With just few days left for the high-stake assembly elections in Karnataka, this BJP-ruled southern state of the country is witnessing a fierce political campaign to woo voters. While major parties have roped in star political campaigners and celebrities to influence voters, myriad promises have been made and various sops have been offered this time too in their respective election manifestoes.
The fast approaching assembly elections in Karnataka, the outcome of which will set the tone and tempo for the 2014 General Elections, is also crucial for the ruling BJP that suffered huge reverses in the recently concluded urban local body polls. Interestingly, barring the exception of 1985 when Ramakrishna Hegde stormed back to power with a huge mandate, Karnataka has never elected an incumbent government back to power since 1983 when the Janata Dal destroyed Congress’ monopoly on state politics forever.
More than any other party, the assembly polls here will be a do-or-die battle for BJP, which has been struggling hard to save its southern stronghold. Holding on to the success achieved by the saffron party here in 2008 assembly polls - a game changer for the BJP as it was its first electoral success in south of the Vindhyas - now seems to be an increasingly difficult proposition.
Since the party is largely confined to north India, losing the state will clearly shatter BJP’s dreams to expand its base beyond Karnataka in the south. Hence, Karnataka occupies a strategic place in the BJP`s political roadmap and in its bigger scheme of things to seize power at the Centre by dislodging the Congress-led UPA government.
However, in the wake of its electoral drubbing in the urban civic polls, which forced it into an introspective mood, the saffron part’s prospects are not too bright. The party is hemmed by factional feuds, infighting and mired with controversies. The party has earned a bad reputation due to poor governance and after the exit of BS Yeddyurappa - the most influential leader of the power Lingayat community- the going for the BJP is surely tough. Karnataka was once an investment-friendly state and seen as an ideal business destination but the state’s poor infrastructure and widespread corruption has prevented the big corporate houses from entering the state. The ruling party has failed miserably to effectively market the government’s achievements in the past five years. Several BJP MLAs, ministers and local leaders have deserted the BJP to join Yeddyurappa’s KJP.
BJP is strong in coastal Karnataka, Mumbai-Karnataka, Hyderabad-Karnataka but week and almost non-existent in Bangalore region, Central Karnataka and Old Mysore region. Interestingly, the assembly elections will also give the BJP an opportunity to test the appeal of Narendra Modi, who is increasingly being projected as the party`s face in 2014 and pitched against Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi in the race for the prime minister’s post.
Modi’s magic has worked thrice in a row in Gujarat and probably that is the reason why the Karnataka BJP is relying on him to boost its electoral prospects. A section of BJP leaders here think that an incremental, positive vote in favour of Modi will considerably cut down the anti-incumbency vote against the ruling party in Karnataka.
Though some oppose roping Modi in Karnataka, there is no disagreement over the fact that Modi`s leadership quality transcends caste and linguistic barriers. Since he is the face of good governance and progress in India, his development mantra may strike a chord with the electorate in Karnataka. The middle class support for BJP’s Hindutva ideology in the state is well known and this could be another reason for Modi to flex his muscles in Karnataka.
The main opposition party clearly has an upper hand in Karnataka, according to a recent poll survey which showed it comfortably ahead of the ruling BJP in the wake of its thumping victory in the civic polls. However, Congress also faces a tough competition from B Sri Ramulu, who recently deserted the BJP and floated a new political outfit (BSR), and the JD-S led by former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda.
Interestingly, Karnataka will also be the first state to go to polls after Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to the Congress vice-president’s post. Thus the assembly polls here will be the Gandhi scion’s first leadership test that will provide him the opportunity to demonstrate his political skills and set the tone for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. With the ruling BJP fighting anti-incumbency factor and corruption allegations combined with its recent civic poll drubbings, campaigning by Rahul Gandhi can further bolster Congress’ poll prospects here.
A positive verdict for the Congress will certainly have a big bearing on Rahul`s leadership. Yet with factionalism and one-upmanship bogging down the party, it may not be smooth sailing for Congress. The Gandhi scion has seriously started working to wrest back Karnataka for the Congress and has brought in a new mechanism in the form of a special group to coordinate, campaign and monitor the state election.
By excluding 81-year-old veteran SM Krishna from the manifesto and election strategy committee, it indicates that Rahul`s mantra of infusing youth into party has worked. With many contenders for the CM`s chair and inner feud limiting the party`s prospects, Rahul may finally give election responsibility to one of the heavyweight leaders instead of projecting a CM candidate straightaway.
While assembly elections are crucial for the BJP and the Congress, the stakes are high for the Janata Dal (Secular) led by HD Deve Gowda and his son HD Kumaraswamy. For the JD-S, which is strong in the southern Karnataka (Old Mysore region), this will be the fourth assembly election for the party.
While Yedyurappa takes credit for swinging the Lingayat vote in favour of the BJP in 2008, the father-son duo has its influence mainly among Vokkaligas- another powerful community and an important component of the state’s caste-based politics.
Reflecting its pro-farmers leaning, the JD-S has said it would waive loans of farmers, if voted to power. And, in its strategy of wooing Muslims, it has promised to implement the recommendations of the Sacchar Committee.
The unceremonious exit of BS Yeddyurappa has hurt the BJP badly and it was felt for the first time when the results of the urban local body polls were announced. Though, the BSY’s fledgling Karnataka Janatha Paksha (KJP) failed to throw a major surprise in the urban civic polls, it surely achieved its ‘limited purpose’ of spoiling the game for the BJP.
Honestly speaking, the KJP is not being considered as a serious contender in the next assembly polls, but its campaign so far has generated enough heat. As the party president, Yeddyurappa has been leveraging the Lingayat factor to the hilt in trying to claw his way back to power, after being expelled from the BJP following his indictment by the state Lokayukta for large-scale corruption.
The Lingayat strongman, who recently vowed in the name of God and Allah that he will never return to BJP. also promised a Rs 2,000-crore budget for Muslims for their welfare in the KJP manifesto.
BSR Congress, floated by former BJP minister B Sreeramulu, is still an unknown entity in Karnataka politics. BSR stands for Badava Shramkia Raitha (Poor Working Farmer). Sreeramulu, who is close to the Bellary mining baron Janardhan Reddy, now languishing in a Hyderabad prison. belongs to the Nayak community, which has its presence in four districts - Bellary, Raichur, Koppal and Gadag in the central eastern part of the state.
BSR’s influence is said to be limited to only 10 per cent of the total of 224 constituencies in the state. However, when Sreeramulu and Janardhan Reddy were active in the 2008 Assembly elections, their influence and money power played a major role in pulling big votes for the BJP in these districts. In the Lok Sabha elections held in 2009, the duo helped the BJP win the constituencies of this region, even though the Sreeramulu`s sister J Shantha scraped through with a margin of 2000 votes.
Reddy and Sreeramulu ruled Bellary with an iron hand during the three- year rule of BS Yeddyurappa, but the mining scandal took its toll. Sreeramulu resigned from the Assembly, won a by-election and floated his own outfit. He has gone on padayatras in the region, and hopes that his party will do well in the dozen constituencies reserved for scheduled tribes in the region. As Janardhan Reddy is in jail and there is a ban on mining, the critical question is on how much funds Sreeramulu will have.
The Karnataka Assembly comprises of 224 members. There are 4.18 crore voters in Karnataka and voting will take place at 50446 polling stations.