The 12 May polling in Karnataka was peaceful, with 70 per cent of the electorate turning up to cast their votes in the elections. Expectedly, both Congress leader and Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and chief ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), BS Yeddyurappa, are claiming that they will form government on their own.
Even though the various exit polls predict a hung assembly, the Congress and the BJP have been adamant, at least on camera, about not joining hands with the third force in the state – Janata Dal (Secular). Led by former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, the JD(S), whose CM candidate is HD Kumaraswamy, could be the kingmaker, which is why both the BJP and the Congress have indirectly thrown hints at an alliance with the party.
Whatever the alliance mathematics and post-poll strategies are, Siddaramaiah is the man everyone is keenly watching.
The 69-year-old Congress leader has, to his credit, a notable achievement in a politically fractured state – he is the first Karnataka CM to have completed 5 years in office since Congress’ D Devraj Urs, who was the chief minister from 1972-77. Siddaramaiah claims that his government has created 53 lakh jobs, provided Rs 12,000 crore loans to farmers, given scholarship worth Rs 768 crore to OBC students and turned Karnataka as the number 1 investment attraction among states.
Whether there is a consensus between his claims and the work done by his government will be known on 15 May when the verdict of the people of Karnataka is revealed to the nation.
But there are two specific questions which have made him the centre of attention of everyone from the common Kannadiga to those in power in New Delhi: 1. Will he become the first Chief Minister of Karnataka in almost three decades to get a second consecutive term? 2. Will he block the ‘NaMo wave’ as it continues to consume the Congress like a hungry shark and become the ‘saviour’ of the party and its president?
The first question is important because Karnataka has never elected the same government to power for a second consecutive term since 1988. The last man to have been elected a second time consecutively was Ramakrishna Hegde, the Janata Party (JP) MLA from Basavanagudi in Bengaluru. Since then, 13 different leaders have held the office of the CM of Karnataka, whether having been elected to power directly by the people or having held the position due to political machinations.
If Siddaramaiah comes back to power, he would script history in the state where community politics matter heavily. The CM belongs to the Kuruba community, which has a strong presence in Badami – one of the two constituencies Siddaramaiah is contesting from. On the other hand, he has also smartly cast the die that might draw the Lingayat community to the Congress side.
Just about two months before the elections, Siddaramaiah threw the ball in the central government’s court by recommending the grant of religious minority status to the powerful Lingayat community. The influential community constitutes 17 per cent of the state’s population.
The Congress already enjoys the support of minority communities, but Siddaramaiah appears to have cemented the base by announcing ‘Tipu Jayanti’ – an annual birth anniversary celebration of the 18th century Mysuru ruler who is both revered and reviled in the state. Siddaramaiah hailed Tipu as the ‘first freedom fighter’ for his war against the British. But the announcement was received violently in parts of Karnataka, especially Kodagu (Coorg) in the coastal Karnataka region where two people died in protests.
Siddaramaiah also took a major chance by choosing two constituencies to fight from. The first constituency he chose was Chamundeshwari in Mysuru district. He won this seat five times – 1983, 1985, 1994, 2004 and the by-poll in 2006. But he faces a huge challenge from JD(S) leader GT Deve Gowda, who is the sitting MLA and a powerful Vokkaligga face. Vokkaligga community, which has a strong presence in Chamundeshwari are traditional supporters of the Deve Gowdas and, thus, the JD(S). In fact, Siddaramaiah had won from this seat either as a JD(S) candidate or Janata Party (JP) candidate.
The constituency with an electorate of 2,50,000, comprises 70,000 Vokkaliggas, 30,000 Lingayats and over 1,20,000 backwards, SCs, STs, Brahmins, Muslims and Kurubas. It is this combine of smaller communities that Siddaramaiah is banking on this time. But his decision to also contest from Badami appears to have alienated his voters.
As Tyagaraj Sharma wrote for this publication, GT Deve Gowda is patiently milking all the anger and resentment against Siddaramaiah to his visible advantage. “I am confident of retaining my seat as Siddaramaiah’s lack of courtesy and gratitude would be his undoing. He has alienated the people with his arrogant behaviour,” the JD(S) leader claimed.
The Chief Minister’s detractors claim that he has chosen to fight from two seats because of the groundswell of opinion, anger and annoyance against him, and his decision to contest from Varuna on the last two occasions.
While the first question largely hovers around Siddaramaiah’s future, the second question holds the answer to the future of the Congress party itself.
In spite of the significance of the JD(S), the Karnataka election was being seen as a battle between the Congress and the BJP. For the Congress, especially, it was a matter of prestige of the party’s president, Rahul Gandhi. The 47-year-old Gandhi scion has always been the ‘chosen one’ for the PM’s candidature in the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections – and he confirmed that he is indeed serious about the top post at a recent public meeting. A loss in Karnataka means a major dent, possibly beyond repair, in Gandhi’s stature. Thus, riding on Siddaramaiah’s victory is the political future of the man who is the face of the Congress.
The BJP, fully aware of the importance of Karnataka to its ambitions in the south, went on a campaign blitzkrieg with Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading the charge for the saffron party. Having lost an important ally in Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka is big prize for the saffron party. In rally after rally, the BJP launched an all-out attack on the Congress leadership. Accusations ranging from corruption to division of Hindus were levelled at the grand old party. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself toured the length and breadth of the state highlighting his government’s achievements and accusing the Siddaramaiah government of preventing the Centre’s schemes from reaching the people in the state. In rally after rally, the PM and other top leaders of the BJP questioned Siddaramaiah government’s decision to celebrate “the jayanti of a Sultan” and ignoring heroes such as Onake Obavva, Veera Madakari Nayaka, Rani Chennamma, Sangolli Rayanna and the Rajas of Kodagu.
The BJP kept reminding the people of Karnataka that Kodagu sees the ‘Tiger of Mysore’ as the ‘tyrant from Mysore’.
In 1785, Tipu had violently crushed a rebellion in Kodagu after inviting the rebels for peace talks and then betraying their trust by capturing them. Those who were captured were sent to prison in Srirangapatnam, Tipu’s capital. Many were forcibly converted. Kodagu has not forgotten the insult. The two constituencies in the district, Madikeri and Virajpet, have been BJP bastions since 1994. The party also played the same card in Mangaluru in Dakshin Kannada district. Like Kodagu, the Christians of Mangaluru had faced the wrath of Tipu Sultan.
The BJP played the ‘development + religion’ card everywhere. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who was one of the star campaigners of the party in the state, repeatedly connected Karnataka to his state by referring to the relationship of Lord Hanuman and Lord Ram.
And even though BJP-led government in the Centre has still not taken a decision on the state government’s recommendation for Lingayats, it left no stone unturned to woo the community during the hustings. There were well publicised meetings between party president Amit Shah and top seers of the community. Of course, BS Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s CM candidate, is himself a Lingayat.
While the BJP arrived in the southern state with all guns blazing, the ruling Congress brought to battle both a robust defence and a sharp offence.
Siddaramaiah matched, probably surpassed, BJP’s relentless attacks on social media. His sharp responses were dignified and to-the-point – befitting the leader of one of the country’s highly literate states.
On the other hand, Congress president Rahul Gandhi kept countering BJP’s barbs with questions on a range of issues from demonetisation to Rafael deal. The Congress made it a point to accuse the BJP of polarisation while presenting the grand old party as the best bet for an inclusive nation. Gandhi toured the state, met supporters, spoke powerfully at meetings, and attacked the BJP over the inclusion of the tainted Reddy brothers in the elections (two of Gali Janardhan Reddy’s brothers have contested on BJP tickets) while carefully building his own image as a PM candidate for 2019.
The significance of Karnataka for the Congress can be gauged from the fact that Sonia Gandhi herself addressed a rally in the last days of the elections, which was her first in two years.
So, will Siddaramaiah be back? It is a difficult question to answer convincingly.
In a tweet on 13 May, he asked Congress supporters not to worry about the future even as the exit polls predicted a split verdict. But later on that day he said that he is willing to step down if the Congress chooses a Dalit face as the next CM. It was a major hint at the possibility of Congress joining hands with JD(S), whose chief, HD Deve Gowda, is not fond of Siddaramaiah.
If the Congress manages to go past the majority mark in the 224-seat assembly (elections were held in 222), Siddaramaiah would most likely remain the CM thus owning the answers to both the crucial questions. And if the Congress forms the government without Siddaramaiah, the 69-year-old Karnataka CM would walk into the sunset happy with the fact that his work and political machinations have ensured the future of his party and a 47-year-old PM-in-waiting.