Matching bluffs and showmanship in a triangular contest.
That the Karnataka election is turning out to be an outlier for the Congress is evident in both the pre-poll surveys and the mood on the ground. Almost every opinion poll suggests the contest in Karnataka is almost neck and neck. Pollsters predict the two main rivals are separated by just a few seats in the 224-member Assembly with JD (S) being the potential kingmaker with around 30 seats. But the bigger picture here is that it is increasingly becoming a game of bluffing and showmanship from the major contending parties, with Congress posed as the best bet for the single largest party if not outright majority.
BJP: Challenger's perspective & its challenges
PM Modi has recognised the challenge for the party in Karnataka. For this reason, his campaign has turned into a mix of his own development agenda and a sharp attack on Rahul Gandhi. Also, BJP is now being made to work very hard to win the election. This is clear from its choice of Yeddyurappa as its Chief Ministerial candidate and G Somashekhar Reddy — one of the controversial Reddy Brothers — as its candidate from Bellary. The family that epitomises corruption, monopoly over natural resources, extravaganza, crime against opposing forces, harboring personal army and suppressing negative news on them, is today the funder of BJP and is given 8 seats to win in Karnataka. These choices undermine the BJP's stand on corruption. Matters got worsened with the Supreme Court deciding to ban the eldest Reddy brother Janardhana from any election campaign in Bellary.
Also, the local factors have become relevant again. The Modi mantra no longer works as a vanishing spell that makes everything else disappear from the voters' mind. Caste, regional factors, candidates — everything that mattered before the Modi era — have become important.
His son being negated for the elections by the BJP High Command, Yeddyurappa is fighting this election with his hands tied. He does not have the kind of clout within the BJP that Siddaramaiah has within the Congress. Siddaramaiah got his way with changing his constituency from Varuna to Chamundeshwari, getting son Dr. Yathindra the Varuna nomination and then getting a second constituency in Badami to contest for himself. Yeddyurappa, in contrast, has no elbow room.
Another significant aspect is that the BJP high command has decided the narrative, focussing on the Hindu-Muslim divide and nationalism while Siddaramaiah has championed the cause of the Kannadiga regional identity to blunt the Hindi and Hindutva card, and proposed Lingayats as another minority religion.
Interestingly, unlike all BJP leaders in UP and Gujarat, who have an unflinching faith in Narendra Modi, many in Karnataka BJP are not too sure. CP Yogeshwara, who is contesting on a BJP ticket, says the PM may be effective in Parliamentary polls but not so much in Assembly elections because the Party has not fielded the right candidates, and Modi charisma is limited in the state.
BJP may boast of Mission 150, but on the ground, a direct Congress vs BJP fight is only in about 160 constituencies out of 224. In the remaining 60-odd seats, it is a Congress vs JD(S) battle. So for BJP to get to the simple majority mark of 113 on its own, it would need a lavish strike rate. Hence, with Siddaramaiah employing the Kannadiga identity card effectively, Modi is projecting JD(S) patriarch Deve Gowda as the tallest Kannadiga leader, a Bhishma Pitamah of sorts. With Yeddyurappa unable to blunt Siddaramaiah's Kannada pride, Modi is trying to tap into Gowda's stature, to the discomfort of Gowda father-son duo.
In an ideal world, the "secular" Congress would have been the natural ally for the JD(S). But with the personal equations between Siddaramaiah and his mentor Deve Gowda at their worst, an arrangement is virtually ruled out. The bigger picture is that Modi's overreach of Gowda is a virtual admission of BJP's thinking. That it is no longer sure about getting a majority on its own.
In its manifesto, BJP has promised crop loan waiver to farmers upto Rs.1 lakh, and said it will allocate Rs 1,50,000 crore for various irrigation projects in Karnataka and ensure water reaches to every field in the state. BJP also announced, that if voted to power, a Rs 5,000 crore 'Raitha Bandhu Market Intervention Fund' will be created to support farmers during price fluctuations. The manifesto also includes a Raitha Bandhu Department, under the Chief Minister's Office, which will monitor implementation of all farmer-friendly schemes. The party also said it would reintroduce the Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Preservation Bill 2012 while setting aside a Rs 3,000-crore Kamadhenu Fund for the development of animal husbandry and dairy farming infrastructure. The manifesto also promises to open a Rs 1,000-crore fund for expanding veterinary services.
Congress: What to Showcase? What to Combat?
By dubbing BJP leaders like Modi-Shah-Yogi-Rajnath-Sushma as North Indian imports, CM Siddaramaiah projects himself as the sole protector of Kannadiga interests. He knows that during the campaign, the BJP will attempt wrapping the party in the Tricolour and play up a nationalistic brand of politics. This is Siddaramaiah's way of ensuring even the voter wears his Kannadiga identity on his sleeve. Siddaramaiah with his ears to the ground is also playing to the gallery. He is aware of the sense of resentment at how Kannada is being pushed to play the second fiddle to Hindi even in Karnataka, like in exams conducted by departments of the Government of India. This is what resulted in activists defacing signage at Metro rail stations in Bengaluru last year, spraying paint over the names of the stations written in Hindi.
For the records, the manifesto of Congress promises to create at least 15-20 lakh jobs each year in the state and provide programmes for skill development, encouraging entrepreneurship and increasing youths' employability quotient.
The party also promised to provide free education to all students from grades 1 to 12 across all the state-run schools in the state. Presently, the state gives free elementary education to all children from class 1 to 8 in state-run and government-aided schools.
Siddaramaiah has bested by privileging two "local issues" and both are related to water: the Mahadayi in north-western Karnataka (Bombay Karnataka) and the Cauvery (Kaveri) in the southern reaches of the state. And Centre is on the wrong foot on both with the Kannadigas.
JD(S): Smaller Forces?
In a two-party landscape, JD(S) hopes social media and its grassroots connect will give it an edge. The challenge for the party would be to hold on to it, and get the incremental vote that would make former CM, HD Kumaraswamy, a former Chief Minister, at least the kingmaker, as opinion polls have been suggesting.
However, it will be easier said than done. In an increasingly polarised and divided election, the third party is often marginalised. Congress is selling the JD(S) as BJP's B-team of sorts, and the fact that Kumaraswamy had allied with BJP to be Chief Minister in 2006 does not help. He has also been accused of being autocratic in running the party, and recently lost seven sitting MLAs who defected to Congress.
For the JD(S) that too is fighting a do-or-die battle. A third successive defeat in Karnataka Assembly election would mean the party would face the risk of disintegrating. It is imperative for Gowda and Kumaraswamy to be kingmakers in a hung Assembly scenario to grab a share of the power pie.
The JD(S) for all its talk of being an independent regional entity, shares power with the Congress in the Bengaluru municipal corporation. But in Mysuru, the city corporation is ruled jointly by the JD(S) and BJP for the past four years. In fact, this January, rebel Congress candidate B Bhagyavathi was supported by BJP and JD(S) to be elected Mayor of Mysuru.
There are also a few smaller forces in the fray. Darshan Puttanaiah of Swaraj India is being supported by Congress and a known farmer leader. Aam Aadmi Party state convener Prithvi Reddy supported by former Lokayukt Justice Santosh Hegde and former IAS officer Renuka Viswanathan from Shantinagar and Dalit leader Bhaskar Prasad from Mahadevpura constituencies as AAP candidates are giving a tough fight to their opponents.
Karnataka impact on national politics
These opinion polls are important trends and, if vindicated by the results, may have far-reaching consequences on the next round of elections in India. Next up are Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh polls, where caste equations and local factors were important electoral factors before Modi changed the rules of the game. In all these states, Congress is BJP's main adversary. Its leaders would be sanguine about their chances in the elections because of 'normalisation' of Indian elections.
In both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, BJP needs the Modi factor to neutralise caste equations and mounting anti-incumbency. All recent by-elections here have voted for Congress. But BJP seems to stand strong in Chattisgarh. It needs the momentum from victories in these two crucial states to carry it into the battle for Lok Sabha. If India's politics is about to hit its inflexion point, as Karnataka suggests, 2018 and 2019 promise some really tough and tight contests.
In a state that is 84 per cent Hindu and 13 per cent Muslim, BJP has determinedly attempted to make the election about a supposed assault on Hindus by a Congress government whose politicians are mostly Hindu. Of the 497 candidates contesting the elections, no more than 4.6 per cent or 23 are Muslim (15 from the Congress). If the BJP wins Karnataka – either through an alliance with the JD(S) or by itself – the false The hindu-under-siege theme may grow in volume and self-assurance in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. If it loses Karnataka, that refrain may lose cachet and confidence – or BJP may attempt to make its message more extreme.
Either way, India is unlikely to be the same again. Karnataka, for once, seems to have assumed national significance disproportionate to its size and population.
(Prof. Ujjwal K Chowdhury is currently School Head, School of Media, Pearl Academy and has been earlier the Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities, and Dean of Whistling Woods School of Communication. The views expressed are strictly personal)