Saturday, July 13, 2024

Karnataka: Can the BJP break a 38-year-old jinx?

Nothing would deter the crowd. Not even the sweltering heat or the four hours they had to wait to hear H.D. Kumaraswamy, the former chief minister of Karnataka and the party’s leader.

The Karnataka state assembly election is scheduled for 10 May and frenetic campaigning has picked up pace in many districts. Srirangapatna, a constituency in the state’s Mandya district, has been retained by the Janata Dal (S) since 2004. That day, 18 April, the sitting member of the legislative assembly, A.S. Ravindra Srikantaiah, was readying to file his nomination in the presence of Kumaraswamy.

The former chief minister’s helicopter swung past the crowd before turning around to land, after 2pm. He was mobbed; supporters swarmed to shake hands and take selfies. After the nomination papers were filed, he addressed them, asking to vote for the party to “protect the interest of farmers and uphold the Kannadiga pride”.

Graphic: Mint

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Graphic: Mint

“Last time, we won this constituency by a margin of 43,000 votes. This time we will win by a bigger margin,” said H. Sridhar, a supporter of Janata Dal (S) who came to listen to Kumaraswamy. Srikantaiah, he believed, has done a good job.

As Kumaraswamy left the town, he would have been mighty pleased at the support. And he will be hoping for similar support across the entire Old Mysuru region of Karnataka from where his party typically wins most of the seats. If he does win big this time as well, it could make him a kingmaker in the state’s next government. Who knows, he may even be able to form a government in the event of a hung assembly.

Karnataka assembly has 224 seats and a simple majority requires winning at least 113 constituencies. The 2018 elections sprung a hung assembly. The Janata Dal (S) formed a coalition government with the Congress. Kumaraswamy became the chief minister. But in 2019, the government fell as a few elected members defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That brought the BJP to power.

The Old Mysuru region, originally part of the Madras Presidency before the re-organization of states post-independence, comprises Mysuru, Mandya, Hassan, Chamarajanagar, Bengaluru, Ramanagara, Kolar and Tumakuru districts. Bengaluru, with its 28 assembly seats, behaves differently as it is very urban. It is the rest of the region, mostly rural, comprising 61 assembly segments that holds the key to the next government.

Mint travelled through this region to gauge the public mood. One thing became apparent. All the parties in the fray—the ruling BJP, the Congress and the Janata Dal (S)—are leaving no stone unturned to improve their tally here.

Congress vs JD (S)

In a repeat of what we saw in Srirangapatna, ecstatic supporters crowded in front of Siddaramaiah’s house, in Mysuru. The Congress leader and former chief minister is once again an aspirant to the post, along with D.K. Shivakumar, president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee.

Around 5pm on 18 April, Siddaramaiah met party workers from his constituency, Varuna, ahead of filing his nomination the next day. He sat on the terrace, where about 200 supporters made their way up, in spite of attempts by his security to stop them.

Graphic: Mint

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Graphic: Mint

“It is a direct fight between the Congress and the Janata Dal (S) in the Old Mysuru region. It is difficult for the BJP to make inroads here. It has no leaders from here,” Siddaramaiah told Mint. He is confident his party will bag more than 140 of the 224 seats in the assembly.

“People have decided to give full mandate to the Congress. The anti-incumbency against the BJP is very strong and Karnataka has suffered a lot due to the BJP government’s corruption, price rise, unemployment, lack of development, unstable government and poor administration,” he added. The double engine government that the BJP professes (same party in power both at the Centre and the state), has only given the party a double anti-incumbency as the Centre had denied the rightful share of funds to the state, he alleged.

Varuna, about 10 km from Mysuru city, is a traditional Congress bastion. People in this predominantly farming region echo Siddaramaiah’s views. 73-year-old Venkatamma, who runs a petty shop, blames the ruling party for all her problems, particularly inflation. “The BJP is responsible for the increase in the price of cooking oil, pulses, gas cylinder and petrol. They have reduced the quantity of free rice supplied through ration shops from 10kg per family per month to 5kg,” Venkatamma said.

Her animated conversation with this writer attracted a crowd. And almost everyone who gathered agreed with Venkatamma.

While discontentment against the BJP government in the state is real, what is not clear is whether it would translate into votes for the Congress. “There is no perceptible wave in support of the Congress that is visible. Whether there is a strong undercurrent, we will only know after the elections,” said A. Narayana, professor of policy and governance at Azim Premji University. The Congress is unable to present itself as a strong alternative, he added.

This explains why the party has announced a slew of freebies or ‘guarantees’ in a bid to turn the tide in its favour. It has promised 2,000 a month for every women head of a household; free travel for women in public transport buses; 200 units of power free for every household; 10kg of rice per month for every household; 3,000 per month for uneducated graduates and 1,500 per month for unemployed diploma holders between the age group of 18 and 25 for two years.

The BJP has reacted sharply to these freebies, with Prime Minister, Narendra Modi attacking the Congress for its ‘revdi’ (subsidy) culture.

“It is startling to see the Congress announcing welfare measures that appear more like a dole,” said Sugata Srinivasaraju, senior journalist who has penned the biography of former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. “Instead of promising employment, the Congress is offering doles to unemployed youth,” he added.

Mohandas Pai, co-founder of Aarin Capital and chairman of Manipal Global Education Services, agreed. “What Karnataka needs is a stable government that focuses on infrastructure, higher education, skilling, development of north Karnataka and improving Bengaluru,” he said. There is an urgent need to create well-paying jobs to employ the youth and this can be achieved only through development and not through freebies, he added. “The Congress is out of touch with reality. The state is already carrying 30,000 crore worth of subsidies in its budget and these measures will only worsen its fiscal position,” he said.

BJP’s march

The BJP has traditionally been weak in the Old Mysuru region. In the 2018 elections, it fell short of majority simply because it fared poorly in this region.

This time around, the ruling party has to win a good number of seats to overcome the anti-incumbency factor and retain power. No party, since 1985 (when Ramakrishna Hegde returned Janata Dal to power), has been re-elected in the state. To break this 38-year-old jinx, the BJP has been on a voter wooing drive. Union home minister Amit Shah started the party’s 2023 poll campaign from this region. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already addressed a rally here. The BJP has highlighted its success with infrastructure projects, such as the Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway, to sway voters.

The 119-km expressway was inaugurated earlier this year and is expected to reduce the travel time between the two cities, from three hours to 75 minutes.

If there is one city in India that needs better infrastructure, it is Bengaluru. At 6pm on 19 April, the city’s roads are clogged with people returning home from work. It is also time for some spirted campaigning.

C.N. Ashwath Narayan, Karnataka’s minister for higher education, IT & BT, skill development and science & technology, was in the middle a ‘padayatra’ in Malleshwaram, a predominantly Hindu constituency in north-west Bengaluru. He has won from here three times.

As he walked the streets, he also entered apartments to meet people. They welcomed him. Party workers accompanying him attributed this to his good work in the constituency. “Prospects for the BJP are extremely positive,” Narayan told Mint, walking. “People look up to the BJP for all-round development. We will get a comfortable majority. The state government has done extremely well despite challenging times including covid, floods, inflation and war in Ukraine,” he added.

When asked about the corruption charges levelled on his government, he said that they were baseless.

His views may be different from his own party’s evaluation—according to some experts, the BJP has reconciled to the fact that there is discontentment against the current government, led by Basavaraj Bommai.

“The BJP is again falling back on Prime Minister Modi’s popularity to turn the tide. It has planned over 25 rallies that the prime minister will address between now and the elections in Karnataka,” said Srinivasaraju. He spoke to Mint last week.

Riding on the Modi factor, the BJP had in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections won 25 of the 28 seats in the state. The question is if this would work in the assembly elections where the issues are local.

“The Modi factor is unlikely to work,” said K.A. Thippeswamy, member of the legislative council representing Janata Dal (S) and a former information commissioner under the Right to Information Act. “The focus is on local issues and the BJP has not endeared itself to people on many issues,” he said.

The BJP tried to prop up fictional characters–Nanje Gowda and Uri Gowda–two Vokkaliga chieftains who the party claimed killed Tipu Sultan. This was done to drive a wedge between Muslims and the Janata Dal (S), a party the Vokkaliga community supports. Also, the BJP wanted to split the Vokkaliga votes by appealing to nationalist supporters within the community. “When this attempt failed, they beat a hasty retreat. Now, they do not talk about this issue at all,” Thippeswamy said.

The Vokkaliga community accounts for about 15% of Karnataka’s population. The Lingayat is the dominant community in the state with approximately 17% share of the population and has traditionally voted for the BJP.

Then, there was the Amul controversy. But more than the BJP fanning the issue, it was the opposition parties ‘milking’ it. The Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation decided to launch its Amul brand of products in Karnataka but the move was seen as an attempt to destroy Nandini, the brand of local milk co-operative, the Karnataka Milk Federation. Rumours emerged of a possible attempt to merge Amul and Nandini. Thousands of farmers who are dependent on Nandini are now furious.

As things stand now, the outcome of the election is uncertain as there are many unanswered questions. Can Modi swing it in BJP’s favour, is one of them. The state’s politics have become communally divisive in recent times. It is not clear if the 5.22 crore eligible voters will exercise their franchise based on issues or on communal lines. Many leaders from the Lingayat community, such as Jagadish Shettar, have quit the BJP to join the Congress. Will this impact the BJP adversely? And, can the party do well in the Old Mysuru region?

We will know the answers on 13 May, when the votes are counted. Right now, many people, including entrepreneurs, simply want a stable government that can offer good governance.

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