The Congress enjoys a slight edge in the fragmented political landscape of Karnataka, where the May 5 Assembly elections are expected to throw up some surprises. By RAVI SHARMA

A SERIOUS phase of political uncertainty grips Karnataka as it gets ready for elections to the 224-seat State Assembly on May 5. The main contenders for power, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), and the fledgling Karnataka Janatha Paksha (KJP), launched in December by former BJP leader and Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, have their own sets of worries.

Yet, it must be said that the Congress is by far better placed than its political rivals to get a fair share of the seats though it is not likely to hit the magic figure of 113. With the Lok Sabha elections less than a year away and elections to the Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh Assemblies coming up by the year end, the Congress expects the Karnataka results to be the forerunner of good tidings. Not only will a good showing in Karnataka help the party make up for the anti-Congress mood prevalent in many parts of the country but, more importantly, it will help propel the grand old party towards a third consecutive run at the helm of the country. The Congress stands to benefit from the absence of any real political wave in Karnataka; besides, the rampant corruption that has beset the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by it at the Centre is not likely to be a determiner of electoral outcome here.

According to political pundits, the Karnataka elections will be determined by factors such as local influences, the candidates’ capability to deliver, the stability of the government promised, and, more than anything else, money power and caste identities.

Predicting the results of an Assembly election in India can be tricky business even for the most wizened journalist, political analyst or psephologist. But as campaigning hits the ground in Karnataka, one can say with finality that the incumbent BJP will not secure the largest number of seats. That honour will most likely go to the Congress, whose managers have been heartened by the party’s showing in the March 7 urban local body (ULB) elections. The Congress won 1,960 of the 4,952 wards and emerged as the single largest party in 69 of the 207 ULBs.

However, depending on the number of seats short of a majority, the Congress will have to bank on independents, or even the JD(S) or the KJP, for support to form the government. But such support, as was amply demonstrated by the JD(S) in 2004 and 2006 (when the party formed coalition government with the Congress and the BJP respectively), will come with some pitfalls. Neither the KJP nor the JD(S) led by H.D. Deve Gowda and his son H.D. Kumaraswamy will be willing to be bought off cheaply. The price they will demand is power far in excess of the seats they win.

But first, the Congress managers have to complete the onerous task of seat distribution. Tricky at most times, the task has become even more so since the party, thanks to it being the pre-election favourite, has become a lightning conductor for power-hungry aspirants whose only aim is to be with the winner. Although the Congress has unusually taken the lead in announcing the names of short-listed candidates, there has been much heartburning and melodrama, with hopefuls and their supporters storming the party office. There was also the sorry spectacle of a disappointed ticket aspirant immolating himself.

A senior Congress leader told Frontline that ticket distribution became further complicated because the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president G. Parameshwar asked each ticket seeker to pay Rs.10,000 towards the party fund. When the “ticket for sale” issue was taken to the Karnataka High Court, Parameshwar explained to the media that it was only a processing fee. But far more problematic than the legal implications of this fee collection is the fact that the Congress, having received over 2,200 applications, had to perforce disappoint more than 1,900 aspirants. Many of them, with political and financial clout, have turned rebels.

A senior party functionary explained: “In order to find ‘good, winnable’ candidates, we had asked for reports from block- and district-level Congress committees. We had also sent observers. When this was being done, there was no justification for asking aspirants to file applications. Applicants who have not secured a seat are now causing problems. Loyalty, a cherished value in the party, is long gone. Today, power is the only criterion. Most of my fellow applicants lack principles and values. Having been denied the ticket, they have started working against the party.”

Another factor causing stress for the Congress is the numerous chief ministerial aspirants. Siddaramaiah, M. Veerappa Moily, Mallikarjuna Kharge, N. Dharam Singh, and R.V. Deshpande are all in the race. However, one of them explained, “the Congress does not recognise anyone as its chief ministerial candidate before the elections”. Several Congressmen, notably Siddaramaiah (Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly), C.M. Ibrahim and B.L. Shankar, who crossed over to the party from the JD(S) a few years ago, are still viewed as outsiders. It is to be seen how the party high command handles this issue.

BJP’S troubles

The BJP has more troubles than the number of spines on a prickly pear. By declaring that Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar will lead the party campaign, the high command may have solved one prickly issue. But incumbency brings its own set of problems. Party bosses grappling issues relating to ticket distribution (most of the sitting legislators, including the three MLAs who were caught watching pornographic clips in the Assembly, have been renominated) have realised party discipline cannot be imposed through old-fashioned bullying or by invoking ideology. Money and caste are what count.

The saffron party prided itself on being a “party with a difference” when it came to power in May 2008, winning 110 seats, largely benefiting from an electorate that wanted stability after two failed coalitions and a wave of sympathy for the BJP’s then poster boy, Yeddyurappa, who was denied his turn to be the Chief Minister for the remaining 20 months of the JD(S)-BJP coalition government. It even had visions of making Karnataka its political springboard to conquer the south, but the dream turned sour. After all, the electoral victory in Karnataka was the first ever for the party in a southern State. But the BJP’s Pandora’s box was ever ready to throw up some of the worst possible scandals and controversies.

The BJP’s script went wrong right at the beginning. Led by Yeddyurappa, it emerged as the single largest party in the 2008 elections. But through the infamous “Operation Lotus”, the party lured Congress, JD(S) and a few independent legislators into its fold to form the government. The party’s overwhelming dependence on and patronage of the Bellary iron ore mining mafia led by G. Janardhana Reddy, his two brothers and some of his associates kicked up another controversy. Janardhana Reddy, who was a Minister in the Yeddyurappa Cabinet, is the key accused in the case of financial wrongdoings by his Obulapuram Mining Company and has been in the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation since September 2011. Yeddyurappa was himself indicted by the then Karnataka Lok Ayukta, N. Santosh Hegde, in July 2011 in the illegal mining scandal, which is alleged to have caused a Rs.25,000-crore loss to the exchequer. This forced a prevaricating BJP leadership to finally remove him from office. But the damage to the party’s image had been done. Yeddyurappa’s reign was known for internecine battles, nepotism, caste politics and sex scandals.

Yeddyurappa’s hand-picked successor D.V. Sadananda Gowda, a Vokkaliga, took over in August 2011, but his tenure lasted hardly a year. He walked the tightrope between the wishes of strongman Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s central leadership, and factions within the State unit. In July 2012, he was replaced by Shettar, who like, Yeddyurappa, is a Lingayat, as the party did not want to displease a politically, economically and numerically strong community.

Agreeing that combating the disastrous 3Ds—dissidence, desertions and deceit—had distracted the BJP from providing good governance, Sadananda Gowda opined that it was good that the blackmailers (in an obvious reference to Yeddyurappa) had left the party.

The party has coined a new slogan, “Development is the aim—BJP is the way”, and has vowed not to abandon its Hindutva ideology. The BJP is trying hard to give its political fortunes a boost by wooing back urban voters (the party failed to provide infrastructure or adequate civic amenities in the cities and towns) and holding on to the Lingayats, a community that is predominant in 96 constituencies in the northern districts.

But the BJP will have to contend with the KJP. Though regional parties have never fared well in Karnataka (even political giants such as D. Devaraj Urs, R. Gundu Rao, Ramakrishna Hegde and S. Bangarappa were rejected by the electorate), the KJP, which is contesting around 175 seats, will in all probability eat into the BJP’s vote. According to party supporters, the KJP hopes to win around 30 seats in the Lingayat-dominated constituencies. “We know that we will not get a majority, and neither will the BJP. Besides destroying the BJP’s chances, we also aim at ensuring that the Congress does not get more than 100 seats. They will then be forced to seek our support or that of the JD(S),” a party leader said.

The JD(S) draws most of its support from the old Mysore area. But the party, which is seen more as a Deve Gowda family business with six of his kin in the fray, will be happy to better its 2008 tally of 28 seats. Faulty seat distribution by the Congress will certainly help the JD(S).

Another outfit in the fray is a party that claims to belong to poor workers and peasants (Badavara Shramikara Raitara Congress), founded by B. Sriramulu, who was a business associate of Janardhana Reddy and was Health Minister in the Yeddyurappa government. Seat-sharing talks between the outfit and the JD(S) failed. The party will be lucky if it wins a handful of seats.