The Congress enjoys an edge over its rivals and the BJP is not willing to go down without a fight. But, in the end, it may be a hung Assembly in Karnataka. By RAVI SHARMA and VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED

WHAT the political parties of Karnataka could not collectively achieve a high-intensity explosion set off allegedly by a banned Islamist outfit just 100 metres from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) headquarters in Bangalore on April 17 was able to: it brought centre stage the May 5 elections to the State Assembly.

The State was reeling under sweltering heat, with the temperature hovering around 40° Celsius. Politicians blamed the muted response of the electorate to the campaigns on the insufferable summer and “an overzealous Election Commission”, whose hawk-eyed officials were seizing liquor and unaccounted currency and booking “paid news” cases across the State. But the crucial factor that has kept the run-up to the elections lacklustre is the lack of issues and choices in terms of manifestos, promises and candidates.

In terms of electoral prospects, what appears certain is that the BJP will lose its first and only citadel in southern India—not because its main contender, the Congress, is seen as a better alternative but because the saffron party bungled badly during its five years in power. The Congress is struggling to establish a rapport with the voters and keep its large flock together. The prospect of a hung Assembly looms large.

Election 2013 will witness a few close four-cornered and even multi-cornered contests, thanks to the presence of two fledgling regional outfits, the Karnataka Janatha Paksha (KJP) of the BJP’s former poster boy and Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa and the BSR Congress of former BJP Minister B. Sriramulu. The big fight will, however, be a triangular one between the Congress, the BJP and the Janata Dal (Secular), or a straight contest between the Congress and the BJP. While the Congress continues to bank on its time-tested support base of backward castes, Dalit and minorities, the BJP hopes to retain the support of upper-caste (Brahmin/Lingayat) and urban voters. Yeddyurappa has tried to woo the minorities and Dalits, but he is largely banking on the support of the Lingayat community to which he belongs. The Lingayats are concentrated in most of the 90 seats in the Mumbai-Karnataka (50 seats) and Hyderabad-Karnataka (40 seats) regions. Indications are that Yeddyurappa, whose primary intention is to spoil the BJP’s chances, will only achieve that and will not pick up the clutch of seats he hopes to win. His party has very little presence in the coastal area (which accounts for 19 seats) and in the Old Mysore region (59 seats). In order to upset Yeddyurappa’s Lingayat support, the BJP has named Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar as its chief ministerial candidate.

The other regional outfit, the JD(S), has a strong base among Vokkaligas, the dominant community in the Old Mysore districts (Bangalore Rural, Ramanagara, Chikkaballapur, Kolar, Chamarajanagar, Tumkur, Mandya, Mysore, Hassan and Kodagu) and sections of the minorities and agriculturists. It hopes to retain and also make substantial gains in the Old Mysore areas, even in the Congress’ bastions.

Karnataka Pradesh Congress president G. Parameshwar put it succinctly when he described the 2013 elections as “Congress versus the rest”. But both the Congress and the rest face serious divisions in their ranks. While the Congress is facing rebellions after a botched seat distribution exercise in which each of its many leaders wanted to have as many of his or her own nominees as possible, the BJP has lost Yeddyurappa and the influential Reddy brothers of Bellary.

The Congress, for whom these elections are the best chance to return to power in Karnataka (it last won a majority in 1999), has not named its chief ministerial candidate. This has resulted in a growing number of aspirants, who include the Kuruba (which is the third largest community in Karnataka) leader Siddaramaiah, Parameshwar, Union Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge, Uttara Kannada’s R.V. Deshpande, the veteran politician from Davanagere Shammanur Shivashankarappa, and former Chief Minister N. Dharam Singh.

Although the BJP has celebrated the exit of Yeddyurappa and the Bellary brothers from its ranks, it is to be seen how much this will actually affect its vote share. The party’s vote share, 3.88 per cent in 1985 when it won two seats, steadily rose to 16.99 per cent (40 seats) in 1994, 20.69 per cent (44 seats) in 1999, 28.33 per cent (79 seats) in 2004, and 33.86 per cent (110 seats) in 2008. To achieve this growth, the party had to make certain compromises.

For instance, in 2008, it welcomed the Reddy brothers (G. Janardhana Reddy, G. Somasekhara Reddy and G. Karunakara Reddy), who had nothing in common with the BJP’s ideology, into the party. It also made “lateral adjustments” with regional satraps—such as Umesh Katti (in the Belgaum area), Murugesh R. Nirani (in Bagalkot), V. Somanna (Bangalore) and Basavaraj Bommai (in Haveri)—where the party did not have a good base or winnable candidates. Katti, Nirani, Somanna and Bommai continue to be with the BJP, but only after adopting tough postures and making threats to quit. The BJP has found it difficult to find winnable candidates in Bellary district.

In 2008, the BJP polled 88.58 lakh votes (33.86 per cent) and won 110 seats. The Congress polled 90.91 lakh votes (34.76 per cent) but won 80 seats, while the JD(S) polled 49.59 lakh votes (18.96 per cent) and won 28 seats. Independents secured 6.81 per cent of the vote and crucially won six seats. In the coming elections, 1,223 independents, many of them Congress rebels, are in the fray.

A point the Congress should be wary of is that while it emerged as the single largest party in terms of vote share in 1999, 2004 and 2008, in terms of absolute votes cast, its share did not improve although the electorate increased by around 39 lakh between 1999 and 2008.

The Congress has fielded its candidates in all the 224 seats. It has accommodated sons, sons-in-law and brothers of senior leaders, such as Mallikarjuna Kharge, Veerendra Patil, Dharam Singh, C.K. Jaffer Sharief and party functionaries B.K. Hariprasad and Shivashankarappa, in 20 seats. The BJP has nominees in 223 constituencies. Its official candidate did not file his papers for the Malur seat, leaving it for the independent candidate, former Minister S.N. Krishnaiah Shetty. The BJP was unable to accommodate him in its list since there is a charge sheet filed against him. The KJP is contesting 216 seats and the JD(S) 222. All across the State, the voters’ lament is that “we have very little choice”.

During its term, the BJP was preoccupied with dealing with infighting, denying charges of corruption and nepotism, and changing Chief Ministers. Its first Chief Minister Yeddyurappa had to be pushed out as he refused to quit even after he was indicted in the iron-ore mining scam. That the party did survive a full term is more a testimony to the ineffectiveness of the opposition, which did not have the courage to take on the corruption-riddled dispensation, than to any political acumen of the saffron party. The change of Chief Ministers (Yeddyurappa, D.V. Sadananda Gowda and Jagadish Shettar), the criminal and other charges against more than a dozen Ministers, and the failure to curb the strident right-wing outfits which were indulging in moral and communal policing, vigilante attacks on cattle transporters and bullying of mediapersons for not toeing the saffron line took their toll on the party’s image.

BJP leaders such as Sadananda Gowda are of the view that with Yeddyurappa and the Bellary brothers out of the BJP, voters will “once again trust it”.

Capt (retd) Ganesh Karnik, a BJP Member of the Legislative Council, said: “Being in government allowed us to network better with the bureaucracy and bring in policy changes. We had to be in government for visibility. We gained politically but lost ideologically. The core of the party became disillusioned. But we have taken corrective steps and will do well in these elections.”

However, there are others, including senior Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) functionaries, who feel voters should punish the party if only “to teach the BJP leadership that the party is as good or as bad as any other political outfit”. A senior RSS functionary said that the party’s central leaders, “busy with their own problems”, had failed to manage Yeddyurappa. “The fear of alienating the numerically and socially powerful Lingayats prevented them from taking any action against him. At the height of the Yeddyurappa crisis, the then BJP national president Nitin Gadkari did not even call a meeting of the party’s core committee to discuss the issue. He was happy with the funds that were being provided by Yeddyurappa. The problem was so serious that even some RSS functionaries, thanks to the favours they had received from Yeddyurappa, were under his influence and were scared of taking action against him lest he should expose them. Yeddyurappa himself, thanks to the wafer-thin majority of his government, was vulnerable. He tried to manage the various groups in the government by playing one against the other. For some time it lasted, but they caught on and caused problems. Yes, corruption was an issue,” he said.

But, corruption, the bane of the BJP government, has not been projected as a major election issue by the BJP’s political rivals. Congress leaders, who otherwise ridicule the BJP government for the lack of governance and development, are not raking up the issue of corruption. The State Congress leadership does not want to be confronted with embarrassing questions about the coalition led by the party at the Centre, which is embroiled in scams and scandals.

North Karnataka and Lingayats

In north Karnataka, the election heat is being felt by all major political parties. While there is a definite trend in favour of the Congress, the BJP, if it goes down, will not do so without a fight. In 2008, of the 96 seats in the region (including Uttara Kannada), the BJP won 57.

From the commercially vibrant city of Hubli to the relatively backward towns of the Deccan plateau such as Gulbarga and Bidar and down to the iron-ore rich regions of Bellary, it is the Lingayat community that provides the decisive electoral edge.

Most of the early Chief Ministers of Karnataka were from this region. The dominance of Lingayats in the State’s politics continued until Devraj Urs’ backward caste coalition in the 1970s dented the influence of that community. In the 1980s, Lingayats supported Ramakrishna Hegde, a well-regarded leader of Lingayats even though he was a Havek Brahmin, and helped in the formation of the first non-Congress government in the State. Through the 1990s and 2000s, there was an impression that the community stayed away from the Congress although the party won 60 seats in the region in 1999 (when there was a general wave in favour of the Congress). In 2008, one of the factors often cited to have helped the BJP’s impressive showing was the strong mobilisation of Lingayats under the leadership of Yeddyurappa. Matihalli Madan Mohan, a senior journalist, said: “Yeddyurappa inherited the mantle of Ramakrishna Hegde as the tallest leader of Lingayats.”

Yeddyurappa’s KJP has entered into strategic alliances with members of the original 1990s Janata Parivar in Gulbarga, which might help it increase its vote share in the area. The KJP is expected to do well in Haveri and Shimoga. While Yeddyurappa will certainly get elected from Shikaripur, his position in the post-election scenario is uncertain. As in other parts of the State, Muslims, Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) form the traditional support base of the Congress in north Karnataka, too. Local Muslim notables whom Frontline spoke to said that Muslims would probably vote for the Congress as there was no alternative. “The Muslim leadership in the State is usually Bangalore-based, and local Muslim leaders have not been nurtured,” said Rafi Bhandari, a Bijapur-based journalist with Salar, a leading Urdu daily. In Bijapur City, for instance, where Muslims constitute 35 per cent of the electorate, a new Muslim face has been fielded.

Jagadish Shettar is certain that voters will give the BJP another chance as its only focus has been development. He told Frontline on his campaign trail that he was confident that the party would get a simple majority on its own. “We will get between 120 and 135 seats,” he said. But his confidence might be misplaced as the BJP’s future depends on the extent to which Lingayat votes remain with the party.

The JD(S) won nine seats in north Karnataka (five in Bombay-Karnataka and four in Hyderabad-Karnataka) in 2008. The party does not have a mass base in the region. Over the past year, the party has tried hard to change its image as a Vokkaliga party and has liberally distributed the ticket to Lingayats and Muslims. Basavaraj Horatti, JD(S) MLC, is optimistic that the anti-Lingayat image of the party is a matter of the past as its leader H.D. Kumaraswamy has been actively campaigning in the region.

Hyderabad-Karnataka, which includes five districts of north-eastern Karnataka, scores poorly on all indicators of development. While development has not been a vital issue in the past elections, with voters choosing candidates on the basis of caste and community affiliations, the passage of the landmark Constitutional Amendment (Article 371-j) to provide backward status to the area will add to the allure of the Congress.

Mallikarjuna Kharge, who represents Gulbarga in the Lok Sabha and who is credited with having pushed the amendment through, told Frontline: “The amendment provides reservation for people of the region in education and employment and will help us.” But Kharge fumbled for an answer when asked why the party had not managed to nurture a senior Lingayat leader from north Karnataka.

Kharge, a nine-time MLA, is a strong contender for chief ministership. But when asked whether he was an aspirant, he responded jokingly: “Bakrid mein bache toh, Muharram mein nachenge.” (If the sacrificial goat escapes on Bakrid, it will dance on Muharram.) He was implying that the Congress had to win the elections first before speculating on who would be the Chief Minister.

While the Congress enjoys a definite edge, it may lose certain key constituencies because of infighting. For instance, Bellary City seat, one of the two general category seats in the district, had four major aspirants from the Congress.

Anil Lad, a controversial mine owner, finally got nominated for the seat, and the other hopefuls are miffed and may not support the Congress campaign. There are several such constituencies where the Congress is plagued by infighting. A senior Congress leader had identified the problem when he told Frontline: “The Congress still functions through the age-old systems of patronage which does not recognise new leaders.”

Bellary is the base of the BSR Congress. Sriramulu launched the party with the blessings of the jailed mining baron Janardhana Reddy after he walked out of the BJP. The party, which attracted some initial support, has seen an exodus of sorts and retains its influence only in some pockets of the district where Valmiki Nayaka, a Scheduled Tribe, has some presence. Voter response to it in the recent urban local body elections was lukewarm.