Election fever is here in Karnataka and political parties are busy strategising to get their poll arithmetic right.
On 4 January, South First published its first tracker poll for the Karnataka Assembly elections carried out by People’s Pulse. While giving the edge to the Congress — which emerged as the single-largest party — the tracker poll showed that as of today, Karnataka is likely to throw up a broken mandate.
Internal surveys of both the Congress and BJP too show that neither party can sit back and claim to have the confidence of getting a clear majority. With elections four months away, the Congress is still a divided house, the BJP is severely underconfident, and the JD(S) is struggling to safeguard its vote share.
BJP’s big challenges in Karnataka
Karnataka has a history of not electing incumbent parties back to power. The BJP, despite forming a government multiple times in the state, has neither won a majority on its own nor beaten the Congress’s vote share so far. Anti-incumbency against the Basavaraj Bommai government, especially over allegations of corruption and maladministration, has made the BJP’s task all the more difficult.
“This election is an uphill task. We currently are confident of winning only 70 to 80 seats comfortably,” confessed a senior office-bearer of the BJP state unit to South First.
A month ago, the BJP was looking at winning 96 to 102 seats. “The state leadership is weak. There is a severe trust deficit over the government, cadres and voters aren’t enthused with either the chief minister or the party president, but the biggest threat is a confused Lingayat community,” the leader said. The BJP has banked on Lingayats and Brahmins to be its solid vote bank in Karnataka.
First with BS Yediyurappa’s ouster from the chief minister chair and now in a fix over reservation demands of the Panchamasali Lingayat community, the BJP finds itself in a spot ahead of elections.
In an attempt to offset the damage if the Lingayat community doesn’t back it en masse and to make inroads in its Achilles’ heel — the old Mysuru region — the BJP is looking to woo a section of Vokkaliga votes. Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s visit to Mandya and a show of camaraderie with Nirmalananda Swamiji of Adichunchanagiri Matha — a prominent Vokkaliga matha — is a move in that direction.
Former BJP minister and illegal mining case accused Janardhana Reddy floating his own party and looking to contest polls is a cause of concern for the BJP in some six constituencies in and around Koppal-Ballari. While BJP leaders are confident that Janardhana Reddy won’t win any seat, they worry about his new party eating into the BJP vote share in Gangavathi and neighbouring seats.
The Kalyana Karnataka region is already a worry for the BJP. “We are set to lose close to a dozen seats in the Kalyana Karnataka region if we do not buck up and address the Panchamasali Lingayat issue quickly,” a BJP leader said.
Despite all the challenges, an underconfident BJP is banking on two major factors to work in its favour: An aggressive Hindutva push and the Congress knack for self-sabotage. “Congress infighting is what is working for us. If DK Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah put up a united fight, we have a lot to worry about, but they won’t. The party is looking to defeat Siddaramaiah,” a Karnataka BJP vice president told South First.
Congress’s election to lose
By all accounts, the Congress is poised to emerge as the single-largest party in the upcoming Karnataka elections. The BJP’s own internal survey too suggests the same.
But once bitten by turncoat MLAs, the Congress is cautious. “If we are to be in government for a full term of five years, we have to win 130 seats. Anything less will make it a shaky ground,” a former minister told South First.
Barely three months ago, the Congress in Karnataka was successfully setting the narrative in its favour with cadres gung-ho about the party’s chances. All the enthusiasm among grassroots-level workers that was visible during the Bharat Jodo Yatra has suddenly vanished.
“That is only because there have been no ground-level activities since the Bharat Jodo Yatra passed by. Now the party wants to wait until the candidate list is announced so they can lead the ground initiatives,” a senior office-bearer of the Congress’ election team told South First.
This delay in connecting with the cadres has led to complacency in the party. The not-so-secretive competition between Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar to emerge as chief minister candidate for the party is also impacting the prospects of the Congress, leaders said.
What is working for the party, however, is the consolidation of AHINDA (Kannada acronym for Minorities, Backward Classes and Dalits) voters, especially in Kalyana Karnataka, Central Karnataka, and the Old Mysuru region. Anger against the BJP government in rural areas, especially among SC/ST communities, coupled with Siddaramaiah’s appeal among minorities and backward classes, is helping the Congress bring its non-dominant social engineering back.
Also read: AHINDA consolidation gives Congress the edge
The party is confident that it will improve its prospects by appealing to ‘neutral’ voters. “There are some 20 percent neutral voters in urban areas, which is a cosmopolitan crowd. They don’t vote on caste or community lines but on issues like corruption, inflation, and unemployment. They will vote against the BJP and in effect, for the Congress,” Ramalinga Reddy, working president of the KPCC, told South First.
While wary about the JD(S) hobnobbing with the BJP to sabotage Congress’s chances in seats where victory margins are wafer-thin, Reddy said the party will be able to convince neutral voters to swing the election in its favour.
“In 2013, when there was a pro-Congress wave, my victory margin was 50,000. In 2018, when the trend was in favour of the BJP, my margin dropped to 20,000. I lost 30,000 votes which amounts to 20 percent of the total votes polled. This time again, the trend is in favour of the Congress,” Reddy said, citing examples of many other similar seats.
JD(S) aims to win ‘just enough seats’
The third player in Karnataka politics — JD(S) — is being led into elections by former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy who is on a statewide yatra.
“The JD(S) is not as weak as one might assume. They are consolidating their voters and have even managed to keep their leaders from deserting the party,” the BJP vice president quoted above observed.
The key reason for leaders who already had one foot outside the JD(S) to remain in the party is the opportunity they see in the case of a broken mandate. The JD(S) too is aiming to win just enough seats to bring both the national parties — the Congress and BJP — to the bargaining table to emerge as kingmaker once again.