Triangular contest

Print edition : April 18, 2014

B.S. Yeddyurappa, the BJP candidate for Shimoga, on his way to file his nomination papers on March 20. Photo: Vaidya

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah greets Nandan Nilekani (left), Congress candidate for South Bangalore, on March 24. Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar

JUST under a year ago, a rejuvenated State Congress, riding on a wave of voter disenchantment with the incumbent BJP government, swept to power in Karnataka by winning 121 of the 223 Assembly seats on offer, in the process decimating the saffron party and neutralising the vote-pulling capacity, if any, of its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. The defeat was a big blow to the BJP, which came to power in 2008 hoping to make Karnataka its political springboard in the south. The BJP managed to win just 40 seats and secured under 20 per cent of the votes polled. The Congress polled 36.59 per cent of the votes.

The BJP’s State unit was lost and in disarray. With its party workers disillusioned and its primary support base among the dominant Lingayat community broken, it looked incapable of replicating in the future the feat it had accomplished in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections by winning 19 seats (the highest number of seats for the party among all the States) and 41.63 per cent of the votes.

The Congress appeared to be in a position to ace out a lame-duck BJP and an equally divided Janata Dal (Secular), which has remained an “H.D. Deve Gowda and sons party” for more than a decade.

But, almost a year on, the political scene in the State, whose 28 Lok Sabha constituencies will go to the polls on April 17, could not look more different. For a start, most of the constituencies will witness the traditional three-cornered contests, unlike the four- and even multi-cornered contests seen in the Assembly elections in May 2013. While the Congress will be locked in a straight fight with the BJP in the northern, central and coastal districts, it must grapple with the Janata Dal (Secular) in the Old Mysore area (comprising Bangalore, Mysore, Mandya, Kolar, Tumkur, Chitradurga, Shimoga and Hassan districts).

The AAP is yet to generate the kind of noise or interest that can help it win a few Lok Sabha seats.

Significantly, despite the relatively efficient administration led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, there is a disconnect between the Congress and the masses. The grand old party is rattled by dissidence and dissatisfaction over seat distribution. Also spoiling the party’s interests and fortunes is the “spectacularly poor performance” of the UPA government at the Centre. With perception being everything in politics, this is not good news for the Congress in Karnataka, which has always looked at cashing in on the achievements of the national leadership rather than banking on its own accomplishments. The Congress, which won six Lok Sabha seats in 2009 and polled 37.65 per cent of the votes, has failed to capitalise on the anti-BJP sentiment and adequately trumpet the Siddaramaiah government’s social justice programmes.

The State BJP, after being in the doldrums for almost 10 months, has got a boost from two factors: the return of senior BJP leader and Lingayat strongman B.S. Yeddyurappa, who had broken away from the party and formed the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), to its fold, and, to a lesser extent, the return of the Bellary politician B. Sriramulu. A close ally of the Bellary mining baron G. Janardhana Reddy, Sriramulu quit the BJP in 2011 and formed the Badava Shramika Raitha (BSR) Congress after he was denied a berth in the D.V. Sadananda Gowda Cabinet. The BJP hopes his re-induction into the party, notwithstanding senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj’s opposition, will revive the party’s fortunes in Bellary (where it won only 19.35 per cent of the votes in the Assembly elections), Raichur and Koppal parliamentary constituencies.

Yeddyurappa was forced to step down as Chief Minister after being indicted by the Karnataka Lok Ayukta on corruption charges. Subsequently, he quit the party in 2012 and vowed to defeat it. In the 2013 elections, his nascent party won six seats but took away 9.79 per cent of the votes, which would have otherwise gone to the BJP. His KJP was able to take away crucial votes, primarily those of Lingayats, who constitute 18 per cent of the State’s population. In Karnataka, where identity politics —read caste politics—is the key factor and “vote your caste, not cast your vote” is the norm, the Lingayat vote becomes crucial in the final outcome. Lingayats, along with Vokkaligas, constitute the State’s social, economic and political powerhouse. Concentrated in critically high numbers in almost all of the State’s Bombay-Karnataka, Hyderabad-Karnataka and central regions, comprising Chikkodi, Belgaum, Bagalkot, Bijapur, Gulbarga, Raichur, Bidar, Koppal, Bellary, Haveri, Dharwad, Davanagere, Tumkur and Chitradurga Lok Sabha constituencies, Lingayats helped the BJP win 12 of these 14 seats in 2009. The Congress’ former Chief Minister N. Dharam Singh and Railway Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge won Bidar and Gulbarga respectively, because of their individual popularity.

Following Yeddyurappa’s exit from the BJP, the Lingayat vote split three ways between the KJP, the Congress and the BJP, influencing the outcome. An illustrative example is the Assembly segments in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region’s five Lok Sabha seats (Bidar, Gulbarga, Bellary, Koppal and Raichur), where the Congress won 23 of the 40 Assembly seats and the BJP just five. Of the 69,56,806 votes polled in this region, the Congress secured 17,98,885 votes, while the votes of the BJP, the KJP and the BSR Congress added up to 20,36,539.

An analysis of the voting figures for the Assembly elections shows that the BJP could have more than doubled its seat tally of 40 had it remained undivided. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the State BJP unit convinced the central leadership to forget, if not forgive, Yeddyurappa and Sriramulu for their indiscretions and allow them back into the party. With corruption being a non-issue except in television chat rooms and in the campaign of the AAP—thanks to the Congress’ and the Janata Dal (Secular)’s own share of tainted leaders—the re-induction of Yeddyurappa and Sriramulu has not been raked up at political meetings.

Although it is important to have alliances to win seats, the BJP State unit’s enthusiasm to rope in “friends” of all hues has left the central leadership red-faced. On March 23, the State unit inducted Pramod Mutalik, the controversial chief of the Sri Rama Sene, a self-appointed Hindu right-wing vigilante organisation whose moral policing, including the January 2009 attack on young women and men patronising a pub in Mangalore, has drawn protests. Mutalik, who is facing over 40 criminal cases, had threatened to contest against the BJP if he was not given the ticket. The State unit felt the need to rope him in so as to avoid the loss of potential support in his constituency. However, wiser counsel prevailed and the central leadership hastily directed the State unit to annul Mutalik’s induction.

The BJP is hoping that Modi will turn out to be its vote winner. In 2013, Modi undertook two campaign visits to Karnataka and addressed rallies in Belgaum and Mangalore, but failed to make any real impact on the voters even in the Hindutva heartland of Dakshina Kannada. The BJP, which has held the Dakshina Kannada parliamentary seat (called the Mangalore Lok Sabha seat before the delimitation exercise in 2008) since 1991, finds itself on the back foot, with the Congress holding all but one of the constituency’s eight Assembly segments. The BJP is banking on Modi’s divisive brand of politics. State party president Prahlad Joshi explained the party’s stand when he stated that it was his job to ensure that the Modi “effect” was maximised in the State and the party capitalised on it.

Senior BJP leader Suresh Kumar said: “The nation wants change and a strong leader and Modi fulfils these needs. Modi’s visit to Karnataka on September 13 galvanised our campaign and we were able to transform and energise ourselves. We were the first to hold booth committee meetings, we organise outreach programmes for non-BJP supporters and visited homes in the rural areas to educate voters on the lack of governance by UPA-II. We have focussed on development, stability and an able leadership.”

The BJP hopes to win 16 to 18 seats, most of them from the northern, central and coastal areas. Interestingly, the party has never won in Hassan, Kolar, Mandya, Chamarajanagar and Chikkaballapur. In Bangalore Rural, it has won just once (1998).

The Congress, which according to Siddaramaiah will win at least 20 seats, sees no “Modi factor” in Karnataka. Education and Tourism Minister R.V. Deshpande said: “We are not bothered by the Modi factor. In fact, he will have no influence on Karnataka’s electorate. There is an entire section of society that has reservations about him and he is seen as dictatorial. He has been harping on the success of Gujarat. But much of this so-called success is untrue. The Plan expenditure has not been met, poverty levels are high, and farmers’ demands have not been fulfilled. The elections will be fought on the achievements of the UPA and the Siddaramaiah governments versus the corruption and tyranny that prevailed during BJP rule.”

Deshpande’s son Prashant Deshpande is contesting from Uttara Kannada.

If the BJP is banking on the support of Lingayats, Brahmins and voters in the urban areas and the Modi effect, the Congress, which lacks a strong Lingayat leader, hopes to counter this with the continued support it enjoys from the Backward Classes (B.Cs), the Scheduled Castes and minorities. This block has contributed the most to the Congress’ 32 to 37 per cent vote share in most elections. A consolidation of this base is what the Congress is looking to achieve. Although the B.Cs have had a long history of asserting their identity, going back to the 1920s when they were provided reservation in the princely state of Mysore, they did not become a force to reckon with until the 1970s when Chief Minister D. Devaraj Urs, in a bid to break the Vokkaliga-Lingayat domination, consolidated and gave them a political identity. But not being a homogeneous group (they are made up of more than 100 sub-sects) has meant that the B.Cs continue to play second fiddle to Vokkaligas and Lingayats.

Siddaramaiah, who was instrumental in launching Ahinda (Kannada acronym for minorities, B.Cs and S.Cs) in 2005 after he quit the Janata Dal (Secular), is often accused of overly championing the interests of his own Kuruba community (the third most populous community in the State and a powerful constituent of the B.Cs).

The Congress, of course, is hoping that dissenting groups under the Ahinda umbrella will not play spoilsport. While some Muslim leaders have criticised Siddaramaiah for inadequate representation for their community in his Cabinet, S.C. leaders, including Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president M. Parameshwar, have said that despite their community’s continued support to the Congress, the party had prevented S.C. leaders such as Kharge, B. Basavalingappa and K.H. Ranganath from even becoming Deputy Chief Ministers.

Although the Janata Dal (Secular) enjoys strong support among Vokkaligas, minorities and agriculturists, the party has lost much ground in recent years. Out of power ever since H.D. Kumaraswamy, Deve Gowda’s son, stepped down as Chief Minister in 2007, the party has stumbled from one defeat to another. It is also seen as anti-Lingayat and not urban-friendly. There are no indications that the party is coming out of the morass, but it is likely to retain the Hassan seat and win Mandya, where the Congress is facing a rebellion of sorts.