By: Shubham Ghosh
Elections in Karnataka, one of southern India’s biggest states, are around the corner and the two big players of the country’s politics – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress – are gearing up for the mega contest.
While the BJP will be looking to beat the anti-incumbency wave, something which Karnataka’s ruling parties have historically found impossible, the Congress will be keen to return to power and add a big state to its kitty and gain confidence ahead of the national polls next year. There is also Janata Dal (Secular) or JDS, a traditional local powerhouse in Karnataka politics which seemed to have lost its sheen over the years.
India Weekly spoke to Dr Sandeep Shastri, vice chancellor of Jagran Lakecity University in Bhopal in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, national coordinator of Lokniti Network and one of India’s renowned psephologists about the upcoming polls. He offered some deep insights about both the state’s electoral and caste politics which is expected to influence the results.
When India Weekly asked whether the Narendra Modi magic will work for the state’s ruling party in this election, Shastri refused to agree that it would be that easy for the BJP.
“Karnataka has never seen a ruling party voted back to power. The state has a tough contest between the BJP and the Congress and the fight will go to the finish,” Shastri said, implying that while the BJP’s central leadership has been playing a major role ahead of the elections, the performance of the saffron party’s government in the state will also matter.
The central leaders can sway votes but people’s perception of the state government on the ground will also count, he said, adding that it would be interesting to watch to what extent the BJP’s central leadership could offset the performance of the state government – good, bad or poor – on the ground.
It will be a tough race ahead and one cannot say that the BJP is at an advantage, Shastri said.
Karnataka is also a state where the Hindutva factor plays a significant role. The state’s coastal belt is known for its Hindutva politics and last year, a controversy over disallowing some Muslim teenage women from wearing hijab (Islamic headscarf) at a government-run educational institution in the Udupi district in southwest Karnataka saw a polarisation between the majority Hindu and minority Muslim student communities. The state government even closed high schools and colleges fearing violence.
On the possibility of the hijab controversy having an impact on the upcoming elections in the state, Shastri said both the BJP and its opposition parties have tried to consolidate their respective vote banks by cashing in on the issue.
“The Congress and JDS would try to use the issue to win over the minority vote. The BJP, on the other hand, will try for a majority consolidation,” he told the publication, adding that such tactics have been used in several elections across the country and while they have earned dividends on some occasions, they have not on others.
According to Shastri, Karnataka although has an appeal of Hindutva, it is limited compared to how it influences electoral politics in India’s northern parts and hence, the hijab controversy might not eventually see as big an influence on the state election results contrary to what many are anticipating.
But while the hijab controversy may or may not have an appeal on the elections, the ‘BSY’ factor can never be far behind when it comes to Karnataka politics. Although BSY or BS Yediyurappa, the BJP’s first chief minister of Karnataka and south India and one of the state’s towering leaders has retreated from electoral politics, his relevance might still not be written off yet.
The BJP-BSY factor might be tricky this time, feels Shastri.
“The fact that PM Modi inaugurated an airport in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district on Yediyurappa’s birthday (the leader has a stronghold in Shivamogga) in February gives a clear indication that the BJP still attaches importance to the BSY factor,” he said, adding that the 80-year-old leader himself had announced that while he would no longer be in electoral politics, he would continue to actively campaign to help the party achieve absolute majority, something the BJP has not tasted yet in Karnataka.
But some questions still remain, according to Shastri. First, will Yediyurappa’s appeal to the voters be as effective since they know that he is not a prospective chief minister this time, unlike in the past? “The BJP has gone into this election with a chief ministerial face and Yediyurappa’s appeal is not the same as it was before,” he told India Weekly.
“Secondly, some of the veteran leader’s expectations from the BJP have also not been fulfilled, including recognising his son BY Vijayendra as his successor from his seat Shikaripura,” the political analyst said. There have been reports of dissatisfaction within the BJP in Karnataka over BSY’s plan to project his son as a candidate from his constituency and according to Shastri, BSY’s role in this election will be linked to how the BJP addresses his expectations.
Given that Karnataka votes out the party in power every five years will excite the opposition Indian National Congress, which has seen a steady slump across the nation. The party’s current president, Mallikarjun Kharge, is from the state and the recent ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ undertaken by former chief Rahul Gandhi also received a warm response there. However, the grand-old party in Karnataka also has the challenge of factionalism.
Shastri believes the opposition party has a huge opportunity to return to power. “The Congress unit in Karnataka is different from other states in the country because it is less dependent on the party high command. Both the state’s two Congress leaders – Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar are working together and the party has not announced a chief ministerial face. Both the leaders are important for the party as one of them (Shivakumar) represents the dominant Vokkaliga community and the other (Siddaramaiah) the backward classes,” he said.
The two leaders have so far put up a united face but the real test for the Congress would come when the distribution of tickets starts, the expert added. If any of the two leaders feel dissatisfied with the distribution of tickets, then the Congress’s unity would have a real test in hand and it will be closely watched how the party responds to such a situation if it arises.
Shastri added that the fact that the Congress’s all-India president is from the state is also an added advantage to the party. “Kharge is from Dalit background which means the party has three big leaders representing three key voting blocs,” he told India Weekly.
The JDS of former Indian prime minister HD Deve Gowda has been another traditional player in Karnataka politics. Shastri, however, is of the opinion that the JDS of today is not what it was in the 1980s and 1990s and has a very limited area of influence. “It will be interesting to see whether the party can retain even that,” he said, adding the party is hoping that no party gets a clear majority in the assembly which would allow them to become the kingmaker but it is unlikely that such a situation would emerge this year.
The JSD got the chief minister’s post despite finishing third after the BJP and Congress in the 2018 elections, thanks to a post-poll alliance with the Congress to keep the BJP at bay. But the government led by HD Kumaraswamy was ousted just after 14 months after it lost a trust vote necessitated by a string of resignations of lawmakers from both parties. The BJP, which finished as the single-largest party then, succeeded the coalition as the next ruling party.
Like in many other states of India, caste plays a key role in the electoral politics of Karnataka and it will be no exception this time either. The Lingayats have their presence in northern Karnataka, the Vokkaligas in southern Karnataka and then there are the backward classes and Dalits who are present in both parts. Minorities, too, play an important role in the elections.
“The Lingayats have traditionally voted for the BJP but with Yediyurappa, who is a Lingayat strongman, not being the chief ministerial candidate this time and the Lingayat community not being sure whether there is a possibility of the state getting a Lingayat chief minister even if the BJP comes to power, it will be interesting to see how much of the Lingayat votes consolidate for the BJP,” Shastri said.
About the Vokkaliga votes, he said they have seen a three-way split between the BJP, Congress and JDS. “In the 2019 general polls, the BJP did exceptionally well among them. The Congress has a projected Vokkaliga leader (Shivakumar) while the JDS is an exclusively Vokkaliga party. So how the Vokkaliga votes pan out will be important,” he added.
Besides, Siddaramaiah led the AHINDA (Kannada acronym for backward classes and Dalits) Movement in 2013 which helped the Congress consolidate the backward class votes and come to power in Karnataka.
“The same group moved away in 2018 when they felt that nothing much has been done in five years. It will be seen whether they return to the Congress again this time, something which Siddaramaiah is aiming during the campaign. The minorities do tactical voting by backing the party which they think would protect their interests. So, one will keep a watch on whether the Congress gets their votes or they get split between the Congress and JDS,” Shastri said, adding that caste arithmetic is important in Karnataka but it is its combination with the political chemistry on the ground which will eventually determine the results.