In a sea of green and white flags with the JD(S) symbol of a farmer woman, the yellow and red flag of Karnataka dotted the crowds in Channapatna as HD Kumaraswamy held a roadshow in his bastion on Monday, 8 May. The imagery was a perfect way to sum up the JD(S)’ poll campaign. A farmer-centric campaign with regional pride as its fuel.
Monday was the last day of campaigning for the Karnataka Assembly polls 2023. The 48-hour “silent period” commenced at 6 pm as polling will begin from 7 am on Wednesday, 10 May.
Over the last few months, the three primary parties in Karnataka — the Congress, BJP and JD(S) — have gone all out to woo the voters of the state.
In a generally triangular electoral contest in Karnataka, each of the three parties had their share of hits, misses and challenges in terms of strategy, campaign and messaging.
From a defensive BJP to a narrative-setting Congress, and a charged-up JD(S), the campaign for the Karnataka polls this time was a never-before-seen fight.
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Modi powers a BJP marred by anti-incumbency
For the incumbent BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the single-point of focus of its campaigns. Despite a chief Minister in office, the BJP neither announced a “CM face” nor did it project any regional leader as the face of its campaign.
The BJP’s entire messaging was around Prime Minister Modi, the Union government and its schemes, and the need for a BJP government so that it could work in tandem with the Centre.
Modi’s roadshow over the weekend in Bengaluru was the last push by the saffron party to enthuse its own disillusioned and demotivated core voters to land up at the polling stations on 10 May.
Modi’s rallies and road shows boosted the party’s cadres and motivated disillusioned workers who nursed some grouse against the state-level leadership and the state government for various reasons — including candidate selection, anti-incumbency, disconnect with party and government, etc.
The prime minister’s rallies helped the BJP consolidate its ideological and “Modi” vote bank in an attempt by the party to retain its vote share.
The BJP’s booth-level outreach targeting beneficiaries of Union government schemes was central to its campaign. Booth workers reached out to beneficiaries to stress on the need for a “double-engine government”.
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Throughout its campaign, the BJP attempted to retain and regain its vote share given that its internal surveys suggested that while ideological voters were firmly with the BJP (largely in communally-sensitive seats like coastal Karnataka, Kodagu, and Malnad), voters who choose the party as a political alternative (community votes like Lingayats, Scheduled Caste-Left) could split between the BJP and Congress.
Lingayat strongman BS Yediyurappa campaigned across the state, attempting to retain Lingayat votes in the face of tall leaders from the community like Jagadish Shettar quitting the BJP and joining the Congress.
Controversial statements by leaders, including the likes of Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP National President JP Nadda, other than Modi himself, hit the headlines. The last-minute reservation announcement won BJP some brownie points from Lingayat groups, but desertion of leaders seemed to nullify the gains.
Misses and challenges for BJP
While most of BJP leaders’ speeches revolved around “double-engine” pitch, the “abuse culture” allegation against the Congress gained prominence, with Modi also raking up “terrorism” and “secession” and even asking voters to chant “Jai Bajrang Bali”.
The BJP’s campaign failed to address actual ground issues flagged by voters, such as unemployment, poverty, lowered purchasing power. The absence of local leaders as face of the BJP’s election campaign, with Yediyurappa announcing his retirement from electoral politics, left the BJP campaign severely dependent on Modi.
Outsiders and inexperienced persons — whether in terms of election management, or candidates being parachuted into constituencies in the BJP’s attempt to make the election party- and symbol-centric instead of person-centric in the caste-fueled politics of Karnataka — may have worked against the party in several regions.
The direct result of the attempt was rebellion by aspirants and seniors.
The corruption allegation stuck to the BJP, despite several attempts to shake it off. With polarisation reaching saturation point in traditional belts like coastal Karnataka, the BJP attempted to expand the pitch in the Old Mysuru region with its “Uri Gowda-Nanje Gowda” narrative, but was forced to withdraw following a backlash.
Several of its key leaders, like CT Ravi and V Sunil Kumar, have been tied down to their own seats. With many voters making a clear distinction between the Assembly and Parliament elections, the impact of the “Modi effect” has been limited for the BJP in Karnataka.
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JD(S) regional card and outreach
In Karnataka’s unique political landscape, regional party JD(S), pitted against two big national parties, may have put up its best campaign effort this election.
Led by former chief minister HD Kumarswamy, the Pancharatna Yatre of the JD(S) — which was flagged off much before similar yatres of the Congress and the BJP — outlined the party’s five primary promises. In a massive outreach exercise, Kumaraswamy clubbed the yatre with “grama vastavya” to enable a direct connect with the largely rural masses.
Rebel candidates of other parties joining JD(S) after being denied tickets dramatically increased the party’s chances in more than half-a-dozen seats. Even in seats where the JD(S) has no cadre, leader or candidate, rebel candidates are now contesting on the party symbol.
With his line “a vote to JD(S) is a vote to Kannadiga”, Kumaraswamy amped up the party’s regional pride pitch, blunting the Congress’s regional identity plank against the BJP’s national identity push.
In a blend of the old and new, Kumaraswamy went back to basics with his physical outreach to voters, even as the party adopted technology and professional help for political consultancy, electioneering and social media to get its messaging out.
And all of this, as he maneuvered rumblings within the JD(S) first family over ticket distribution.
The HD Deve Gowda factor remains the single-most powerful vote catcher for the JD(S), and the former prime minister campaigning across the state at his age left JD(S) supporters and baiters in awe.
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Resource crunch, lack of statewide reach mars JD(S) effort
A resource crunch has been the JD(S)’ biggest drawback for decades now, and this election was no different.
Despite the support it is said to have received from “friendly” parties like the BRS of Telangana, a cash-strapped JD(S) found it difficult to match the spending power of the two national parties. Unlike the BJP and Congress, JD(S) doesn’t have as much money and muscle power to plough through seats, individual candidates excluded.
Given the limited resources, the party only focused on a select number of seat. The lack of a statewide presence for the JD(S) was also a challenge for the party whose strength lies in the Old Mysuru region and parts of Kalyana Karnataka.
With the focus just on about 45 seats, the JD(S) can at best play second fiddle to one of the two national parties — another drawback for the party.
Pre-poll surveys showing hung verdict with a Congress edge threatens a party with a lot of fence-sitters. Especially those waiting to choose between the JD(S) and the Congress, thanks to the pre-poll survey predictions, could end up picking the latter.
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Guarantees add shine to Congress campaign
Not waiting for the manifesto and announcing its five primary “guarantees” one after the other put the Congress in the driver’s seat in terms of narrative-setting in Karnataka this election.
The party’s blitzkrieg campaign over corruption allegations firmly put the BJP on the backfoot, leaving the saffron party’s on the defensive during the entire campaign.
The one time the BJP, led by Prime Minister Modi, tried to set the narrative of “abuse culture” going against the Congress following AICC President Mallikarjun Kharge’s “poisonous snake” comment, the Congress doubled down and accused Modi of “crying”.
The five guarantees and the Congress’ groundwork to get the message out to voters found resonance, especially among women. In about 112 seats out of Karnataka’s total 224 seats, women outnumber male voters and the Congress is hoping to get a significant portion of their votes.
Focused, local-level campaigns by state leaders worked to the advantage of the Congress this election — in stark contrast to the BJP. At the state level, AICC President Mallikarjun Kharge, who is from Karnataka, tactfully played the “son of soil card”.
With Siddaramaiah, DK Shivakumar, Parameshwar, MB Patil, UT Khader, and KJ George, the Congress could boast of leaders from all communities leading campaigns. Despite the rumblings within the Congress over factionalism and groupism, the party’s leadership managed to conceal the dissent from the public eye closer to the election.
Anti-incumbency against the BJP worked in favour of Opposition parties, but the Congress’ biggest success story this election campaign was it decision to go on the offensive and push BJP on the defensive.
The Congress was willing to take risks, like it did by announcing its intent to ban the Bajrang Dal, fully aware of its repercussions and making the best of it.
While the BJP used this to fuel its Hindutva pitch and further consolidate ideological voters in coastal Karnataka, the Congress simply saw in it an opportunity to consolidate minority community votes across the state, a portion of which it could have lost to the JD(S).
The support the Congress found from civil society groups should be credited to the Bharat Jodo Yatra led by Rahul Gandhi, when NGOs, activists, and civil society leaders showed solidarity with the march and continued to back the party during its poll campaign.
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What didn’t fly for Congress
For a party that is patting itself on the back for a sustained and impactful campaign, Congress’ own leaders agree that the pick of candidates in more than a dozen-and-a-half seats was problematic.
In seats like Shidlaghata, Pulakeshinagar, and Mangaluru North, several leaders of the Congress believe things were made more challenging than they needed to be. Rebellion over ticket has also set the party back in some seats, giving an advantage to the JD(S).
The biggest failure of the Congress this election, however, was its inability to create a wave in its favour despite the heavy anti-incumbency against the BJP.
The party is heavily dependent on what it deems is an “undercurrent”. Despite being a national party, the Congress had a huge gap in its ground outreach, especially as the booth level, and was no match for the BJP’s election machinery at that level.