The big question, as the Karnataka polls loom large, is whether BJP can bring down its biggest rival to just ‘Punjab, Puducherry & Parivar Congress’.
The talking point as Karnataka enters the final stretch before Assembly polls on May 12, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi ups the decibel levels in an increasingly shrill campaign, is whether the BJP will be able to pull off its ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ plan.
Or, whether Chief Minister Siddaramaiah can hold off the Modi-Amit Shah led saffron charge that aims to breach the last of the Congress bastions in the south and reduce its countrywide imprint to two states and one union territory. As PM Modi said at a rally in Tumakuru, Saturday, ‘It will be Punjab, Puducherry and Parivar ess...”
The shields are definitely up. An acerbic war on Twitter is playing out in a wounding back and forth that unlike previous campaigns when PM Modi owned the space in social media, the chief minister of Karnataka and the Congress president Rahul Gandhi have held their own. Until that is, the late but timely advent of PM Modi to the campaign, where the narrative shifted from Mr Siddaramaiah’s track record in office, and turned the Twitter war into a reactive rather than a proactive tit for tat with the CM, witty but clearly, angry and on the defensive.
That transformation, more than anything, signalled a shift on the ground as the BJP campaign which had been in an utter shambles before Modi’s arrival came into its own as the party’s campaigner-in-chief took pot shots at not just Mr Siddaramaiah but widened it to include the ‘Gandhi-Nehru dynasts,’ with the ‘Nehru insulted Gen. Thimmaya’ trope – albeit inaccurate - backed by a fusillade against even Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi hatao’ campaign.
Congress stalwarts may heartily disagree. But while the new narrative may be crafted as an electoral gambit that will be dusted off at the Lok Sabha polls in 2019, confidence levels within the BJP have risen. Neither the temporary hiccup over the ill-advised last minute denial of a ticket to the son of the Lingayat icon and chief ministerial candidate B.S. Yeddyurappa to fight in Varuna against Siddaramaiah’s son in order to avoid the BJP having to live with its own dynast tag, nor the CM’s too clever by half bid to woo a section of the Lingayats with the offer of a separate religion has seen the BJP miss a step. The BJP’s main voter base of the upper class Lingayat vote seems unlikely to splinter, their strategists say. And this time, unlike 2013, when the BJP’s traditional stronghold of Coastal Karnataka took a hit and BJP supporters stayed home, the BJP is upping the ante on the Congress’ alleged links with the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political wing of the Popular Front of India that the BJP blames for the selective elimination of its workers. The Congress, while confident that its emerging faces like minister U.T. Khader and Ramanath Rai along with Pramod Madhavaraj and Abhay Chandra Jain will hold their own even in the absence of stalwarts like Janardhan Poojary and Oscar Fernandes, the BJP’s agent provocateur is the unpredictable MP Anant Kumar Hegde and the predictable communalization of the coast.
Although as one observer noted, “this is the first time that the BJP has not openly indulged in polarization, as they did before polls in UP, Rajasthan and MP. Nor do they have a Mani Shankar Aiyer jibe to cash in on, as they did ahead of the Gujarat polls.” But with the BJP cadres actively mobilising votes, the Congress would be remiss in taking Uttar Kannada, Dakshina Kannada and Udupi and Mangaluru for granted.
The BJP’s other stronghold has been Mumbai-Karnataka and Hyderabad-Karnataka where voters loyal to former chief minister Ramakrishna Hedge moved en masse to the BJP and have stayed with it ever since. That’s unlikely to change, the BJP believes.
In the melting pot that is the IT capital which attracts the young from across the country, particularly UP and Bihar, it’s the JD(S) and the BJP, (and to a lesser extent, the Congress) that has a fairly robust following. Here the chief minister has tried but failed to silence his critics on poor management of the city’s resources vis-a-vis its shambolic garbage and waste disposal as well as its indifference to the people’s woes on living with an erratic power supply and traffic gridlock. With the BJP pointing fingers at the JD(S) for supporting the Congress in the city municipal body, the BJP is hoping to up its numbers from its current haul of 12 to 15 of the city’s 28 seats.
An unspoken, unarticulated grouse in the rural areas as summer temperatures rise is the Congress government’s inability to assuage rural distress through better electrification, irrigation and riverine water supply. A grouse, that the BJP has efficiently tapped into by raising Mahadayi. The CM’s counter narrative is that his free food for the poor with Anna Bhagya and the milk and other schemes will stand him in good stead, with one survey after another according high praise.
While these chinks in the Congress armour have been used by the BJP to little effect so far, its Mr. Modi’s blistering poll campaign that will see him hold 21 rallies and numerous pit stops across 20 districts in the next four days, that could change the situation on the ground.
The strategy is aimed at two things – one, consolidate its existing 35% voter base across the state and second, attempt a 6-8 per cent shift to bridge the 2-4% gap between the Congress and the BJP’s vote share.
At the heart of Mr. Modi’s strategy of playing fast and loose with the Janata Dal(S) was a split of the Vokkaliga vote as well as the minority vote which it shares along with the ST-SC-OBC vote for the Congress in the Old Mysore and Mandya districts where the BJP has little or no following. Curiously, the BJP, has fielded more Vokkaliga candidates here than at anytime before. Whether the Congress can hold on to the seats it already has, given the damage that the JD(S) will unleash, angry at its stalwarts being lured away by Siddaramaiah, and the actor Ambareesh’s ability to ensure the Congress does not even win by the small margins that it normally wins by, makes Mysuru, Mandya, Chamarajnagar and Ramanagara that much more interesting. The BJP has a C.P. Yogeshwar, but the Congress has the canny D.K.Shivakumar, who is unlikely to allow anyone to dwarf his own Vokkaliga credentials and will do everything in his power, including talking to the JD(S), to see that Mr Yogeshwar is eclipsed.
And now for Mr. Modi’s misplaced attack on the Congress’ Dalit leader Mallikarjun Kharge which can only be deemed mystifying, and some say, may not have been fully thought through. While Dalits are upset over the non-implementation of the Sadashiva Commission, the attack on the Congress’ ‘no-Dalit CM’ and ‘Rahul insults seniors’, was aimed at showing up the Congress but equally, at driving home the point that as long as Mr Siddaramaiah was around, Dalit chief ministerial hopefuls like Mr Kharge and Dr G Parameswar would not make the cut. Would this pull the Dalits in Central Karnataka into the BJP fold?
In fact, a traditional Lingayat-Dalit preserve, the Dalit vote in the central districts is now unlikely to drop into the BJP’s lap, after the prime minister went from asking ‘why the Congress had not given Mr Kharge or any Dalit the post of CM’, to casting aspersions on Mr Kharge himself.
As a Congress sympathiser said, “Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit no doubt but without the stature that Kharge enjoys, may have been picked by the BJP for president, but President Kovind cannot be a card that the BJP can continue to play to woo Dalits, either in Karnataka or in the other pollbound states later this year, or in 2019, if you insult Mr Kharge.”
The BJP may win back Ballari too, but it lost the moral high ground on corruption after inducting the infamous Ballari mining baron Gali Janardhan Reddy’s brothers into the fray. The Congress too opened itself to similar charges, by inducting two minor Reddy aides Anand Singh and B. Nagendra to ensure these two seats do not go to the BJP. Equally, while his own clean record in governance, Hublot watch or no, remains untarnished, his defense that Singh and Nagendra were not brought in at his behest, has not changed the impression that as the CM, Siddaramaiah did little to check corruption, one survey found.
Either way, the inability of the BJP to pin corruption charges against the Siddaramaiah government is the least of the Congress’ problems. In Karnataka’s deeply entrenched caste voting patterns, Modi’s electoral strategy is to fish in troubled waters. The BJP – and PM Modi – maybe crafting a strategy to ensure that Mr Siddaramaiah, against whom party stalwarts and many of his friends turned foes, are also ranged and who, critics say antagonized, the Lingayats and the Vokkaliga community as well as OBCs while rewarding his own Kuruba community, loses the two seats he is standing from – Chamundeswari and Badami. But that is underestimating this Congress leader for whom, going for the Lingayat jugular was a calculated risk to bring in what the BJP too was aiming for – a higher vote share and a clear majority for himself and the party.
In tapping into Siddaramaiah’s longstanding acrimony with JD(S) patrimony, however the BJP was attempting through yet another route to decimate the only man who stands between them and victory.
The prize being – not Karnataka in the short term - but 2019!
Insiders say that the BJP’s twin strategies involve ensuring that on the one hand, the BJP comes in with a huge majority of 130 seats with the downside to that being, that they will have to keep their word and anoint an ageing B.S.Yeddyurappa as their chief minister. In fact, what they would like to do - given the fact that the BJP could find no state leader who could pull in the vote - is to groom a token Kovind-like Dalit leader in his place, but in this case, be someone who can lead the southern charge in 2019.
The other plan is to boost the JD(S) numbers just enough, to ensure it can be supported from the outside as a minority government; with the option before the BJP, being to pull the plug on the JD(S) government if and when it sees fit. The BJP is well aware that the JD(S) Achilles heel is party supremo H.D. Deve Gowda’s desperation to make his son H.D. Kumaraswamy the chief minister one last time. But BJP support from the outside would scupper the JD(S)’ attempts to become the fulcrum of an anti-BJP ‘Third Front’ that has the backing of regional parties.
The JD(S) would then live up Mr Siddaramaiah’s jibe of it being the “B” team of the BJP, which was aimed at denying the JD(S) the chance to dictate who would be CM, if the Congress didn’t have the numbers and needed JD(S) support. That could all could blow up in its face if it accepted BJP support to come to power.
Either way, even if Mr Siddaramaiah wins Chamundeswari, the BJP – and the JD(S) – want to ensure that neither he nor the Congress win the 120 plus seats it needs to form the government. A Siddaramaiah-less Congress. A Congress-mukt Karnataka. That’s the plan.
But, you know what they say about ‘the best-laid plans of mice and men...’