Battle royal

Print edition : May 11, 2018

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah campaigning in the Chamundeshwari constituency in Mysuru, from where he is contesting, on April 16. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

BJP leaders Amit Shah and B.S. Yeddyurappa before a memorial to freedom fighter Sangolli Rayanna in Nandgad village in Belagavi district on April 20. Photo: P.K. Badiger

JD(S) State president H.D. Kumaraswamy with candidate G.T. Devegowda at a road show in Koorgalli in the Chamundeshwari constituency on April 16. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

In the Karnataka Assembly elections, the national narrative of the BJP as espoused by its star campaigners, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, is pitted against the narrative of regionalism and subnationalism put forth by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

IT was an announcement that was as dramatic and bold as it was uncharacteristic, and it set off violent protests, vandalising of party offices, burning of tyres on roads, blockading of highways, sloganeering and mock funerals in a number of constituencies. But by declaring all but six of its candidates for the May 12 elections to the 224-seat Karnataka Legislative Assembly in one go, the Congress made it clear that it was determined to deal with any rebellion by those who were denied the party ticket. Four teams were formed to “reach out and pacify disgruntled/disappointed primary members” such as Brijesh Kalappa, and almost all of them were assured that they would be nominated to the Legislative Council or appointed to posts of Chairmen if the party formed the next government. Nevertheless, a few leaders, such as Ravi Patel, P. Ramesh and N.Y. Gopalkrishna, switched sides.

Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Lingayats dominate the Congress list. Of the 218 candidates named, there are 52 OBCs, 48 Lingayats, 39 Vokkaligas, 36 and 17 from the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes respectively, 15 Muslims, seven Brahmins, two Christians and two Jains.

Five parent-child combinations

Compared with its two main rivals, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal (Secular), the Congress’ candidate selection process was more of a minefield as the demand to be nominated as the party’s candidate was very high because it is the ruling party in Karnataka. According to a senior Congress leader who was part of the selection process, it was “a humungous task” to zero in on a candidate “when in every constituency there were a number of deserving contenders”.

No less than five parent-child combinations have made it to the Congress list: Chief Minister Siddaramaiah (who is contesting from Chamundeshwari) and his son Yathindra, Home Minister Ramalinga Reddy and his daughter Soumya Reddy, Shamanur Shivashankarappa and his son Shamanur Mallikarjun, Law Minister T.B. Jayachandra and his son T.J. Santosh, and Housing Minister M. Krishnappa and his son Priya Krishna. Besides, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge’s son Priyank and Member of Parliament K.H. Muniyappa’s daughter Roopa Sasidhar have been favoured for candidacy.

Denying there was a dynastic tendency, Jayachandra said that the next generation was capable in its own right of being nominated and had nurtured the constituencies they were contesting from. Seven rebel JD(S) legislators—Zamir Ahmed Khan, N. Cheluvarayaswamy, Iqbal Ansari, Akhanda Srinivas Moorthi, H.C. Balakrishna, Bheema Nayak and Ramesh Bendi Siddhagowda—who had switched over to the Congress recently were given the ticket. But Siddaramaiah’s insistence on fielding the businessman-turned-politician Ashok Khenny, the architect of the controversial Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises, did not go down well with the party faithful. The mining baron B.S. Anand Singh, who joined the Congress recently, was given the ticket. A one-time confidant of the Bellary Reddy brothers, he was arrested in 2015 for illegally transporting iron ore.

Former Chief Minister M. Veerappa Moily of the Congress told Frontline that “rather than a pick-and-choose” job, candidates were selected purely on merit, with “winnability as the commanding principle”.

The winnability factor

Winnability certainly was the only criterion for the BJP too as it embarks on its “Mission 150”. If declaring B.S. Yeddyurappa (who has spent time in jail) as its chief ministerial candidate was a fait accompli—lest the tallest Lingayat leader in the State do something like floating the Karnataka Janata Paksha, which he did in 2013, and damage the BJP’s chances—the decision to welcome back and nominate one of the Bellary Reddy brothers and their confidant, B Sriramulu, and former Ministers Katta Subramanya Naidu, S.N. Krishnaiah Setty, Hartal Halappa and M.P. Renukacharya smacked of political opportunism.

Although the BJP’s national president Amit Shah had declared just days earlier that the party had nothing to do with Gali Janardhana Reddy, who was out on bail (and as part of the bail conditions not allowed to enter Bellary district) after being embroiled in illegal mining and transportation of iron ore, his elder brother G. Somashekara Reddy and Sriramulu became prominent names in the BJP’s hall of fame for the 2018 elections. The candidature of the eldest of the Reddy brothers, G. Karunakara Reddy, was also likely to fructify. While the corruption and controversial land acquisition charges against Katta Subramanya Naidu and the rape allegations that singed Halappa have been struck down by the courts, the corruption case registered against Setty is pending. Renukacharya dominated the headlines in 2007 after a woman accused him of sexual harassment, and released intimate photographs of the two of them. A case was registered and later withdrawn.

Speaking to Frontline, a senior BJP leader confided that the list reflected the party’s dependence on candidates “who have the best chance to win, candidates who either won, or lost by very narrow margins, 2 to 5 per cent of the votes”. The BJP top brass was also wary of sparking off another bout of intra-party rivalry, like the public spat between Yeddyurappa and K.S. Eshwarappa, who, along with a few other senior leaders, had questioned Yeddyurappa’s leadership. Informed sources told Frontline that Eshwarappa had been assured of being made the Deputy Chief Minister if the BJP came to power. The party’s three lists were finalised not by the State leadership but, in a first, by the central leadership in a bid to ward off factionalism and nepotism and to present a united front.

But all hell broke loose after the BJP’s second list was announced. BJP offices in a few constituencies were vandalised and stones were thrown at the election vehicle of official candidates, and posters of Amit Shah and Narendra Modi were taken down. A number of the ticket hopefuls, including the five-term legislator S. Thippeswamy, quit the party on being denied the chance to contest.

The JD(S), which lacks a pan-Karnataka presence and continues to be a party whose influence is concentrated in the Old Mysore region, made it clear that it was ready to welcome dissenters/rebels from both the Congress and the BJP. The brothers Hemachandra and Ramachandra Sagar, and Prakash Khandre from the BJP and P. Ramesh from the Congress joined the JD(S).

JD(S)’s tie-up

It is to be seen whether the JD(S)’s tie-up with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) will help it electorally. But the JD(S) draws most of its support from the dominant Vokkaliga community, which has not endeared itself to Dalits, the bulwark of the BSP. The JD(S) got a shot in the arm when Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen declared that his party would support it. But some leaders like Veerappa Moily felt that Owaisi’s support would be a liability. He said: “The minorities feel unsafe with the Owaisi brand of politics.”

The Karnataka elections coming as it does hardly a year before the parliamentary elections of 2019 has, according to many political pundits, made it more than a State election. And while it may not set the trend for what is to come, the results will certainly have a lasting impact on both the national parties and the JD(S). The JD(S) has not been in power since 2008 and is desperate to at least be a kingmaker in the event of a hung Assembly. The party, according to Congress leaders, has the ability to play spoiler in some constituencies, especially in the Old Mysore region.

For the Congress, a good showing is important not just for its survival in power (in the past five years, the party has not been able to retain a major State with the lone exception of Punjab) but also to bring it to the forefront of an all-India anti-BJP front. A good showing in Karnataka will allow the BJP to regain the momentum it lost, both in the Gujarat elections, where its showing was lacklustre, and the byelections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which it lost. It hopes to carry the momentum of the Karnataka elections to the State elections due later this year in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and the general election in 2019.

Tough fight

The BJP had once hoped Karnataka would be its citadel in the south until the Congress dashed its hopes in 2013. According to analysts, this election will be closely fought between the national narrative of the BJP as espoused by its star campaigners, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah (who has temporarily taken up residence in Bengaluru), and the narrative of regionalism and subnationalism put forth by Siddaramaiah, who is basically a regional satrap in a national party.

His push for a separate State flag, the emphasis on the Kannada language, the removal of Hindi signage at the Bengaluru Metro stations, and the move to grant minority religion status for Lingayats point to his seeking to promote regional powers in a federal set-up. He has also sought to expose Modi and his government as being long on rhetoric but short on action and as exponents of chicanery and doublespeak.

In its election campaign, the BJP has cleverly not projected the State BJP leadership lest the memory of the corruption charges that hit its government in 2008 resurface and has instead stuck to national issues. The party has also not taken a categoric stand on the controversial issue of a minority religion status to the numerically, economically and politically strong Lingayat community. Just how decisive Siddaramaiah’s decision to recommend grant of religious minority status to Lingayats under Section 2(d) of the Karnataka State Minorities Commission Act and forward the recommendation to the Union government, seeking notification under Section 2(c) of the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992, is far from clear. But the BJP and Yeddyurappa’s dithering on their stand has not helped the party.

Further, just how much the Hindi speeches of Modi and Amit Shah will emotionally connect with an audience that is clearly not comfortable with the language is something that could have a bearing on the results. It is becoming clearer by the day that whoever manages to communicate their message better will enjoy a larger portion of the electoral spoils. All three parties are aware that an effective management of caste combinations and equations is crucial to success.

Early indications are that the Congress, led by a combative Siddaramaiah, who has been vigorous in the defence of both secular values and numerous welfare schemes, is optimistic tails up. But as Veerappa Moily said in an interview to this correspondent, the momentum could be rolled back too fast for comfort unless the message was effectively taken to the voters.

Sakthi Kendra programme

The BJP, through its Sakthi Kendra programme, has over 50,000 booth-level workers. According to the former Chairman of the State Minorities Commission and senior BJP leader Anwar Manipadi, the BJP’s campaign starts with two or three karya kartas (party workers) assigned to people on each page of the voters’ list. Their duty is to visit around 20 to 30 households three or four times ahead of the elections and engage with the voters.

Said Law Minister Jayachandra: “The Congress government led by Siddaramaiah has managed the State well, and our welfare programmes have touched all the citizens. The entire country is now looking at Karnataka to see how it votes. The BJP, which has no programme of its own other than to mouth anti-Congress slogans, is scared. The Prime Minister is scared. The people have realised that in the four years of BJP rule at the Centre there has been no conspicuous programme that has helped the common man. The government has made several U-turns too. Demonetisation spoilt the economy.”

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