With the Election Commission announcing the schedule for Assembly polls in Karnataka, it remains to be seen whether the ruling BJP will buck a four-decade old trend to script history or if the Congress upstages its saffron rival to up its stakes as a challenger ahead of the 2024 parliamentary polls.
No political party has won a successive mandate in the state since 1985 and the BJP is eager to rewrite this bit of history and retain its southern citadel.
The Congress is keen to wrest power to give the party a much-needed elbow room to position itself as the main opposition player in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Also what needs to be watched out for is, whether former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda-led Janata Dal (Secular), will emerge as a ”Kingmaker” by holding the key to government formation, in the event of a hung verdict, as it has done in the past.
The Congress and JD(S) have announced their first list of candidates for 124 and 93 seats, respectively. Like the last two decades, Karnataka will face a three cornered contest in the May 10 elections, with a direct fight between the Congress, BJP and JD(S) on the cards in most segments. While Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is also making efforts to make some inroads, other smaller ones like mining baron Janardhana Reddy’s Kalyana Rajya Pragathi Paksha (KRPP), the Left, BSP, SDPI (the political wing of banned PFI) and Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) will be contesting in a select few constituencies.
Political observers feel anti-incumbency seems to be a key factor in Karnataka polls, as voters have not given any party a successive mandate. It last happened in 1985, when the Ramakrishna Hegde-led Janata Party came back to power. While Congress’ vote base is spread evenly across the state, the BJP’s is pronounced in the north and central regions due to the concentration of Veerashaiva-Lingayat community in the belt, which forms its major vote bank. JD(S) dominates the Vokkaliga bastion of Old Mysuru (southern Karnataka) region.
Of Karnataka’s population, Lingayats constitute about 17 per cent, Vokkaligas 15 per cent, OBCs 35 per cent, SC/STs 18 per cent, Muslims about 12.92 per cent and Brahmins about three per cent. The BJP has set a target of winning at least 150 seats to ensure absolute majority. It wants to avoid a 2018-like situation, when it had initially lost out on forming government despite emerging as the single largest party, and had to depend on defections of Congress and JD(S) MLAs to establish its administration later. It is making all out efforts to make inroads into the Old Mysuru region, where the party is traditionally weak. The region has 89 seats (including 28 in Bengaluru), and according to leaders, the party fell short of majority (110 in 2008 and 104 in 2018) due to its inability to win as many seats from this region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated visits and those of Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP President Nadda to the poll-bound State has no doubt given the party a leg-up in campaigning, but it is up against a combative Congress which has sought to make corruption a central theme of the political narrative. What also matters to the BJP is how it manages disgruntlement after ticket distribution and navigates between the party old guard or ”natives” and ”migrants” (those who joined from other parties and helped it form government).
Amid some signs of anti incumbency, BJP is confident about its victory by projecting PM Modi’s pro-development agenda, works of the ‘double engine government’ and its populist schemes, along with the Hindutva card. Besides, it is highlighting its efforts in providing social welfare decisions on reservation hike for SC/STs, Vokkaligas and Lingayats. Aimed at keeping its Lingayat support base intact even after BS Yediuurappa- the ‘Lingayat strong man’ quitting electoral politics, the BJP is falling back on the seasoned oarsman making him a key poll mascot, by pushing him to the top of the campaign plank.
This comes amid efforts by the Congress to woo the community by projecting that the saffron party has sidelined the octogenarian leader. Lingayats are a politically dominant community and are said to be a dominant force in about 100 seats. In the outgoing assembly, there are 54 Lingayat MLAs across parties including 37 from the ruling BJP.
Among the 23 chief ministers from the state since 1952, as many as 10 have been Lingayats. For Congress, defeating BJP will be a morale booster and a key for reviving its electoral fortunes and strengthen its credentials as the main opposition player against the saffron party ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. By ensuring a win in Karnataka, the party also wants to bounce back after the recent losses in the northeastern states and give it a momentum of sorts to take on the battle-ready election machinery of the BJP later this year in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
The Congress seems to be fighting the polls in Karnataka so far on the strength of its local leadership and focusing on issues concerning the State making corruption a central theme of its campaigning. This polls is also a prestige battle for the grand old party with a Kannadiga M Mallikarjun Kharge, who hails from Kalaburagi district, at its helm as the national President. However, it also faces the challenge of keeping at bay intense factionalism, especially between the camps of its two CM aspirants Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar — who are often seen to be engaging in political one-upmanship for some time now. Disgruntlement among senior leaders like G Parmeshwara, H K Patil, K H Muniyappa and others over being sidelined, and revolts by aspirants on not getting election tickets also worry Congress, which is confident about its prospects based on its poll guarantees, and its successful campaign against BJP’s alleged corruption.
Will the 2023 Karnataka assembly polls be a battle of political survival for former PM H D Deve Gowda-led Janata Dal (Secular), or will the regional party once again emerge as a king maker, like it did in 2018, in the event of a hung verdict. This is the debate going on in the political circles concerning JD(S). Plagued by desertions, internal rifts, and carrying the burdern of a ”family party” tag, it remains to be seen how Gowda’s son and former Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy, who is in a way single handedly managing the JD(S)’ affairs with his aging father taking the back seat, would steer the party in the polls. Since its formation in 1999, JD(S) has never formed a government on its own, but had been in power twice in coalition with both national parties- for 20 months with BJP in 2006 and with Congress for 14 months after the May 2018 assembly polls with Kumaraswamy as the Chief Minister. With its ambitious ”mission 123” target to form a government on its own by winning at least 123 out of total 224 seats going for polls, JD(S) has been seeking votes invoking regional Kannadiga pride and fueling a narrative that the national parties — the BJP and Congress — fall short of serving interests of the State.
There are however doubts among some political observers and within a section of the party itself about JD(S) meeting this target; the party’s best ever performance so far has been in the 2004 assembly elections, when it won 58 seats, and 40 seats in 2013 came next. In the 2018 polls, JD(S) had managed to win 37 seats. As of now, what is seen on the ground is a locally driven campaign by the Congress and JD(S). The BJP, on the other hand, has been projecting Narendra Modi’s leadership and focusing on the narrative of a ‘double engine government’ and the achievements of the centre, a political observer said.