If roadshows and catchy slogans radically alter an electorate’s thinking, then Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s searing allegations against the Siddaramaiah government over neglecting the plight of farmers and the persistent riverine water shortage, as he campaigned across the length and breadth of Karnataka, should reap a saffron harvest.
Will it help the BJP score one of the biggest upsets in the history of this southern state, come May 12? Can Rahul Gandhi and chief minister Siddaramaiah hold off this saffron onslaught?
As much as this game of competitive populism resonates with the people who gathered in their thousands to hear Mr Modi in the smallest of taluks and rurban centres, whether the BJP can pull off a victory on the back of just the Prime Minister’s skills at tearing into his opponents is the question; particularly when the shambolic conduct of the B.S. Yeddyurappa government of 2008 has not faded, at least not completely, from public memory. Couple that with the embarrassment of having to play down the return of the tainted Ballari mine barons and the questionable history of candidates like Raghupathy Bhat in the old Jan Sangh redoubt of Udupi, and one can see why the BJP played up Mr Modi’s name over that of every single local candidate.
In fact, while populist promises give the BJP a leg up, in caste-driven Karnataka the overriding narrative that is playing out is just that — caste. The BJP is falling back on its core constituency, the majority Lingayat community, which makes up almost 16-17 per cent of the electorate and takes huge pride in their Lingayat icon, Mr Yeddyurappa. Like Mr Modi’s chaiwallah trope, BSY has his own little known back story — from teenage lemon seller in his father’s farm in Bookanakere to BJP pracharak cycling to work in Shivamogga.
Second, attempts by the Siddaramaiah government to drive a wedge between Lingayats and the Veerashaiva-Lingayats by offering to back the Lingayats’ demand for a separate religion status could also backfire. Mr Siddaramaiah’s clique of Lingayat advisers believed that the move would hive off at least two per cent of the Lingayat vote from the monolithic pro-BJP votebank and shore up the Congress’ fortunes, which depends almost entirely on Mr Siddaramaiah’s cleverly, carefully crafted AHINDA votebank; the Kannada acronym for his own Kuruba community plus the dalits, OBC, SC-ST and the minority vote that traditionally goes to the Congress.
However, that too is in danger of being divided. The Kurubas, with a eight per cent vote share across the state, make for the third largest group after the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas at 13-14 per cent. While the Kuruba vote is seen as unquestionably with the CM, observers believe the falling out between him and his dalit and Kuruba lieutenants like Srinivas Prasad and Vishwanath, may affect his chances not just in his own seat Chamundeswari, but impact the OBC vote across the state, as a floating nine per cent fraction of the 18 per cent SC — the so-called “untouchables” — and 28 per cent OBCs feel that the Kurubas benefited from the Siddaramaiah government, and they did not.
While a small portion of the Vokkaliga community does vote Congress, it traditionally leans towards the Vokkaliga father-and-son duo of H.D. Deve Gowda and H.D. Kumaraswamy, who head the third political party in the fray, the Janata Dal (Secular) . This time, the JD(S) is the party to beat in the south. Edging the Congress aside in districts where they once competed as equals, the JD(S) could win at least four seats in Old Mysore, 12 out of 14 in Mandya and Hassan districts, a possible six of 11 in Tumakura as well as dent the Congress in Ramanagara, Vijaypura, Bidar, Raichur, Chitradurga, Shivamogga, Chikmagalur, Kolar and Bengaluru Rural and Bengaluru City.
Mr Siddaramaiah may have made a tactical error in giving tickets to a clutch of JD(S) party hoppers rather than towering Vokkaliga icon, Atmananda, who could have given the JD(S) a run for its money. The JD(S)’ other card in play — Mr Kumaraswamy’s fading health and his plea that this is his last chance to be chief minister — is again part of its strategy to push its current 40-seat tally to 50, which gives it the heft and the muscle to take a shy at forming a minority government, backed, most say, by the BJP from the outside.
Thus far, the bad blood between mentor and protégé, Mr Deve Gowda and Mr Siddaramaiah, seems to preclude any post-poll arrangement between the Congress and the JD(S). There is some talk of the other option in play — if the JD(S) touches 50 and the Congress falls just short of a majority, then the JD(S) will either back a “Siddaramaiah-mukt” Congress or expect the Congress to back a JD(S)-led minority government. Thus far, Mr Siddaramaiah seems unlikely to be amenable to such an arrangement.
The Congress’ confidence in pulling off a victory stems from the fact not only did it win 122 seats in the 224-seat Assembly in 2013, the percentage of votes polled was a healthy 36.6 per cent, as opposed to the albeit fractured BJP vote that had been reduced to 19.9 per cent after BSY and Ballari ST leader Boya Sriramulu exited the party. The BJP’s voteshare together with BSY’s and Sriramulu’s — both now back in the BJP — adds up only to approximately 32 per cent. The BJP+KJP+BSR tally was 50 seats in the last poll, but while the undercurrent of anger and the backing of Lingayat mathas could up that number to at least 70-80 seats, it may not be enough to form a government on its own..
Little wonder then that chief minister Siddaramaiah has been unrelenting in his criticism of BSY, employing the corruption tag to remind the people during his roadshows that the BJP had not one, but three chief ministers of whom one spent more than a few weeks in jail, and compare it to his own unblemished five years in power.
This is why the other arrow in the BJP’s quiver, that the CM’s singular leadership of the state dwarfed other Congressmen like dalit-OBC leaders, Mallikarjun Kharge and KPCC chief G. Parameswar — a dalit SC “touchable” — saw a parade of unity as the campaign ended on Thursday. The dalit-OBC vote as well as the minorities, who number 12-13 per cent of the voteshare, must stay with the Congress if it has to retain power in the state.
The BJP, insiders say, plan to shore up a minority JD(S) government to ensure that when it comes round to the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, they can pull the plug on the JD(S) and use Mr Modi’s magic and the national narrative to bring Karnataka into the BJP fold.
The stakes are clearly higher in Karnataka, with victory or defeat presaging the fortunes of Prime Minister Modi, who just about managed to retain Gujarat. With the coming Assembly polls in BJP-governed Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, pivotal to his image of being invincible, the BJP must limit the Congress’ rapidly diminishing footprint. Losing Karnataka is not an option. For either side.