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Karnataka to set tone for 2014

Karnataka, the first of five states to go to polls this year ahead of the Lok Sabha election 2014, looks like returning a faction-ridden Congress with a bare majority to power, ousting a notoriously unpopular BJP government, the first-ever of the saffron party, south of the Vindhyas.

Karnataka will provide a fresh test on how far anti-incumbency works, after the mixed trends in last year’s state elections. Rahul Gandhi has thundered against BJP for its ‘loot of public money’ and ‘betrayal of the faith’ of people, an understandable stance which BJP leaders like Sushma Swaraj have indirectly recognised by reassuring their commitment afresh to stability and development.

Whatever the outcome on 8 May of the one-day poll three days earlier across the state’s four regions, with shifting preferences, involving an electorate of 41 million and a total of some 3,000 candidates including over 1,200 independents in the fray, it would have repercussions for the major parties as they plan strategy for the national battle of 2014.

BJP believes it would still manage to retain Karnataka, and after the announcement of results, the Party Chief Rajnath Singh proposes to call the Parliamentary Board to take a decision on the issue of projection of its prime ministerial candidate, a subject mired in controversies within BJP leadership itself, let alone the strongest reservations voiced by Bihar Chief minister Nitish Kumar, JD(U), a major ally in NDA against any move to nominate Narendra Modi.

Modi himself goes about as ‘saviour’ of the nation with a demonstrated ability to command attention of sections of middle class. Asked about objections to Modi’s record in Gujarat, Singh said he could not be branded as communal merely on the basis of the 2002 riots in his state.

The Congress badly needs a victory in Karnataka which would be a shot in the arm for a highly demoralised party struggling to survive at the centre till May next through a murky record of scandals and policy failures. Unlike 2009, the Congress can no longer build firm pre-poll alliances in those states where it cannot stand on its own, after the loss of its only stronghold in Andhra Pradesh.

Andhra Pradesh had provided the largest number of MPs in 2009 elections for the Lok Sabha while the Congress led by late Y S Rajasekhara Reddy also comfortably retained power in the state. The South, therefore, poses a complex situation in 2014 unless the Congress leadership is able to win over the Telengana activists on the one hand, and is willing to make compromises with its own past stand on harder issues like 2G scam to be able to strike a new deal with its deserted ally, DMK.

This is because the Congress at the state level has so far failed to galvanise itself, as a pan-Indian party, in the 45 years since it lost power in the state in 1967. Equally desperate Karunanidhi is to overcome the humiliating defeat in the 2011 Assembly polls by ensuring a strong resurgence for DMK in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.  But he would be challenged again to confront no less strong-willed Jayalalithaa who hopes to capture most of the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu for AIADMK to take on a national role.

Election campaigns in Karnataka started with a bang when there was a bomb blast near the BJP office in Bangalore on 17 April. The Karnataka and Tamil Nadu police launched a man-hunt for the terrorist violence and picked up three suspects in the following week. Both the Congress and BJP as well as the Janata Dal (S) of former Prime Minister Deve Gowda have fielded candidates for all the 224 seats in the Karnataka assembly. Disgrace for the BJP Government abounded during the first three years of its taking power for the first time in the South in 2008. The Government, headed by Yeddyurappa, had a disastrous run, swarmed by corruption scandals, illegal mining of iron ore in Bellary involving two of its Ministers, and some dubious land deals. Once all these were documented in the State Lokayukta Justice Santosh Hegde’s report, the chief minister had to resign despite all his protestations with BJP high command.

Having been expelled, a revengeful Yeddyurappa sponsored his Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) to humble his erstwhile party in the 2013 elections. The BJP government later headed by Jagadish Shettar has not only to overcome the anti-incumbency factor with the infamy brought on by his predecessor plus his own poor record of governance but also encounter stronger forces in both Congress and Janata Dal (S). Also, the Yeddyurappa resolve to frustrate BJP gains by floating his Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) built with the hope of securing substantial backing of Lingayats in the northern districts. Yeddyurappa has put up candidates in as many as 216 constituencies.  The rebel leader asserts he would become a key player in the post-poll scenario and looks like proving the veritable ‘spoiler’ for BJP.

The Congress, which topped the recent urban local body elections (gaining as many as 1960 wards to 905 each of BJP and Janata Dal-S) expects to do equally well in the Assembly elections. However there are too many dissidents who have filed nominations against official candidates or moved toward JD(S) which, Deve Gowda, claims would get a majority of seats.

The Karnataka polls on 5 May could thus turn out to be one of the most closely fought with scores of multi-cornered contests, all the leading parties equally confident of producing majority. Reflecting supreme confidence, Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi opened his campaign on 23 April with a stinging attack on BJP for its ‘loot of the public money’ by giving a free reign to mining barons who were making illegal gains.

For their part, BJP leaders L K Advani and Sushma Swaraj have focused their ire against the Congress at the Centre for turning out to be the ‘the most corrupt government’ in India. Their promises to electorate include rice at rupee one per kg and free laptops and tables to PU and graduate students. Swaraj promised in Bangalore a scam-free administration by her party for the future with focus on welfare of the people. (IPA)
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