Karnataka , Kurukshetra of the South

Karnataka , Kurukshetra of the South

It’s a war and not simply a battle that the Congress and the BJP are waging over Karnataka assembly poll in May. Campaigning by Rahul Gandhi, Chief Minister Siddarmaiah and Amit Shah is more of personal vitriolic attacks rather than enunciation of their party’s policies and schemes.

Out of the blue the Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said ‘Amit Shah no Hindu.’ He rubbed in further saying Shah was anti-Hindu, and that the BJP president should first clarify whether he was a Jain or Hindu. Is Amit Shah, a Hindu or Jain, an election issue? And since when Jains have become anti-Hindu? How low will the contestants stoop, this was not only a personal attack on Shah but a gross misrepresentation of the state of relations between Hindus and Jains.

The BJP had also named the chief minister the new Sultan when he  proposed to celebrate Tipu Sultan’s anniversary on November 10 last year.  A stung Shah not to be outdone by the chief minister lashed out at the state government over what he alleged were the killings of BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers under its rule.

Such inflamed passions on both sides is because the May election has been made out to be litmus test for who will win 2019. And for the first time the media cannot be blamed for creating such impression..

Making the May poll an indicator of who will win in 2019 is one of Rahul’s usual gaffes.  How can he be sure that his party will return to power? By trying to alienate Lingayats, there is division among them, the head of their mutt is opposed to the move to separate Lingayats from Hindus and declare them a religious minority.

This move is worse than mandalisatiion, but then Congress has never cared for the country in pursuit of power. The irony is that Lingayats who are 18 per cent of the population can’t help alone to return Congress to power. And Rahul doesn’t seem to care or realise that , Yeddyurappa is a leader of Lingayats.

Dr. S. Settar, Emeritus Professor National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru, an authority on Lingayats said, ‘The Lingayats do not constitute the vote-bank of any particular party, any more, and despite their substantial numbers their votes alone would decide a government. ‘

On the question of Congress gaining because of declaring Lingayats a religious minority, Dr Settar bluntly said all sects and communities are vulnerable to bribes, brandy and questionable bounties, so also this   for  community.’

This is bad news for Rahul whose calculation for his party retaining power in the state was based on the hope that Lingayats will desert BJP and vote en masse for his party candidates.

Both parties have however made the May election a do or die contest. Congress has only one big state and BJP is trying to snatch it from it, to BJP vs Congress in Karnataka Assembly Elections 2018.

Its the only state the BJP has ever won in the south. It’s the only big state the Congress has. Between two evenly matched sides, neither short of ambition, neither shy of playing to sentiments. As the BJP sweeps the map of the country, it’s been a while that the Congress has shown stomach for such a fight. As Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who is leading the Congress charge, calls it a “battle between secularism and communalism”, while pushing for a new religion in the run-up to it, could the state polls set the template for the elections to follow?

‘Clearly, both the parties see the Karnataka elections for what they are. Addressing the BJP media unit a couple of months ago, the party national general secretary in-charge of Karnataka, P Muralidhar Rao said, “After the 2014 parliament elections, we have not lost any elections in any state to the Congress party. The Congress has not won any state where they have been in power since 2014.”

Speaking at the Congress plenary session in New Delhi on March 17, Siddaramaiah declared, “We are all aware the country is looking at Karnataka. This is a going to be a battle between secularism and communalism… It will be a stepping stone for the parliamentary elections in 2019.”

The campaign by the Congress is on the lines of its electioneering in  Gujarat. The highlight of Rahul’s visits has been stopovers at temples and religious mutts, as part of recent Congress efforts to portray itself as a party that believes in a “humanistic” form of Hinduism, as opposed to the BJP’s “communal” one.

On the other hand Amit Shah has been to all the areas visited by Rahul and Siddaramaiah, plus the central Karnataka region (22 seats) and Bengaluru city (28 seats). The highlight of their visits has been stopovers at homes of members of Hindu groups killed under various circumstances. Each of these murders has been projected as the failure of law and order under Congress rule and evidence of the latter’s “anti-Hindu” nature. .

‘ The BJP’s CM face as well as state party leaders have also stayed at slums in cities, like Bengaluru and Mysuru, to win the support of the urban poor who are seen to be allied with the Congress on account of Siddaramaiah’s measures like the Indira Canteens offering low-price meals. This move backfired to an extent after allegations that leaders had special amenities like western toilets installed at some homes prior to the visit.’

One can see that BJP has stepped up its campaigning, its become more aggressive and at the same time more tactical. Amit Shah seems determined to take Karnataka..

For instance, Dalits make up nearly 23 per cent of the population in Karnataka, and the BJP has been targeting a section referred to as the ‘Left Dalits’ or Madigas or untouchables. They are considered most backward, and left out of the State’s benefit umbrella, with the Congress seen as more dominated by leaders from the more creamy ‘Right Dalit’ or touchable Holaya communities, like the Congress leader in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and state Congress president G Parameshwara.

The BJP has also been wooing a prominent Scheduled Caste seer from the Lingayat community, Maddara Channaiah Swamiji of the Maddara Channaiah Mutt in central Karnataka. The seer attended a luncheon hosted for Dalits by Yeddyurappa a few months ago while Shah called on him in the last week of March. There is speculation that the seer is interested in contesting the Assembly elections on a BJP ticket to emerge as a Yogi-like figure in Karnataka.

The BJP has also attempted to woo Dalits with leaders like Yeddyurappa staying at homes of Dalits. Yeddyurappa later organised a meal at his home for Dalit families who had hosted BJP leaders.‘Apart from the Dalit card, the BJP has also launched a strident Hindutva campaign, especially in coastal Karnataka. With many constituencies here with large Muslim populations, the region is ripe for polarisation and has long been a Sangh stronghold.

During his tours, the BJP president has been visiting homes of Hindu party workers killed in incidents of communal murders, and has announced this would continue under a BJP government.

Congress is also fighting hard and has also been trying to broad-base its appeal too, and over the past five years, has promoted Madiga leaders like H Anjaneya, the Social Welfare Minister, while tripling fund allocation, setting aside 24 per cent of the budget allocation for the benefit of SCs, amounting to over Rs 88,000 crore over five years, noted a columnist.

“The Congress has done a lot for Madigas,” the columnist quotes Anjaneya. “Our leaders have been made ministers and important positions have bn given to us. We want to be united behind the Congress.”

But the Congress worry isn’t the Madiga anger alone. It is also staring at a split in its Dalit vote due to an alliance between Mayawati’s BSP and former prime minister H D Deve Gowda’s JD(S). The BSP is contesting in 20 seats and is offering support to the JD(S) in the remaining 204. Though the BSP’s best performance in Karnataka has been 2.74 per cent votes in 2008, and in 2013, its candidates had lost deposits in 174 of 175 seats (getting 0.91 per cent votes), the alliance may do crucial damage to the Congress.

The JD(S), which won 40 seats and got 20.15 per cent votes in 2013, has been consistently losing support, but is expected to hold its ground in the old Mysore district of Mandya, parts of Hassan, and rural Bengaluru, which is populated by Vokkaligas. JD(S) Karnataka chief and former CM H D Kumaraswamy has been on the road, campaigning for six months and was the first to announce a list, of 130 candidates, for the elections.

With the BJP not having a significant presence in Old Mysore, it is the JD(S)    that is the Congress competition here. The BJP has lately tried to make inroads by wooing the erstwhile Mysore royal family of Wodeyars.

There is some speculation that just before the polls BJP and JD(S) which, if it happens, will be a winning combination. Rahul is worried about this possibility.  He has called the JD(S) the B team of the Sangh Parivar. Countering the charge, JD(S) leader Danish Ali has said, “The alliance with the BSP is not aimed at the Congress.”

Due to this lack of depth and width in leadership, and its shrinking support base, the JD(S)’s realistic hopes are repeating its performance of 2013 and winning 40 seats. But with the Congress and the BJP supposed to be in close contest, some analysts feet that there could be hung House, that would give H. D. Gowda the coveted kingmaker’s role.

In that case the satta baazar believes the BJP will regain power, for Gowda  hates Congress.

There is another precedence that doesn’t augur well for the Congress. No party has returned to power in Karnataka for a second term since the Janata Party lead by Ramakrishna Hegde in 1985, and no CM has returned after a full five-year term since Devaraja Urs in 1978, but the Congress is hopeful of beating both these records courtesy ‘a slew of populist schemes unveiled by Siddaramaiah since 2013.’……schemes like Annabhagya (free distribution of rice), Ksheeradhare (subsidy for milk), Vidyasiri (hostel facilities for students), agriculture e-markets, interest-free loans for farmers, reservation for SC/STs in civil contracts, low-cost meals at Indira Canteens in urban areas, free dialysis facilities at all taluk centres etc.

The Congress is also banking on schemes for Dalits, and the raised allocations for minorities to Rs 6,428 crore ov five years. “Karnataka is the only state giving scholarships to all eligible students from minority communities. The number of students availing pre-matric, post-matric and merit-cum-means scholarship has increased from 5.5 lakh to 14 lakh,” the CM said recently.

This push for the minority vote, specifically Muslims who comprise 9 per cent of the population, comes amidst the rise of small start-up parties like the SDPI, the Mahila Empowerment Party (MEP) and the MIM, eyeing the Muslim vote.

The MEP has in recent days made its presence felt in places like Bengaluru by holding rallies and putting up flags and buntings all over the city.Sources said appeals had been made by mosques in response, advising people to cast their votes “wisely” and not be swayed by new parties.

Another big factor in the favour of the Congress is Siddaramaiah’s own image, distinct from the Congress, of a strong leader of backward castes, Dalits and minorities, as well as the party’s relatively controversy-free tenure in power. Allegations of corruption like the alleged illegal denotification of over 400 acres of government land have not stuck.

The BJP campaign is led mainly by Modi and Shah, along with Yeddyurappa. And seem to be drawing good crowds. But so are the rallies of Rajiv and Siddaramaiah. The only difference, and it’s a major difference, is Modi’s oratory and his trait of winning people.

And then there is the stinging retorts and the huge election machinery Shah has built up. Shah said the Karnataka elections, be it a win or loss, will also have a bearing on the 2019 Parliamentary elections. He said the BJP is the only alternative for Siddaramaiah-government in Karnataka, which is “nothing more than an ATM of corruption for the Congress”.

“After the 2014 elections, we’ve removed the Congress from 11 states and I do not see any competition from the Siddaramaiah-government as people have made up their mind to remove the corrupt governance in the state,” he said.

Let’s see if this turns out to be the last famous words.

By Vijay Dutt

 

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