Congress On A Strong Wicket In Karnataka
The first BJP government in the south by the end of its tenure frittered away all its goodwill, handing over the Congress a whiff of victory in the May 5 Assembly polls in the state
Assembly elections in Karnataka looked never this hazy any time in the past. The scene looks fragmented and churning in the political landscape is all too evident.
In the last Assembly elections in 2008, it was largely a triangular fight between the BJP, the Congress and the JD(S). The BJP bagged 110 seats, three short of majority in the 224-member House, but went on to form its first government in the south with the support of five independents.
That, the party squandered a golden opportunity to consolidate its position in Karnataka –in south India in general – is a different story. The BJP looks battered now, what with more than 30 of its MLAs jumping the boat which they believe is “sinking”. Most importantly, the BJP does not have heavyweight B S Yeddyurappa with it now.
Yeddyurappa is seeking to position himself as a “king-maker” in the post-poll scenario and has vowed to decimate the BJP. His party, Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) is focusing on 100 seats and wants to become a “decisive factor” in the state. A Congress-KJP coalition looks a possibility, in case the Congress fails to get majority on its own.
Some poll surveys have claimed that the Congress would form the next government. The Congress last came to power on its own in 1999, when S M Krishna became the Chief Minister.
There has been lots of ticket seekers in the Congress leading to a wave of dissidence. The Congress really struggled hard to finalise the candidates as aspirants lobbied hard. Those who lost out cried foul. Some claimed that money bags got some tickets. But then these are allegations that one hears during ticket distribution. It has happened in the past.
Putting up a united fight is a challenge for the Congress, which has a number of chief ministerial aspirants. It’s no secret that president of Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee G Parameshwara and Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Assembly, Siddaramaiah, don’t see eye-to-eye.
Both tried to accommodate their supporters in the candidates list so that when it comes to crunch in the Congress legislature party, they have more numbers. There are already talks of waning influence of old-guards – M Mallikarjuna Kharge, N Dharam Singh and company.
Karnataka Assembly elections are expected to the precursor to the next Lok Sabha elections which, many political analysts believe, are likely in October-November. April-May next year is not considered an ideal time by the Congress leading the United Progressive Alliance Government at the Centre.
They argue that things would go from bad to worse next year on the economic front, a hot summer and water shortage in parts of the country would be a negative factor, while a poor show in a few state Assembly polls could dent morale of the party’s rank and file.
On the other hand, a victory in Karnataka could provide the Congress a momentum it can ride on.
Karnataka is the first major state to go to polls after Rahul Gandhi became the Congress vice-president. There is a lot of stake for him in this elections. It’s clear that Rahul played a key role in selection of candidates and one could see his “imprint” in the party strategy for the May 5 elections.
A Congress victory in Karnataka is expected to boost the Rahul brand, with the party no doubt keen to project him against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi at the national level.
BJP, meanwhile, is in disarray in Karnataka. It has been jolted by the desertion of more than 30 MLAs, most of whom have joined the KJP. The BJP drew a blank in Bellary in the recent elections to urban local bodies, drawing a blank. A significant section of the party in the district is backing the BSR Congress floated by former BJP minister B Sriramulu.
The BJP is also in bad shape in coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi. And in the Lingayat belt in north Karnataka, Yeddyurappa’s KJP is sure to eat into its votes. In some places, key ministers who served the BJP government are pitted against each other.
In Rajajinagar segment in Bangalore city, Law, Parliamentary Affairs and Urban Development Minister S Suresh Kumar is facing KJP’s Shobha Karandlaje, who was first Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Minister and later become Energy Minister.
In Soraba in Shimoga district, Kumar Bangarappa, son of former Chief Minister late S Bangarappa, is taking on his brother Madhu Bangarappa. In Varuna constituency, Yeddyurappa has fielded his private assistant Siddalingaswamy against Siddaramaiah. The KJP has also fielded Michael Fernandes, brother former Defence Minister George Fernades, in Sarvajnanagar constituency in the city.
Former Minister and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who wielded considerable influence in Bellary and neighbouring districts in the last elections, in is in jail now in a CBI case. His brother G Karunakara Reddy is seeking re-election on BJP ticket from Harapanahalli in Davangere district.
The BSR Congress, which fared poorly in the recent elections to urban local bodies bagging just 86 seats out of the nearly 5,000 up for grabs, sought an electoral alliance with the JD(S) which, however, shot down the proposal.
The BSR Congress has stolen the march over others as far as glamour quotient is concerned. The party has fielded leading Kannada film actress Pooja Gandhi from Raichur and Rakshita Prem, who was also a sought-after heroine not long ago, from Chamarajanagar.
The Congress has not lagged behind on this front. It has lined up leading stars of sandalwood, Ramya, Darshan and Bhavana for campaigning. In addition, it has veteran Kannada actor Ambareesh, who is also contesting from Mandya.
There is intense speculation on whether Modi would campaign in the state, where the BJP is not expected to fare well at the hustings. Will it be a full-fledged campaigning or a “minimum outing” or will he come at all, are the questions in many minds.
Advani last month criticised “wavering and unprincipled handling” of the state during the tenure of Yeddyurappa as Chief Minister.
A sea change in political landscape compared to the elections last time around makes the poll scene exciting but unpredictable. Will the electorate summarily vote out the BJP government? Will they give the opposition Congress a clear majority? Or will there be a fractured verdict?
There are all kinds of probabilities as of now. But one thing appears to be almost certain. Barring a “miracle”, the BJP is not expected to come back to power on its own, given the pronounced anti-incumbency factor and the mess it’s in. The question on everybody’s mind is whether the Congress, widely tipped to emerge as the single largest party, would get a majority on its own or it will have to depend on Yeddyurappa’s KJP to form the government.
Another possibility is a BJP-JD(S) coalition government which cannot be completely ruled out. Politics is the art of the possible. Ultimately, it all depends on how numbers stack up after the results.
Yeddyurappa and master strategist Arun Jaitley from behind the scenes led BJP to victory in Karnataka in 2008. The first time the party came to power on its own in any southern state. Five years later, things have come a full circle and the political climate is certainly not conducive for the party. The former Chief Minister has vowed to decimate the BJP in the May 5 Assembly elections.
Yeddyurappa had to quit in July 2011 after a Lok Ayukta report on illegal mining indicted him. Thereafter, D V Sadananda Gowda, his own nominee for the Chief Minister’s post, turned against him but was forced out of office by Yeddyurappa and his supporters after nearly one year in office.
Yeddyurappa then installed Jagadish Shettar as Chief Minister but the relationship soured between the two in no time. Though BJP government has something to showcase in terms of its achievements and development projects, scams and scandals have overshadowed them showing the party in a poor light.
Writing is on the wall for the ruling BJP, which has itself to blame for the mess. Its five-year-tenure was marked by scandals, scams and internal squabbling making the “party with a difference” a butt of criticism. It’s no exaggeration that the party frittered away a golden opportunity to showcase good governance.
Forget expanding its influence in the South, the party is in a state of disarray and virtually ruled itself out of returning to power on its own. One outside chance it has been fancying now is a post-poll alliance with the JD(S) if the Congress falls short of majority (even after garnering the support of KJP).
And many say dethroning the BJP and defeating some of its leaders are of far more importance to Yeddyurappa than a good performance by his KJP. But the BJP has taken it as a challenge and a battle royale is certainly on the cards, with the opposition Congress now appearing to be in an advantageous position to form the next government in the State.
But things are not that straight forward in the state, and it’s not going to be a cake-walk for the Congress, beset with factionalism and infighting. The Congress has been grappling to finalise its list of candidates. It’s understandable as it received the largest number of applications for tickets. The Assembly election is also seen as an “acid test” for Rahul Gandhi as the country heads for Lok Sabha polls next year. Karnataka is the first major state to go to polls after he assumed the number two post in the country’s oldest party.
Political analysts see Rahul’s “imprint” in Congress strategy, right from the process of selection of candidates. Old guards – S M Krishna, Kharge and Dharam Singh – appear to be out of contention.
Much of the euphoria seen in the BJP camp after winning the polls in 2008 has evaporated. Clearly in disarray after desertion of more than a dozen Ministers and MLAs, the party is fighting with its back to the walls. The ruling party is hoping for an outside chance of coming back to power.
But if the recent elections to urban local bodies are anything to go by, it’s clear that the party has already lost its battle, at least in urban pockets. To say that it faced an uphill task is an under statement. The Congress looks resurgent and raring to go after its resounding performance in the ULB polls and appears set to storm back to power on its own after a gap of nearly one-and-half decades.
Multi-cornered contests generally benefit the Congress but things are no rosy for the party, beset with infighting and groupism.
The BJP recently named Lok Sabha member from Dharwad, Prahlad Joshi, as the party’s state unit president, after incumbent K S Eshwarappa had to quit as per the party’s one-post policy. Eshwarappa continues to be Deputy Chief Minister.
Joshi, a man from organisational and RSS background, is considered to be the choice of senior party leader from state, H N Ananth Kumar, who has consolidated his position in party affairs in Karnataka. Joshi hails from the same region as that of Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar.
There is speculation that Ananth Kumar opted for Joshi as he wanted to contest from Dharwad Lok Sabha constituency, after shifting from Bangalore South, in next year’s Parliamentary elections. Sadananda Gowda was the front-runner for the post. Gowda was later appointed party’s national vice-president.
The JD(S) is hoping for a fractured mandate so that it can play a kingmaker’s role in the post-poll scenario. Old Mysore region – particularly the districts of Bangalore Rural, Ramanagara, Mandya and Mysore besides Hassan – is the stronghold of the party which, however, yielded ground in the recent ULB polls. The party is desperately trying to expand its base in other parts of the state.
In case the BJP flops, which looks a strong possibility as of now, the party has itself to blame. Rather than focusing on good governance and earning the goodwill of the people, the party government was beset with corruption and nepotism charges. It also had the dubious distinction of Yeddyurappa being sent to jail on corruption charges. The image of the party is at the lowest ebb now.
Yeddyurappa’s exit no doubt jolted the party in no small measure. But instead of displaying a sense of urgency to put the party back on track, a section of party leaders continues to indulge in one-upmanship to the detriment of the outfit. BJP leaders appear to have resigned to their fate as far Assembly elections are concerned now.
So, it appears advantage Congress now but rebels could mar the prospects of the party. How the Congress would manage the disgruntled elements who failed to get the tickets is going to be crucial. If the party puts up a united front, the gaddi does not appear far away.
By Rajesh Kamath from Bengaluru