It seems a fairly straightforward election. The BJP, which won power in Karnataka for the first time in 2008, has messed up spectacularly and is headed for defeat. In the past five years, it has had three chief ministers, one of whom has turned a rebel, has been enmeshed in corruption scandals and troubled by factionalism. The caste coalition it had built five years ago has cracked. At its peak in the outgoing Assembly, the BJP had 116 MLAs in a House of 224 (it had got 110 seats in 2008 but won a series of by-elections subsequently). When the votes are counted on 8 May, it will be happy to retain half that number.
It seems a fairly straightforward election. In 2008, the Congress won only 65 seats in the Assembly but 36 percent of the vote, just a shade more than the BJP. As the BJP vote splinters, it will require the Congress to merely retain its vote share to move towards a sweeping mandate and a comfortable majority. Opinion polls indicate this.
This past winter, a survey conducted by a local media house in Karnataka gave the Congress as much as 40 percent of the popular vote. In December 2012, local media outlets Suvarna News and Kannada Prabha commissioned an opinion poll that gave the Congress 37 percent of the vote and 115 seats. An opinion poll published in TEHELKA on 9 February said the Congress was likely to win 37 percent of the vote and get 133 seats. The BJP, on the other hand, would stop at 28 percent of the popular vote and come down to 63 seats.
In politics, though, nothing is as straightforward as it appears. For different reasons, both the BJP and the Congress are looking to 8 May with trepidation. The BJP has given up hoping for miracles and is worried about the cataclysmic after-effects of the loss of Bengaluru and of the first state in southern India it ruled. This will be no ordinary defeat — it is one the BJP has invited upon itself. Indeed, whoever becomes the Congress chief minister of Karnataka would do well to send a thank you card to the BJP and its Delhi-based intriguers.
For the Congress, the fretting is of another order. There is little doubt that the Congress will emerge the single-largest party by a long, long shot. However, opinion polls, including two subsequent polls conducted by Suvarna News and Kannada Prabha, have suggested a marginal dip in the party’s vote share. “From a 120-130 seats situation,” says a senior non-Congress, non-BJP MP, “the Congress is now looking at a 100-110 seats situation.” The chance, however small, that it may fall short of majority — unthinkable even weeks ago — has the Congress concerned.
All this would have been dismissed as idle pre-election chatter had it not been for voices emerging from within the Congress itself. In an interview to The Times of India this past week, SM Krishna, former Karnataka chief minister and the most senior Congress politician in the state, made it clear he expected the party to fall short of a majority. In fact, he repeated his point while answering a follow-up question. At election time, such candour is astonishing. Perhaps, some of it can be explained by Krishna’s sulk — he has been sidelined by the party’s state unit. However, there may just be a grain of truth in it.
Whether or not the Congress will win an absolute majority is a tantalising question, especially in the final days of the campaign. Even so, it should not detain us from the fact that the BJP is a much bigger loser in the whole exercise. So weakened is the ruling party that even the decline in the Congress vote from its winter peak — if indeed these opinion polls and political assessments in Bengaluru are to be taken seriously — is not helping.
The vote notionally “lost” by the Congress is being shared by the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S), the party led by the Deve Gowda family. As it happens, the BJP is spread thin across the state. The JD(S), on the other hand, is restricted to five or seven contiguous districts, such as rural Bengaluru, Mysore, Mandya, Hasan and Ramanagara. This is the Vokkaliga belt, the bastion of the community Deve Gowda — and Krishna as well — come from.
Since the JD(S) is concentrated here and since the absence of a strong Vokkaliga leader in the BJP and the Congress (following Krishna’s marginalisation) means there is no counter-magnet, the JD(S) begins with a strong base vote. As such, a small number of extra votes can translate into a jump in seats.
All this has the JD(S), particularly its new mascot, HD Kumaraswamy, the son of former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, salivating. In 2008, the JD(S) won only 28 seats and seemed destined for oblivion in a polity moving inexorably towards BJP-Congress bipolarity. Today, the JD(S) hopes to go up to 40 odd seats — it cannot realistically hope for more — restrict the Congress to well below the halfway mark and blackmail the bigger party into an alliance. The father-son duo will be back in business — never a bad thing for a perennial Third Front party a year before a Lok Sabha election.
To be fair, 8 May is a few days away and to speculate on what may happen in the weeks that follow it is to get ahead of the story. For the moment, one needs to focus on what’s crippled the BJP and what’s leaving the Congress with fingers crossed.
THE BJP has not lost the state to the Congress; it has gift-wrapped it and sent it by special courier to its rival. In 2008, the party won with BS Yeddyurappa as its face. The Lingayats, Yeddyurappa’s community and 17 percent of all voters in Karnataka, were staunchly supportive of their man. It was estimated that some 40 percent of BJP votes came from Lingayats.
By 2011, Yeddyurappa had been entrapped in corruption scandals. He was accused of unethical (though not illegal) land allotments to his friends and family. A trust run by his sons was charged with accepting donations from a mining company. The larger iron ore mining industry — which wreaked havoc on Karnataka’s political economy and ecology — came to draw such public disgust that as chief minister Yeddyurappa could not escape censure.
To be fair, very little of what was held against Yeddyurappa was unique to him. In allocating pieces of land to favourites, he was continuing a tradition and invoking a chief ministerial prerogative that had been instituted by previous governments. The Congress and the JD(S) had as much to explain. As for the Reddy brothers and the mining mafia, while their support and money had certainly helped the BJP and Yeddyurappa in 2008, they had equally strong associations with other parties. The iron ore scandal in Karnataka long preceded BJP rule.
No doubt, it could be argued Yeddyurappa did nothing to reform the situation. A change in government did not — or could not, depending on how you see it — bring in a change in regime and the mining and land swindles continued. In July 2011, Yeddyurappa was removed as chief minister. A year and a half later, he had left the BJP and founded the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP).
The transition from former chief minister to rebel wasn’t immediate. While Yeddyurappa couldn’t easily have come back as chief minister, some sort of reconciliation — giving him a greater say in ticket distribution and acknowledging his absolute and essential importance for the BJP in Karnataka — could have assuaged him. Attempts were made both from Yeddyurappa’s side and by his friends in the BJP national leadership. However, a faction centred on LK Advani and instigated by Karnataka MP HN Ananth Kumar came in the way.
Today, influential sections of the Karnataka BJP see Kumar as a villain who has sunk the party. That the former tourism and urban development minister doesn’t have a blemish-free reputation himself scarcely helps his cause. That aside, many of those who oppose Yeddyurappa turned up at his door seeking favours when he was chief minister. As the campaign concluded in Karnataka, the KJP was close to making sensational disclosures about the son of a very senior BJP leader in Delhi who used to frequent Bengaluru with a gaggle of businessmen, lobbying for deals. It took much persuasion for Yeddyurappa’s party to remain quiet.
So, why has Yeddyurappa’s exit hurt the BJP? For all his faults, he ran a reasonably effective government. As political analyst Sandeep Shastri puts it, “The BJP did do some good work on panchayati raj, and on roads and power — though admittedly outside Bengaluru — but largely in the first two years.” Once Yeddyurappa was removed, infighting became rampant, and the government lost its fulcrum. Added to the perception of corruption, this knocked out the BJP.
It does seem strange though that the Congress candidate from Bellary City is Anil Lad, among Karnataka’s infamous mining dons. The mining scandal is only tangentially discussed by the Congress in its campaign — a generic and abstract “corruption” is mentioned instead. Given this backdrop, if BJP supporters are asking whether the sacrifice of Yeddyurappa was worth it, they do have a point.
The Congress is exultant, of course. Asked how much Yeddyurappa’s KJP would cost the BJP, Siddaramaiah — strongman of the Kuruba (traditional shepherds) community and one of the Congress’ chief ministerial contenders — is categorical: “About 20 to 30 percent of the seats.” This would imply the KJP will severely cut into the BJP’s vote in the Lingayat heartland of north Karnataka — the so-called Bombay-Karnataka region, comprising districts such as Dharwad, Belgaum, Bijapur, Bagalkot and Uttara Kannada — and deprive it of 40 to 60 seats.
Removing that estimate from the BJP’s 2008 tally of 110 seats, one is left with 50 to 70 seats. If one goes by opinion polls, the BJP is expected to end up with 40 to 60 seats. Do the math. This would mean the BJP is holding on to those seats (or that quantum of seats) where the KJP factor is absent. As such, it is not being bested by the Congress in a direct contest. The BJP is losing to Yeddyurappa far more than it is losing to the Congress.
On 8 May, Advani, Ananth Kumar and their followers will have some explaining to do.
ON 8 MAY, on its part, the Congress could be contemplating quite a different sort of puzzle: deciding on a chief minister. As Shastri puts it wryly, “Legally 34 people can become Cabinet ministers in Karnataka. And the Congress has more than 34 chief ministerial candidates.”
The hopefuls fall into three categories: • Old warhorses like Krishna and Rajasthan Governor Margaret Alva: Admittedly, their chances appear to be slim.
• Karnataka MPs in the Union government who may be looking for a safe berth in Bengaluru and a convenient departure from New Delhi before the challenging 2014 election: Labour Minister Mallikarjun Kharge seems to have the best chance. He is a Dalit leader from Gulbarga but has a broader following, including among Lingayats in north Karnataka. Another name mentioned as a compromise choice is Petroleum Minister M Veerappa Moily.
• State party functionaries: G Parameshwara, the Dalit agricultural scientist who is president of the Karnataka Congress unit, would fancy his hopes. Finally, Siddaramaiah, a genuine mass leader in the Old Mysore area, would be optimistic as well.
The one negative for Siddaramaiah is he is a recent entrant to a notoriously divided party, having come in after he broke away from the Deve Gowdas and left the JD(S). He is still seen as an outsider in the Congress culture and his groupies are all JD(S) alumni. One of them, the controversial CM Ibrahim — union civil aviation minister in the mid-1990s — was foisted upon the Congress as the candidate from Bhadravati. “He is likely to lose,” admits a not-too-unhappy Congress functionary.
Should the Congress overcome its internal battles and poor ticket distribution and win, the choice of the chief minister will depend on Sonia Gandhi and the party’s national leadership. Karnataka is a major state and Bengaluru a large business city. This means the chief minister of Karnataka — along with the chief ministers of Haryana and Maharashtra for instance – will be a crucial fundraiser for the Congress before the 2014 Lok Sabha election. It would stand to reason that Sonia would place a stress on loyalty.
What are the larger implications of the Karnataka result? For the Congress, a victory will be a tonic and a rare bit of good news in an otherwise depressing political season. Retrieving the state from the BJP and pushing the other party back into its traditional western and northern Indian confines will be an undoubted achievement. It will make the BJP acutely aware of its geographical limitations.
Nevertheless, Karnataka cannot possibly solve all the Congress’ problems. The mood against the UPA government, the controversies that surround it and the general sense of drift will continue. What the party will have though — at least till the five state elections in November — is a talking point and a narrative to mock the BJP.
For the BJP, Karnataka represents not one but several conundrums. It claims to be the party of good governance — but didn’t deliver this in the state. It claims to be a party comfortable with semi-autonomous state chieftains and regional mass leaders — but didn’t demonstrate this in the state. These factors cost it the incremental vote that came in 2008 — whether on the hope of change and of better administration or due to caste affinities. Despite the original moorings of the party — and the Hindutva vigilante groups that became a nuisance in coastal Karnataka — the fact is Karnataka was not won in 2008 and will not be lost in 2013 because of religious-identity politics. There is a lesson here for the party, as much as for its opponents.
What impact will the Karnataka verdict have on internal equations in the BJP nationally? Will it weaken and finally silence Advani and hasten Narendra Modi’s ascension? If so, will this help achieve rapprochement with Yeddyurappa? In the days to come, the BJP’s former chief minister will be wondering, and perhaps consulting his astrologer. If it helps, the Congress’ many prospective chief ministers will be locked in similar consultations of their own.