishna Hegde to rule the state after they had voted him to rule the country. Smart choosers that they are, they seem to know well that keeping one party in power for too long is detrimental to the developmental health of the state.
By Imran Qureshi in Bangalore