The electoral battleground of Karnataka will give a clear insight into the future of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress. Of course, Janata Dal (Secular), led by former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy, is a major force but, as is evident, it is a matter of prestige for the two national parties. The battle for Nava Karnataka is therefore between incumbent Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress and former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa of the BJP.

The saffron party, helmed by the astute Amit Shah and bolstered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will be looking to decimate the Congress at the latter’s biggest bastion in terms of area. A victory in Karnataka will give the BJP the passage it seeks to gain a foothold (and influence the politics) in south India. What makes the victory extremely important for the BJP is the exit of Telugu Desam Party (TDP) – which rules Andhra Pradesh – from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in March this year. The exit left the BJP in power in 20 of the 29 states in India either through an alliance or on its own.

On the other hand is the Congress – on a slippery slope since the earthquake in 2014 that toppled it from the high chair in Delhi it had ensconced itself since 2004. The party led by Rahul Gandhi has been losing major elections one after the other across the country, setting a ‘record’ unto itself [link will be attached]. Since 2014, the Congress – solo or as part of alliance – has won only four times in as many states/UTs: Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Puducherry and Punjab. But the grand old party later lost two of them (Arunachal Pradesh and Bihar) to political machinations thereby exposing its weak grasp of strategic mathematics.

The Congress charge

The Congress is, expectedly, going all-in at the upcoming electoral battle to ensure it does not lose hold of Karnataka, for that would leave the UPA in power in just three states/UTs – Mizoram, Puducherry and Punjab. A loss in Karnataka will allow the psephologists to write-off India’s oldest political party.

Aware of the challenge and the threat it poses to his own prime ministerial ambitions, the 47-year-old Gandhi scion, who assumed office as the Congress president on 16 December 2017, has been leading the election charge for his party in Karnataka. As part of the ‘Jana Aashirwad Yatre’, Gandhi toured the state, met the people, praised the Siddaramaiah government and launched scathing attacks on the BJP over a host of issues ranging from corruption to communalism.

 

Karnataka Assembly Elections 2018
Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah during road show for the upcoming Karnataka Assembly polls at Ankola in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka on April 26, 2018. (Photo: IANS)

 

Speaking at a gathering in Shivamogga district of the poll-bound state in April, Gandhi accused the NDA government of playing “politics of hate”.

“PM Modi must realise that the country doesn’t run on empty rhetoric, hatred and batons,” he had said while accusing Modi of attempting to take India on a path of confrontation marked by “anger, hatred and aggression”.

He has on many occasions raised questions on the series of banking frauds which have affected the country in recent months. Citing examples of Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi, Gandhi claimed that the banking system is being blown to pieces because of bank defaults under the Modi regime.

In one of his speeches following the violent Dalit agitation, Gandhi had asked the PM to speak on the atrocities committed on Dalits across the country.

“Wherever BJP leaders go in India, they always insult Dalits and Adivasis… BJP ministers threaten to change our Constitution,” he had said in Kolar, a charge he followed up in Shivamogga.

To counter BJP’s ‘Hindu’ strength, the Congress, too, indulged in some ‘Hindu-politics’ to appease the electorate. During his tours, Gandhi made sure to have on his itinerary some of the most prominent temples in Karnataka so that he could present himself as a ‘soft Hindu’ alternative to the Hindutva arsenal of the BJP-RSS. The visit to temples was in line with the Congress strategy adopted in the 2017 Gujarat elections in which the party lost but fared better than it had done in the preceding elections in the state.

BJP ballistics

On the other hand, the BJP took every opportunity to hit hard the Congress in Karnataka. A direct attack on Chief Minister Siddaramaiah was one of the main strategies of the party with both Shah and PM Modi accusing the 69-year-old Karnataka CM of being “corrupt”.

“The Siddaramaiah government has turned into a Seedha Rupaiah (straightaway money) government as no official work is done without giving money or 10, 12, 15 per cent commission,” Modi had said at a rally in Davanagere, about 260km northwest of Bengaluru.

“Siddaramaiah government is 10 per cent government” had become an oft repeated accusation from the BJP leaders. The party also accused the state government of stalling the development of Karnataka, while the PM announced a slew of developmental projects for Mysuru region.

Shah did not even fail to point at Siddaramaiah’s wrist watch.

“Siddaramaiah is the leader who wears a watch worth Rs 40 lakh,” alleged Shah referring to the Swiss-made Hubolt watch, which Siddaramaiah admitted to have received from an Indian in the Gulf region. “How many people can afford to wear a watch worth Rs 40 lakh?” he asked.

Enter Lingayats

Yet, the shuttling of the brickbats aside, the heat was turned on when the Siddaramaiah government decided to recommend to the Centre to grant religious minority tag to Lingayat and Veershaiva communities. The powerful Lingayat community is considered extremely influential in Karnataka because they constitute 17 per cent of the state’s population.

On a cue, the BJP accused the Congress of dividing Hindus. Amit Shah called it a “conspiracy” against Yeddyurappa, who is the most prominent Lingayat face, while himself meeting some of the leading seers from the community.

 

Amit Shah Lingayat karnataka
BJP chief Amit Shah calls on Shivakumara Swamiji of Siddhaganga Mutt, Tumakuru. (Photo: IANS)

 

“Appeasement policies, which are the country’s biggest enemies are the culture of the Congress, as evident from the religious minority status the ruling party in Karnataka had given to Lingayats ahead of the state assembly election,” Shah had said.

Siddaramaiah had previously branded Shah “an ex-jail bird” in one of his tweets in response to the BJP president’s corruption charge.

“Says an ex-jail bird who chose another former jail bird to be his party’s CM candidate for our Karnataka election,” wrote the Karnataka CM referring to both Shah and Yeddyurappa.

Some unsavoury remarks

As is the case with nearly every election in India, uncharacteristic remarks were not left out. An FIR was registered against BJP MLA Sanjay Patil for saying Karnataka polls are “about Hindus vs Muslims”. Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) working president Dinesh Gundu Rao triggered a controversy by asking people to beat up Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath with ‘chappals’ (slippers).

Interestingly, Yogi Adityanath will be making his third trip to Karnataka from 3 to 4 May and a fourth from 7 to 10 May. He will be addressing around 35 rallies and road shows. Siddaramaiah and Adityanath have previously exchanged barbs on Twitter over issues concerning their respective states. [Our link.]

The candidates

Both the Congress and the BJP announced the names of most of the candidates for the 224-member Karnataka assembly. The JD(S), too, has announced most of the names. It was the first of the three parties to release a list of candidates for the elections as early as February.

So who is up against whom? Among the top names are the two CM hopefuls and the CM himself.

Siddaramaiah is contesting from Chamundeshwari in Mysuru district as well as Badami in Bagalkot district.

The reason behind the CM contesting from two seats has been attributed to the fact that Chamundeshwari’s powerful Vokkaligga community is a strong supporter of the JD(S) led by Kumaraswamy.

Siddaramaiah had contested seven times since 1983 from Chamundeshwari and won five times, but four of the five wins came when he was a member of the JD(S).

 

Karnataka Assembly Elections 2018
Karnataka Chief Minister and Congress leader Siddaramaiah files nomination papers for upcoming Karnataka Assembly polls in Mysuru, Karnataka on April 20, 2018. (Photo: IANS)

 

The JD(S) has filed GT Deve Gowda from Chamundeshwari. He is the sitting MLA and a powerful Vokkaligga face, and is also a former protégé of Siddaramaiah. The BJP has fielded Gopal Rao, an unknown RSS karyakarta, against the two in Chamundeshwari.

In Badami, Siddaramaiah faces opposition from Hanumantha Mavinamarad of the JD(S) and B Sriramulu of BJP. Sriramulu, a Lok Sabha MP from Ballari (formerly known as Bellary), is also contesting from reserved Molakalmuru seat. Though Badami has a strong presence of Siddaramaiah’s Kuruba community (50,000 out of 2.14 lakh voters), there is also a very high number of SC/ST groups who might support Sriramulu.

 

Karnataka Assembly Elections 2018
BJP leader B Sreeramulu who is contesting against Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah in upcoming assembly polls files his nomination papers in Bagalkot on April 24, 2018. Also seen BJP leaders BS Yeddyurappa and Prakash Javadekar. (Photo: IANS)

 

JD(S) CM candidate and former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy will be contesting from Channapatna and Ramanagaram constituencies, both in Ramanagara district. His older brother HD Revanna will contest from Holenarasipura.

Kumaraswamy, the sitting MLA from Ramanagaram, will face BJP’s H Lilavathi and Congress’ HA Iqbal Hussain.

In Channapatna, he is up against Vokkaligga face CP Yogishwar of BJP – the sitting MLA since 2008 – and Congress’ HM Revanna from the Kuruba community.

Yeddyurappa’s name was announced in the first list itself. He is contesting from Shikaripura – a seat from which he has won since 1983 barring a lone defeat at the hands of Mahalingappa of the Congress in 1999. In 2014 by-polls, his son BY Raghavendra contested and won from the seat.

JD(S) has fielded HT Baligar, a strong Lingayat leader, and Congress presented Goni Malatesh against the BJP giant. Just like Gopal Rao in Chamundeshwari, Malatesh is not a known face.

*Names of CM and CM candidates marked in bold.

 

Sons of the top leaders, too, are in the running.

Siddaramaiah’s son Yatindra will contest from Varuna, his father’s constituency for the last two polls. Thotadappa Basavaraj of the BJP and Abhishek of JD(S) complete the three-way contest.

But Yeddyurappa’s older son BY Raghavendra is not contesting this election. His younger son BY Vijayendra was denied a ticket from Varuna.

Tainted names, too, are among the contenders. Both the BJP and the Congress took potshots at each other on social media over some of the names which have been accused of corruption and other crimes.

 

 

The BJP has been under fire ever since it announced the names of Karunakar Reddy and G Somashekhara Reddy from Harapanahalli and Ballari (city), respectively. The two are brothers of GaliJanardhan Reddy, who was arrested and sent to judicial custody for 42 months in the massive illegal mining scam that rocked the previous BJP government in the state. Janardhan Reddy is out on bail. The Reddy brothers were instrumental in the formation of the BJP government led by BS Yeddyurappa in 2008.

The Congress, too, was criticised heavily for giving a ticket to HS Chandramouli, lawyer for absconding PNB scam accused Mehul Choksi, from Madikeri. Many of Congress’ own party leaders opposed the move. On 22 April, the Congress removed Chandramouli’s candidature replacing him with KP Chandrakala.

But both parties have been accused of fielding many other tainted names.

Karnataka will go to polls on 12 May. The results will be declared on 15 May.