All State elections are important, but the forthcoming election in Karnataka will be special for several reasons. First, the BJP will be entering uncharted waters since its ascendance in Karnataka because former Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa will not be its chief ministerial candidate. Second, Siddaramaiah, the 75-year-old former Chief Minister from the Congress and its biggest leader in Karnataka, has already proclaimed that this will be his last election; he will be looking to lead the Congress to victory before his eventual retirement. Third, the Janata Dal (Secular) will be fighting to stay relevant as its leader and former Chief Minister, H.D. Kumaraswamy, has averred that the party will not ally with the Congress or BJP.
The election results will also have far-reaching implications for national politics. Elections are slated to be held in a number of other States in 2023—Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan—where the BJP will face tough contests. These elections are being referred to as the extended semi-finals before the crucial parliamentary election of 2024.
If the Congress manages to win in Karnataka, it could provide a boost to the party’s prospects and lift the opposition’s sagging morale. Karnataka is, in fact, one of the few States where the party has an actual chance of winning. If the BJP is able to retain Karnataka, the only State that it governs in southern India, it could spectacularly buoy its campaign through 2023 and all the way to the Lok Sabha election.
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However, the BJP has never won an election in the State directly at the hustings. It came to power on its own in Karnataka for the first time in 2008 but could do so only by wooing six independent legislators. That was the first instance of what has since come to be known as “Operation Kamala” (Operation Lotus). The BJP has successfully used this template over the past 15 years in several other States.
Yediyurappa’s importance for the BJP became evident in 2013 when he walked out to form a party of his own. The BJP lost that election, and the Congress formed the government. In 2018, after Yediyurappa’s return to its fold, the BJP emerged as the single largest party with 104 seats in the 224-seat Assembly. But its attempts at coming to power were thwarted by its shortfall in numbers and a fragile post-poll alliance between the Congress and the JD(S). Rumblings between the coalition partners were frequent and the BJP toppled the wobbly government by luring away 16 MLAs. These MLAs won the subsequent byelections, which ensured that the BJP came to power in 2019 under Yediyurappa’s leadership.
Yediyurappa was removed from the Chief Minister’s post in 2021 and a fellow Lingayat politician, Basavaraj Bommai, was appointed in his stead. There were several allegations of corruption against Yediyurappa. His son, B.Y. Vijayendra, was accused of heading a powerful caucus within the State BJP. But subsequent political events in the State show that Yediyurappa was an impediment to the successful implementation of an aggressive Hindutva agenda in the State. As a politician who successfully and single-handedly built up the BJP in Karnataka on the bedrock of a Lingayat support base, Yediyurappa did not owe his stature to the benevolence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. He was able to restrain rabid elements in the right-wing Hindutva circles.
Yediyurappa was brought back from the political wilderness last year when he was made a part of the BJP’s Parliamentary Board and Central Election Committee. The BJP is anxious about whether the Lingayats, the most powerful and politically influential community in the State, continue to rally behind the BJP en masse without Yediyurappa.
In early April, the BJP high command made it clear that it wanted Vijayendra to contest against Siddaramaiah from Varuna constituency in Mysuru district. Yediyurappa, however, put his foot down and ensured that Vijayendra would contest from his constituency of Shikaripura in Shivamogga district. This gesture is being interpreted as Yediyurappa’s rebuff to the party and could dent the BJP’s wide support among the Lingayat community.
G.B. Patil of the Jagatika Lingayat Mahasabha said, “I feel that this time around the Lingayat vote will be split. It is not true that the entire Lingayat community is always with the BJP. The Panchamsalis, who constitute the largest subsect among the Lingayats, are the ones who mainly support the BJP. Bommai’s attempt at increasing the reservation for Lingayats in response to the Panchamsali agitation is merely an election gimmick. It is not implementable and voters have seen through this.”
If one of the highlights of the 2018 election was Siddaramaiah’s attempt to woo Lingayats by recommending the formation of a separate Lingayat religion, the highlight of the 2023 election is sure to be the BJP’s aggressive attempt to breach the south Karnataka Vokkaliga stronghold of the JD(S). The JD(S) won 37 seats in 2018, only six of which came from outside south Karnataka.
Going by the election results since 1999, when the JD(S) was formed, it is clear that for Vokkaligas, former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda is the undisputed leader, and his son, Kumaraswamy, the spokesperson of the community’s interests. That the organisation is centered on the extended family of Deve Gowda and his children does not bother party loyalists and the party has managed to retain a loyal support base since its founding in 1999.
In the fractious caste-based politics of post-unification Karnataka, the rivalry between Lingayats and Vokkaligas is legendary. The dynamics of the animosities between the two communities formed the backdrop of the power contestations within the Congress from the 1950s to the 1970s. In this election, the BJP and the JD(S), the two key players, represent the two dominant communities of Lingayats and Vokkaligas respectively. The BJP is making a valiant attempt at winning over the Vokkaliga-dominated rural hinterland of south Karnataka.
Sugata Srinivasaraju, author of Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of H.D. Deve Gowda, did not sound optimistic about the BJP’s chances in this region. He said, “Deve Gowda is seen as the patriarch of the Cauvery River basin in south Karnataka. This is not simply because he is Vokkaliga but because of the work that he has done in the region for the past six decades. If you look at other regional parties in India, their vote share fluctuates in each election, but for a party to consistently win around 20 per cent of the vote share election after election is phenomenal and is a testament to the debt of gratitude that the people owe Deve Gowda. The BJP does not really understand the mindset of the Vokkaliga voter in this belt.”
Apart from a solid Lingayat support base in north and central Karnataka, the BJP has support among backward castes and sections of Dalits and tribal people. The BJP also has entrenched political support in the three coastal Karnataka districts.
- The Congress seems to have real chance of bouncing back to power in Karnataka but its support base is dispersed all over the State, which means that it is not always able to win elections even when it has te largest vote share.
- Corruption charges and a lacklustre State leadership weakens the chances for the ruling BJP.
- The sidelining of B.S. Yediurappa may also work against the BJP by splittting the Lingayat vote.
- The Vokkaliga community is still solidly with the Janata Dal (Secular).
Unlike the social engineering that the party has assiduously done in the rest of Karnataka, buttressed by its core support base among Lingayats, it is Hindutva that works for the party in coastal Karnataka. Communal polarisation is intense in this region, which has a higher Muslim population than the rest of the State. In 2018, the BJP managed to win 17 of the 19 seats from this region. While the Popular Front of India, which had a base in coastal Karnataka, is now proscribed, its political avatar, the Social Democratic Party of India, remains free to operate and has some support among Muslims.
In the communally surcharged coastal parts, anti-incumbency will have a limited role. But this is not the case in the rest of the State where two factors may work against the BJP and for the Congress: the serious charges of corruption against the BJP and the weak leadership of Bommai. While charges of corruption were made in the past against Yediyurappa, there has been a surge in accusations against the BJP under Bommai’s reign. Most notably, the Karnataka Contractors Association accused BJP legislators of demanding an unrealistic 40 per cent commission for any work that was allotted.
In an important byelection in Hangal in his home district of Haveri soon after his elevation as Chief Minister, Bommai was not able to ensure a victory for the BJP. This was the start of Bommai’s image as a weak Chief Minister. He also displayed pusillanimity in the face of a surcharged communal campaign. Caring little for his socialist past with its stress on communal harmony, Bommai seems to have ensured that violent rhetoric and actions of the Hindu right wing have a free run.
While there have been a spate of incidents targeted at religious minorities in Karnataka since 2021, two recent events have been evocative. First, the Bommai government scrapped the 4 per cent reservation for Muslims. Second, the spike in cow vigilantism after the death of a Muslim man on April 1 in Ramanagara in south Karnataka, a hitherto virgin area for vigilantism; the death happened in the wake of the passage of the law against cow slaughter.
Considering these factors, the Congress does have a good chance of bouncing back to power. Pre-election surveys suggest that the Congress is comfortably ahead. But the party, which is often accused of thwarting its own chances because of infighting, suffers from two problems. First, there were premature discussions on a prospective Chief Minister. Would it be Siddaramaiah, the old socialist warhorse whose recent politics was premised on mobilising assorted communities against the dominance of Lingayats and Vokkaligas, or would it be D.K. Shivakumar, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president, the powerful Vokkaliga “trouble shooter” whose services are often relied upon by the Congress across the country during elections? For much of 2022, this was the focal point of all speculation in Karnataka politics. Following intervention by the central leadership in January, however, the Congress has surmounted this conjecture and its State leadership is putting up a united front.
Oddities of arithmetic
A second challenge for the party lies deep within the complicated political arithmetic of elections. The Congress has been garnering the highest vote share in Karnataka since 1999, but this does not mean it wins the largest number of seats in the Vidhana Soudha. Unlike the BJP and the JD(S), which win in their areas of strength, the Congress has its support base scattered across the State.
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In 2018, for instance, the Congress had a 38.14 per cent vote share but won only 80 seats. In contrast, the BJP won 104 seats with a lower vote share of 36.35 per cent; and the JD(S) with its marginal presence in north and central Karnataka and no influence in coastal Karnataka, won 37 seats with a vote share of 18.3 per cent. Thus, the political battle is relatively more difficult for the Congress as it must win more votes across all regions to ensure that it wins a simple majority.
The BJP is relying on its key strength of organisational efficiency. The party is famed for its booth level management. Yet, the unusual delay in the announcement of its candidates has been seen as a sign of weakness. “The delay clearly shows that something is not well and the party is increasingly feeling that it is on the back foot,” said Muzaffar Assadi, political analyst and Vice Chancellor of the University of Mysore. With its lacklustre State leadership (Yediyurappa having been marginalised within the party set-up), the BJP will be banking on the charisma of Modi, Shah and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. All three are slated to address rallies in Karnataka.
The trope of “double engine” government is the thrust of the BJP’s campaign. The biggest weapon in the Congress’ arsenal is its constant focus on the widespread allegations of corruption under Bommai’s tenure. The Congress’ campaign has also been boosted by 20 leaders (former and sitting MLAs and MLCs) who joined the party from the BJP and the JD(S). Politicians are the best bellwethers of elections and can predict who is in an advantageous position close to an election. The migration of several senior leaders to the party is being seen as a positive sign for the Congress. With only a few weeks left for the May 10 election, it is going to be an arduous and hot summer for all the three main contenders in Karnataka.