A hush falls as veteran politician and former prime minister H D Deve Gowda ambles into the room in a crisply-starched white shirt and dhoti. He will turn 90 on May 18, a few days after the Karnataka election results are declared. He talks in whispers; somebody puts off the noisy ceiling fan as we meet him in his Bengaluru house. But his wit is intact and his eyes twinkle, as the old warhorse prepares for the rough and tumble of another election battle. “I take part in two to three rallies every day. But now there are many stalwarts in the party, I am only a small fry,” he says with a smile. “We will form the government this time on our own,” he adds.
Sitting next to him, his son and former chief minister of Karnataka, H D Kumaraswamy, says no major decision in their party, Janata Dal (Secular), is taken without his father’s nod. He says unlike other parties, where candidate selection has run into trouble, JD(S) members have been visiting 136 constituencies for the last year, to connect with the people. “Our problem is funds. We don’t have the money power of the BJP or the Congress. We have the support of the people, particularly of the farming community,” he says.
While some observe that Karnataka is the most corrupt state and the most expensive to fight elections, others say it is Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Then someone would chime in, it is Maharashtra. “Caste, candidate, cash—these are the three most important things to win elections in Karnataka,” says D K Shivakumar, president of the Congress Party in Karnataka and a chief minister hopeful. He is campaigning hard, looks battle-weary, and many say half his energy is spent on keeping his rival, Congress veteran leader and former chief minister, Siddaramaiah, at bay.
“Congress will get a clear majority—141 seats. Who becomes the chief minister will depend on the MLAs and the high command (Rahul Gandhi and Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge). Loyalty will pay royalty,” he says.
Shivakumar says he has a good working relationship with Siddaramaiah. Other Congress members say the central leadership has managed a truce between the two leaders for now and their fate will depend on the final result. We meet Siddramaiah’s son Yathindra, a mild-mannered MBBS doctor who joined politics late and won the Varuna seat near Mysuru in 2018, which his father is contesting this time. “Every party will have some factions. The BJP is worst affected by internal fights, and I think the Lingayats are not backing them this time. As for my father, he is a very tall leader; whoever the party MLAs decides after the elections will be the CM,” he says.
Predictably, what both Shivakumar and Yathindra Siddaramiah agree on is that the BJP will not come back to power as they say people are angry with the mis-governance and lacklustre performance of the present chief minister Basavaraj Bommai. “Throw the rascals out, a slogan that has always worked in Karnataka,” adds Krishna Byre Gowda, three-time Congress MLA. “We are told that PM Modi will be holding 20-odd rallies in the last phase of the campaign, but I don’t think he can considerably move the needle this time,” he says.
Both the Congress and the JD(S) say the BJP has faltered in ticket distribution and there is in-fighting between the various factions within its state unit. The sudden quitting of senior Lingayat leader and former CM Jagadish Shettar from the party is a sign of the rot that has set in. It is alleged there were sharp differences between him and BJP general secretary B L Santosh, as also with the former chief minister B S Yediyurappa. The BJP says that all this is baseless talk. “Both Santosh and Shettar are strong leaders. Santosh is a great organisational leader; accusing him for Shettar’s ouster is unreasonable,” says C L Ashwath Narayan, senior BJP leader and minister of Information Technology. He says Shettar was not willing to listen to the party. He wanted to contest the elections, but the party didn’t want him to. Shettar will not make a big dent and the BJP is set to get much more than a clear majority,” says Narayan.
There are no big issues in these elections. So far, the communal rhetoric in the speeches and rallies have been minimum. There is no mention of the hijab (girl students with the hijab were not allowed to schools and colleges in coastal Karnataka) and azaan (use of loudspeakers for the muezzin’s call for prayers) controversy, or even Tipu Sultan (that the ruler was killed by two Vokkaliga warriors and not by British soldiers). The opposition milked the Nandini vs Amul debate for some days, but that too is in the backburner. “No national issues will work in these elections. Not Hindutva, not Adani, not Bharat Jodo,” says Kumaraswamy. “We don’t need any north Indian faces to win Karnataka,” says Shivakumar, when asked why more central leaders from the Congress are not campaigning.
The people too are yet to make up their mind. As we travel from Mysuru towards Chikkamagaluru, many seem to be holding on to the predictable caste lines. We meet Shruti Shaivas in a village in the Varuna constituency who runs an agri-products shop. The village itself is clean and prosperous with concrete roads and tap water in all the houses. Shruti says she is voting for the BJP as it’s the only party which does any work in the state. But in another lane, a group of people say they will vote for the Congress as they believe Siddaramaiah will have more power to nurse the constituency, if he wins.
Back in Bengaluru, many analysts and journalists we speak to say the real battle will begin only after the results are known on May 13. And if the verdict is a hung assembly, the infamous Operation Kamala—a term the opposition parties coined to mark the toppling of the Congress-JD(S) coalition in 2019 when Congress MLAs defected to the BJP, enabling the party to form the government—is still fresh on everyone’s mind. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to start his frenetic campaigning in the state on April 30; he is slated to address 20-odd rallies and road shows. Unless there are any major developments in the next 10 days, Karnataka, this time, will be a close contest between the Congress and the BJP.
Satish Padmanabhan in Bengaluru, Mysuru and Chikkamagaluru