Three weeks ago, after presenting the final state budget of his tenure, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah dismissed the opposition's criticism of his lengthy spending plan when elections were round the corner. "This is a regular budget," he told newsmen, and pausing for effect, added nonchalantly, "keeping in mind we will come back again to implement it." Last weekend, however, as the BJP wrested three north-eastern states, its national president Amit Shah weighed in with an equal measure of confidence. His sights, said Shah, were on the last few bastions of Orissa, Bengal and Kerala because "we will anyway win Karnataka".
Surely, the BJP is on the offensive in the southern state, first with vistaraks and yatras covering the state's 224 constituencies and, in recent weeks, rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and president Amit Shah. "Added to that, the north-east results have come as a bonus," party spokesman S Suresh Kumar tells Outlook. The booth level micromanagement which gave the party dividends in Uttar Pradesh is being put into action here, he says. "Because of this, we are stronger in the state compared to say two or three years back."
Five years ago, the BJP in Karnataka was a divided house, split into various factions and reeling from a scam-tainted term in office. "Together, the divide sucked the energy out of the organisation," says Kumar. "Today, the BJP, KJP, BSR, has come together again and we don't have that baggage. Again, we are on the right track."
Of course, the Congress doesn't let go of any opportunity to remind voters of the 'baggage'. Besides, some fault-lines among the local leadership still exists, BJP partymen admit privately even though they say it won't hurt the party's campaign.
"Siddaramaiah really has disarmed the BJP of any agenda," says Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee vice president B K Chandrashekar. "The fact that they (BJP) have refused stubbornly to get into any debate or discussion about development is testimony to the fact that they have no agenda about Karnataka," he says. Harish Ramaswamy, who teaches political science at the Karnatak University, agrees. The Siddaramaiah government's pro-poor policies and welfare schemes is an issue that confronts the BJP, he says. "At the local level, it appears Siddaramaiah has made the MLAs to work hard," says Ramaswamy. Parts of Hyderabad-Karnataka -- as the state's northeastern region is still referred to -- has seen some development under Article 371J, an act that ensures equitable allocation of funds through a separate board, he says. The Congress' approach therefore, as seen during Rahul Gandhi's tours in northern Karnataka, is to attack the Centre on unkept promises and weave in local issues. "That is what the BJP is trying to avoid," Ramaswamy says.
"Anti-incumbency may not be overt but utter disgust for the bad governance is felt all over because of the casteist politics that we are seeing," counters the BJP's Suresh Kumar. As for the Congress' bhagya schemes (the welfare schemes are often suffixed with the Kannada word meaning 'good fortune') they have become a failure at the delivery point, he claims. Leave alone the assembly seats, he says, the BJP is focussing its efforts on booths which they can swing in their favour. "We had already won 110 assembly seats once," Kumar says, referring to the 2008 election where the party fell tantalisingly short of a simple majority but managed to form government for the first time in Karnataka. "There are 50-60 seats more where victory is achievable. And it will be achieved," he says.
Of course, its election season and both the national parties have glossed over some previously-held moral high ground -- for instance, the Congress has welcomed into the party fold legislators Ashok Kheny from Bidar and Bellary's Anand Singh, both of whom it had previously attacked over the controversial NICE road project and illegal iron-ore mining respectively. On the other side, Narendra Modi gave a thumping endorsement to state party chief and chief ministerial candidate B S Yeddyurappa who last week turned 75, the age generally believed to be the BJP's cut-off, albeit unwritten, for party positions.
The PM's campaigns attacking the Siddaramaiah government is seen to have given the BJP a boost while it has evoked an angry response from the Congress, especially his barbs such as '10 percent commission sarkar'. "It's a serious issue, these words shouldn't come from the Prime Minister," protests B K Chandrashekar.
So far, observers reckon, the Siddaramaiah-led Congress appears to have a slight edge. He's also ticked off many boxes seen vital in an election year -- for instance, a pay hike for government servants was approved last month. Among his budget announcements, he highlighted the proposal to offer free education for girls from the pre-university course (class 11) to post graduation. "This is irrespective of caste, creed or religion...this is what is sabka saath, sabka vikas," he quipped sarcastically. The BJP too has been making overtures as elections approach. Train tickets, for instance, will now also come printed in Kannada.
Meanwhile, there's the Lingayat minority status issue that no one is yet sure of which way it will turn. The BJP has so far maintained a steadfast silence on the issue, saying it will backfire on the Siddaramaiah government which set up a panel to study the demand, from within some quarters, to categorise Lingayats as a religious minority. The argument is that Lingayats, who follow the teachings of the 12th century poet-philosopher Basavanna are separate from the Veerashaivas because the latter, while following the faith, also hold on to some tenets of the Hindu orthodoxy. Last week, the panel headed by a retired judge submitted a report concluding that the Lingayats were a religious minority, which leaves the Congress to take a call on further action. "We will have to wait and see whether it weighs in favour of the Congress or the BJP," says Harish Ramaswamy. The community makes up about 16 percent of the electorate and is seen to be a support base of the BJP, whose chief ministerial candidate, B S Yeddyurappa, is also a Lingayat.
While the two big parties are slugging it out, there's also a fair deal of speculation about the possibility of a hung assembly. The Janata Dal (Secular) has, over the last couple of years, lost a few leaders to rivals but it will still force a triangular contest in several seats. "The ground reality here is different from north India as well as the north-eastern states," says party spokesman Ramesh Babu. The JD(S), he says, has demonstrated its reach with a recent massive gathering in Bangalore when the party announced an alliance with with Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, which doesn't yet have a significant presence in the state -- the BSP in 2013 contested 175 seats and got 1.75 percent vote share. The JD(S), says Babu, is currently reaching out to parties like Sharad Pawar's NCP and Asaduddin Owaisi's MIM for pre-poll alliances.