The state Assembly has already passed a resolution for a separate state flag for Karnataka, and the bill is pending with the Centre.
The Assembly elections in Karnataka are important both for the Congress as well as for the BJP. More than a month before voters cast their vote to elect a new government, the Congress seems to have an edge over the BJP. Its much deeper roots, a longer electoral history and the ground situation suggests that the Congress is better placed than the BJP to win the elections in Karnataka. Not only has the Congress won several elections in the state, its voteshare was higher than the BJP even when it lost the election in 2008. The traditional supporters of the Congress are in much bigger numbers than the BJP, and there hardly seem to be any visible signs of anti-incumbency against the government. The party’s strategy of evoking the issue of regional identity and regional autonomy seems to be working in its favour. People in general are in support of this issue and political parties in opposition to the Congress, mainly the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular), find it difficult to oppose them. All this suggests that the Congress has an advantage at this moment, but it will be making a big mistake if it underestimates the immense power of the BJP to tirelessly campaign to mobilise voters in its favour. After-all, in the past few years, the BJP has surprised many by winning state after state, even in areas where it was virtually non-existent till a few years ago. Closer to election day, the BJP could make headway even in Karnataka.
The state’s electoral history suggests that the Congress has an advantage as it roughly commands 35 per cent of the popular votes in the triangular contest with the BJP and JD(S). Even in the 2008 Assembly elections, which the Congress lost to the BJP, its voteshare was one per cent higher than the BJP. Except for the 1994 Assembly elections, the party has always polled more than 35 per cent votes. The party used to poll more than 40 per cent in the elections held during the 1990s and before that. The Congress should be able to win the elections in Karnataka even with a marginal decline in voteshare as it led over the BJP by more than 20 per cent votes in the 2013 Assembly elections. The BJP polled roughly 20 per cent votes and trailed behind the Congress, which polled 37 per cent votes. The JD(S), which has a sizeable presence in the South Karnataka region, polled 20 per cent votes. In the triangular contest which the state is heading for, the BJP or JD(S) will need a huge swing of votes in its favour to win
the election. Even with a 10 per cent swing in its favour, the BJP may not be able to cross the magic figure, and barely reach 90 seats. The BJP will need a much bigger swing of more than 15 per cent votes to be able to dislodge the Congress government in the state. With a 15 per cent swing, the party will be able to cross the halfway mark.
The task for the JD(S) is much tougher. Though the JD(S) polled roughly 20 per cent votes in the last few Assembly elections, its voteshare is largely concentrated in the South Karnataka region. During the last three Assembly elections, most of its victories have come from this region. Of the 40 Assembly seats it won in the 2013 Assembly elections, 21 seats were won by the party from this region. The uneven spread of votes of the party in other regions makes it difficult for it to win a majority in the state. Even with a 15 per cent swing in its favour, the JD(S) would find it difficult to win a majority. The JD(S) can cross the halfway mark only with a 17 per cent swing in its favour, almost an impossible task for the party to achieve. The alliance with the BSP would not help the JD(S) much as the BSP hardly has any presence in the state, and its voteshare was less than two per cent during last few elections.
The Congress has the advantage of being led in the state by a reasonably popular chief minister, Siddaramaiah, whose popularity has hardly declined over the years. The issue of regional identity for Karnataka in particular, and for South India in general, which the state Congress leadership has been playing for the last few years, will only help the party in consolidating its support base among Kannadigas. The state Assembly has already passed a resolution for a separate state flag for Karnataka, and the bill is pending with the Centre. Similarly, the state Cabinet’s decision on a special status for Lingayats is pending with the Central government, and the BJP may find it difficult to oppose these decisions of the state government.
The findings of surveys conducted by CSDS during past Assembly polls suggest that Lingayats have not voted for the Congress in large numbers. In the 2008 elections, 60 per cent of Lingayats voted for the BJP, and only 18 per cent voted for the Congress. In the 2013 Assembly elections, the Congress was able to win back some Lingayat votes, but still only 26 per cent of them voted for the Congress while 28 per cent of Lingayats still backed the BJP. Now the BJP is caught in a dilemma — if it opposes the state government’s decisions, it might turn Kannadigas against the saffron party; but if the Central government endorses the state Cabinet’s recommendations, the ultimate beneficiary may be the Congress. Chief minister Siddaramaiah’s stand on greater autonomy for southern states and his demand that the Centre should be flexible to Karnataka’s needs would only gain support for the party in the state.
The Congress seems to have the advantage at this point, but voters may change their mood closer to election day. There is a general mood of change blowing across the country, we saw this in the Assembly elections held recently in the Northeast. Team BJP, and specially Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, has immense capacity to turn the tide in its favour, and has done this successfully in many states in recent years. Karnataka may well be the next in this series, for after all winning the state is vital to the Sangh Parivar’s long-term agenda.