Bengaluru: Curtains came down on the high decibel campaigning for the Assembly polls in Karnataka on Monday evening, setting the stage for the mega ballot battle on May 10. With the stakes being high this election, the major political parties in contention — the BJP, Congress and JD(S) — and their candidates have made a strong pitch seeking to boost their prospects at the hustings.
In the intensity of the campaign, there were instances of leaders crossing the line of public discourse and indulging in personal attacks and abuses against each other.
The top guns of all the major political parties were on a campaign blitz across the state in the past few days. While the ruling BJP, riding on the Modi juggernaut, wants to break the 38-year-old jinx and retain its southern citadel, the Congress wants to wrest power to give the party much-needed elbow room and momentum to position itself as the main opposition player in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Also, the JD(S) led by former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda was seen putting all its might into campaigning, wanting to emerge as ”king” and not ”Kingmaker”, hoping to get the required numbers to form a government on its own.
”A government with full majority” seemed to be the favourite slogan for the leaders of all the political parties during campaigning for the elections to the 224-member Assembly, as they stressed on getting a clear mandate to form a strong and stable government in the state.
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The BJP’s campaign seemed largely ”centralised” with the focus mainly on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ‘double-engine’ government, national issues and programmes or achievements of the union government coupled with just a few from the state. The Congress by-and-large focused on local issues and its campaign also was run by its state leaders initially. However, its central leaders such as AICC president Mallikarjun Kharge, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra pitched in subsequently.
JD(S) too ran a highly localised campaign, anchored solely by its leader H D Kumaraswamy, with party patriarch Deve Gowda too joining in later despite his advanced age and related ailments. Modi made a major campaign push in the last one week since April 29, by holding 19 mega public meetings and six roadshows, canvassing votes for BJP candidates across the state with the poll slogan ‘Ee Baariya Nirdhara, Bahumatada BJP Sarkara’ (This Time’s Decision: Majority BJP Government).
Ahead of the announcement of polls on March 29, Modi had visited the state seven times since January to unveil several government schemes and projects, and had addressed numerous beneficiary meetings.
According to BJP leaders, Modi’s election rallies bolstered its campaign in a big way and would help the party script history in the polls.
BJP national leaders have held a total of 206 public meetings and 90 roadshows, while its state leaders have held 231 public meetings and 48 road shows, the party said.
Top leaders of political parties continued campaigning even on the last day, as only door-to-door campaigning is allowed tomorrow.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah too has extensively travelled the state campaigning and strategising for the polls. ”PM and Shah have put Congress on the back foot in the run-up to the polls,” a senior BJP leader said.
A number of BJP leaders, including its national president J P Nadda, Chief Ministers of BJP ruled states like Uttar Pradesh’s Yogi Adiyanath, Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma, Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Goa’s Pramod Sawant, as well as Union Ministers Nirmala Sitharaman, S Jaishankar, Smriti Irani, Nitin Gadkari, among others too have travelled in various parts of the state for campaigning.
The party also effectively utilised the services of its top leader in Karnataka B S Yediyurappa to counter the attempt by the Congress to build a perception that it was turning anti-Lingayat.
While the BJP tried to highlight the achievements of both the state and central governments to pitch for another chance for its ‘double-engine’ government (same party government in state and at Centre), the party also openly sought votes in the name of Modi, projecting his image as a global leader and India’s ”growing stature” on the world stage.
While trying to push the idea that the state’s development was possible only if the BJP came to power, with the support of the party’s government at the Centre, the party and its leaders tried to defend the Karnataka government’s decision to scrap 4 per cent reservation for Muslims under OBCs, and also made efforts to counter the allegations of corruption against the regime.
The BJP and its leaders, especially the Prime Minister, tried to turn opposition barbs at him like ”venomous snake” into campaign issues for the party to capitalise on. The Congress’s mention of a possible ban on right-wing outfit Bajrang Dal was also used by Modi and the BJP machinery to counter the grand old party by trying to brand it ”anti Bajarangbali” and ”anti Hindu”.
For the Congress, wresting power from the BJP would be a morale booster and the key to reviving its electoral fortunes and strengthening its credentials as the main opposition player against the BJP ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. By winning Karnataka, it also wants to give a momentum of sorts to its workers 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.
Though the campaign initially centered around its state leaders like Siddaramaiah and D K Shivakumar, Kharge gave it momentum and thereby prepared the pitch for the party’s top leaders Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi to join in.
The brother-sister duo extensively travelled across the state, challenging the BJP’s campaign machinery led by Modi, countering and challenging him on various issues, most importantly on the issue of corruption, while promising to provide a better alternative for Karnataka. Their mother and former AICC president Sonia Gandhi addressed a party rally in Hubballi on Saturday.
This election is also a prestige battle for the grand old party, with a Kannadiga Kharge, who hails from Kalaburagi district, being at its helm as the national president. The party has set a target of winning 150 seats.
The party has held 99 public meetings and 33 road shows by its top state and central leaders.
The Congress’s main aim to attack the BJP government in this election was over corruption/scams and the charge of 40 per cent commission, coupled with the Adani issue. While extensively highlighting its five key poll ‘guarantees’, the party tried to inform the people about its charge against the BJP government of having ”failed in fulfilling 90 per cent of its promises” made in its 2018 manifesto.
At a time when it seemed like all was going well, Congress itself waded into controversies with Siddaramaiah’s statement that ”there’s already a Lingayat CM who is the most corrupt”, which the BJP turned into an “insult” to the entire Lingayat community; Mallikarjun Kharge comparing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “a venomous snake”; then his son and Chittapur MLA Priyank Kharge calling Modi a “nalayak beta” (incompetent son). Amid these back-to-back controversies, the Congress manifesto’s promise of possibly banning the right-wing Bajrang Dal caused some anxiety as it threatened to hurt the optics, as BJP aggressively picked up the issue to portray the grand old party as being against lord Hanuman and the sentiments of Hindus.
Will the 2023 Karnataka Assembly polls be a battle of political survival for JD(S) or will the regional party once again emerge as kingmaker, like it did in 2018, in the event of a hung verdict? That is the debate in political circles this time too.
Plagued by desertions and internal rifts, and with the image of being a ”family party”, Gowda’s son Kumaraswamy, has in a way single-handedly managed the JD(S) campaign across the state, with his aging father taking the back seat.
Kumaraswamy has by-and-large focused his campaign on a five-fold programme called ‘Pancharatna’ that the JD(S) plans to implement on coming to power. It includes quality education, health care, housing, farmer welfare and employment.
Though the 89-year-old Deve Gowda initially stayed away from campaigning due to age related ailments, he has been travelling and campaigning for JD(S) candidates in the past couple of weeks, especially in the party bastion of Old Mysuru region, making an emotional pitch, and countering the Congress’s and BJP’s attacks against his party.
Allegations by both national parties that the JD(S) was the ‘B team’ of the other, and that JD(S) was hoping to win just 35-40 seats to play a crucial role in government formation in case of a hung verdict were among the criticisms faced by Kumaraswamy in this campaign. The former chief minister, however, has heavily banked on the topics of regional pride and Kannadiga identity in his campaigning, along with issues related to welfare of farmers and the poor to attract voters.