The lotus looks to regain lost ground

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Talking tactics Narendra Modi chats with Ananth Kumar and BS Yeddyurappa at an election rally in Hubli, Photo: KPN
Talking tactics Narendra Modi chats with Ananth Kumar and BS Yeddyurappa at an election rally in Hubli, Photo: KPN

When the BJP was swept out of power in the Karnataka Assembly polls last May, many political pundits predicted that the party would face a similar fate in the General Election. Even a “Modi wave” wouldn’t be able to salvage the party’s fortunes in the state, they warned. However, the status quo seems to have changed with the return of former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa into the party fold in January. Can Yeddyurappa, who brought the BJP to power in 2008, help the party repeat its best performance of 2009 in which it won 19 out of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the southern state?

In Karnataka, the BJP has come a long way since its earlier avatar, the Jan Sangh, won its first municipal seat from south India in 1968 from Udupi. The party had to wait for another 40 years before winning the Assembly polls on its own in 2008. The architect of this win was Yeddyurappa, a belligerent and short-tempered leader from Shimoga, who took the party from two seats in 1984 to 110 in 2008.

But the man credited for the party’s rise also came to be known for its fall. The five-year BJP rule was marred by corruption scandals and internal dissent. The fact that the chief minister was indicted in a multi-crore illegal mining scam and was later jailed, along with several other Cabinet ministers, dented the BJP’s image of being a “party with a difference”. All these had a major effect on the party’s electoral fortunes.

Just months before last year’s Assembly election, the party suffered a major setback when it lost the municipal polls in Dakshin Kannada and Udupi districts where the Sangh Parivar, including the BJP, had painstakingly created an ideological voter base over two decades. The rout was complete when the Assembly election results were announced: the party had managed to win only 40 out of 224 seats — a sheer drop from 110 seats.

More humiliating was the news that the BJP candidates lost their deposits in as many as 110 constituencies. From 33.19 percent in 2008, the party’s vote share plummeted to just 20 percent in 2013.

The loss was majorly ascribed to Yeddyurappa’s rebellion. In 2012, he broke away from the BJP and formed the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) to hit back at the BJP leadership for refusing to reinstate him as chief minister after he was asked to step down due to corruption charges. Since then, a section of the BJP leadership had been lobbying for his return in order to save the party from facing another humiliating defeat in the General Election. Even his ardent critics admit that Yeddyurappa is the only mass leader in the party capable of pulling in crowds. The only leader who can rally the all-important Lingayat vote bank behind him.

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Yeddyurappa belongs to the Lingayat community. Eight out of Karnataka’s 22 chief ministers have come from this caste, which forms 18 percent of the 6 crore population of the state. In 2008, Yeddyurappa had worked to consolidate the Lingayat vote bank for the BJP. But the jury is out on whether he enjoys the same clout in the community now. Critics point out that after leaving the BJP, his party KJP couldn’t make a significant mark, winning only six seats out of 60 Lingayat-dominated constituencies in north Karnataka.

Political watchers believe that the poor results propelled Yeddyurappa to rethink his plan of going it alone. A shrewd politician, Yeddyurappa saw better sense in aligning with a Modi-led BJP.

Some political experts say the combination is helping the BJP gain resurgence in the state and the party could reap rich dividends in the General Election. But political scientist Sandeep Shastri says “resurgence” is a relative word. “If you are comparing it to the scene after the KJP merged with the BJP in January, then yes, there is traction for the BJP with the coming together of the two parties,” says Shastri, the national coordinator of Lokniti Network. “But if that means a repeat of the 2009 result, they are very far from that.”

The coming together is seen as the Lingayat votes — split between the BJP, the KJP and the Congress in 2013 — once again consolidating in favour of the BJP.

Even though the BJP had been winning Assembly seats since the 1980s, it was only in 1991 that the party managed to send four MPs to the Lok Sabha, riding on the Ram Mandir wave, which also saw the party expanding beyond its traditional strongholds. In 1998, the party secured 13 Lok Sabha seats. In 2004, it won 18 seats, which rose to 19 in 2009 with an increase in vote share of 6.86 percent. The 2009 success is largely credited to the BJP being in power and Yeddyurappa taking upon himself the election as a prestige issue. But now, the story is quite different.

“However, there is no doubt that Yeddyurappa’s return and Modi’s prime ministerial candidature have electrified the BJP cadre who were demoralised after the Assembly polls,” says political columnist SA Hemanth Kumar.

But both Kumar and Shastri argue that despite Yeddyurappa’s return and the Modi wave, it is highly unlikely that the BJP will be able to repeat the 2009 show. “At best, they will win 10-13 seats. It will be very difficult to cross that threshold,” says Shastri.

In January, as part of the CNN-IBN poll tracker, Shastri had given 10-18 seats in Karnataka for the Congress, 6-10 seats for the BJP and 4-8 seats for the Deve Gowda-led Janata Dal (Secular). Other surveys also showed that the Congress has an upper edge in the state.

Some credit this to the performance of the Siddaramaiah regime, which has initiated many programmes catering specifically to his core constituency of backward classes (33 percent of the population), Dalits (18 percent) and minorities (12 percent). And if all of them vote for the Congress, it will hold the party in good stead.

There is a fear that Siddaramaiah, a Kuruba, could be replaced as chief minister if the party performs poorly in the Lok Sabha polls. As a result, the Kurubas are likely to vote for the Congress en masse to keep his chair intact.

But many critics and senior Congressmen agree that even though Siddaramaiah has announced a slew of welfare measures, many have failed to take off due to red tapism. “The welfare measures directed at the minorities, Dalits and backward classes have isolated the powerful Lingayats and Vokkaligas. This could lead to them consolidating in favour of the BJP and the JD(S),” says Kumar.

Even though the Congress regime has not been afflicted by any major scams, the induction of Roshan Baig and DK Shiva Kumar — who are accused of corruption — into the state Cabinet has dented the party’s, and in particular, Siddaramaiah’s, perceived clean image. The hectic lobbying and bitter factionalism for Lok Sabha seats hasn’t helped the party either. Contrary to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s emphasis against dynastic politics, senior Congressmen are lobbying for their offspring as the party is expected to perform well in Karnataka.

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In Mangalore, two senior Congress families are pitted against each other. While B Janardhana Poojary wants the Mangalore seat for himself, Union minister Veerappa Moily has been promoting his son Harsha Moily for the seat. Rajasthan Governor Margaret Alva (son Nivedth Alva), Higher Education Minister RV Deshpande (son Prashanth Deshpande), and Law Minister TB Jayachandra (son Santosh) are among the Congress leaders seeking to promote their progenies in the upcoming polls. Experts feel that factionalism, the Congress’ complacency and the inability to galvanise cadres could lead to losses in many seats.

But factionalism is not the headache of the Congress alone. Intense jockeying for seats has afflicted the BJP as well, which has pitted many senior leaders against each other. For a long time, there was bitter feud between former chief minister DV Sadananda Gowda, Yeddyurappa’s confidant Shobha Karandlaje and senior leader R Ashok over who will contest from Bangalore North. Finally, the party has decided to field Gowda. Karandlaje will contest from Udupi-Chikmagalur, but her nomination has been opposed by local MLA CT Ravi, who wants the seat.

Tumkur and Bidar are two other constituencies witnessing fights within the BJP. Yeddyurappa wants his men GS Basavaraju and Suryakanth Nagamarapalli to contest from the seats, but a section of senior BJP leaders are not in favour of giving tickets to the duo.

Bangalore South will witness a high-voltage battle as former Infosys boss and UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani contests on a Congress ticket against sitting BJP MP Ananth Kumar. Kumar has won five times from here. But Nilekani is expected to give Kumar a tough fight in a seat that has a sizeable IT crowd.

There is also the possibility of the Aam Aadmi Party gaining some traction here. But political scientist Shastri feels that AAP won’t be much of a factor in Bengaluru or other urban centres in Karnataka. “The party has no visible leadership unlike in Delhi,” he says. “And for me, it is important how it is structurally organised. I find AAP Karnataka lacking in that.”

The BJP has virtually no presence in Mysore, which has been a traditional JD(S) stronghold. In the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the JD(S) had won two and three seats, respectively. But the party has been losing its vote share — between 2004 and 2009, it lost 7 percent. In last year’s bypolls, the JD(S) lost its bastions of Mandya and Bangalore Rural to the Congress. In these seats, it will be a direct fight between the Congress and the JD(S). Similarly, in coastal Karnataka, where the JD(S) has no presence, it will be a direct fight between the Congress and the BJP.

History shows that Karnataka tends to vote for one party at the state and another at the Centre. In 1994, when the Narasimha Rao-led Congress regime was in power at the Centre, the people voted in a Janata Dal government in the state. In 1999, when the NDA was in power, the Congress won the Assembly polls. Would it be a repeat of the same this time?

imran@tehelka.com

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