Election Watch: Change is in the air

A lot of factors foretell a Congress victory: voter antipathy, the BJP’s self-goals on reservations, the exodus of its prominent leaders, Karnataka’s electoral record

Cutouts of Congress leaders Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, DK Shivakumar, Siddaramaiah and Randeep Surjewala
Cutouts of Congress leaders Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, DK Shivakumar, Siddaramaiah and Randeep Surjewala

Naheed Ataulla

Strong anti-incumbency undercurrents have given an early impetus to the Indian National Congress in Karnataka ahead of the May 10 elections. The party has also played its cards well since then, putting the BJP on the defensive. The election of Mallikarjun Kharge as party president, a steady exodus of leaders from the BJP to the Congress—with former chief minister Jagadish Shettar the best ‘catch’—and a self-goal by Amit Shah in triggering the Amul– Nandini dairy cooperative controversy have created favourable conditions for Congress.

If the BJP banked on communalism and caste, the Congress has been busy highlighting corruption (‘PayCM’) and cooperatives. The BJP government’s last-minute tweaks of reservation quotas seem to have backfired, antagonising all castes and communities. While the state government has already assured the Supreme Court that it will put reservation for Muslims under the EWS (economically weaker sections) quota on hold, neither the Lingayats nor the Dalits seem to have been placated. The exodus of Lingayat leaders from the BJP to the Congress is indicative of the community’s disillusionment.

The Congress has also stolen the thunder on the caste issue by demanding a caste census and reservation proportional to population numbers. The Bharat Jodo Yatra, which passed through Karnataka, and Rahul Gandhi’s election rally at Kolar on April 16 seem to have bolstered the party’s standing.

The state’s electoral history also makes a BJP victory improbable this time. No incumbent has returned to power in the state in the past 35 years. No political party has returned to power for a second stint since 1985. Since 2004, barring an exception through 2013–18, the people’s mandate has always been fractured, giving rise to coalition governments. In the last election too, in 2018, the BJP fell short of numbers, and had to poach Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) MLAs to form the government.

As for other contenders, the Janata Dal (S) stands accused of pandering to the Deve Gowda family, as seven members of the extended family are said to be contesting on the party’s tickets. Several other parties are in the fray, including the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), making for a crowded and confusing arena. If any of these parties manage to make a dent in a few different regions, the overall result could stand doubtful.

Aware of the pitfalls of poaching from the BJP’s last round, Congress leaders are looking for a comfortable majority. At Kolar, Rahul Gandhi appealed to voters to deny the BJP an opportunity to put ‘Operation Lotus’ in motion. The Congress needed at least 150 of the 224 seats to fulfil its promises and provide a stable government, he said. Congress leader D.K. Shivakumar had earlier expressed confidence that the party was well-placed to win 130 seats.

Priyank Kharge, chairman of communications and social media in the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee, seems confident: “The BJP’s misadventure on reservation by churning up the caste cauldron but not being able to defend it [sic], besides corruption (‘40 per cent sarkara’), price rise, scams in recruitment, not filling up government vacancies and infighting will work to our advantage,’’ he says.

Kharge has consistently criticised the BJP government over the police sub-inspector recruitment scam, which is being investigated by the CID.

The Congress candidates announced so far have generated few controversies, fewer than the BJP’s certainly, and are ‘above the strike rate’. “The party is going to the polls under a collective leadership and will easily win 124 seats,’’ he adds.

Congress MLC and chief spokesperson for the party Nagaraj Yadav says the BJP’s misdeeds are so many that every ministerial portfolio carries the baggage of corruption. Some legislators who had resigned from the Congress and the JD(S) to help former chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa form the government in 2019 are regretting their move. Indeed, one of them, A.H. Vishwanath—formerly of the JD(S), recently undertook a ‘repentance satyagraha’ to atone for the ‘sin’.

The Congress is also likely to do better, Yadav says, in the Mumbai–Karnataka (40 seats in six districts) and central Karnataka (26 seats in four districts) regions, from where the BJP has been winning a majority of the seats. In central Karnataka, BJP MLA Madal Virupakshappa’s arrest by the Lokayukta police for accepting bribes, has affected the BJP’s prospects; and in Mumbai– Karnataka, it’s a divide between the Lingayats and the backward classes, he adds.

The Lingayat community, the main vote bank of the BJP, is unhappy with the new caste reservation. The Lingayat community had demanded to be placed in the 2A category of the reservation quota, which would have entitled them to 15 per cent reservation in education and government jobs. The government, however, placed them in a new category, 2D, and offered them a 7 per cent quota.

In the candidate lists announced so far, the Congress has tried to accommodate more Lingayats. In the past, the party was perceived to have given up on the community’s vote bank after the Congress leadership removed Lingayat leader Veerendra Patil from the chief minister’s post in 1990.

The key role for first-time voters in Karnataka was highlighted in a recent survey by Lokniti, a research project at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). The BJP’s vote share among first-time voters in 2008, the survey revealed, was higher than its average share of votes by 3 percentage points. However, the party fell short of a majority by three seats. Similarly in 2013, when the Congress won, its share among first-time voters was 1 percentage point higher than its average vote share, pointed out election analyst Sandeep Shastri in an article he wrote.

In 2018, the BJP fell short of a majority by nine seats; its vote share among first-time voters was 6 percentage points less than its average share of votes in the state. Significantly, he noted, in both the 2013 and the 2018 elections, the share of first-time voters supporting the JD(S) was 4 percentage points higher than its average vote share. This effect was especially strong in small towns in the state, possibly indicating a growing disenchantment with both the principal parties among the youth.

A new factor this time is the Amul–Nandini controversy. Both Gujarat and Karnataka have strong milk cooperatives and are among the largest milk-producing states. While Amul and Nandini products have been competing against each other in larger cities like Mumbai, they had refrained till now from poaching on each other’s territory. But with Union home minister Amit Shah, who is also in charge of cooperatives, announcing that Amul and Nandini would collaborate with each other, it became a political issue. Amul added to the confusion by announcing the launch of its branded milk and yoghurt products in Bengaluru. The plan has since been put on hold, given the public uproar.

The apprehension that the sale by Amul products was a prelude to a merger played on the fears of dairy farmers and cooperatives in Karnataka. A temporary shortage of Nandini’s milk and yoghurt in the market strengthened suspicions on how the merger would affect the milk cooperatives in the state. Would Amit Shah allow Nandini to sell its products—which sell a lot cheaper than Amul products because they are subsidised by the state government—in Gujarat? This was a question that started doing the rounds. While the BJP has blamed the Congress for politicising an administrative and commercial decision, the Congress has highlighted the encroachment as hurting Karnataka’s pride. How it will play out in the rural areas is not yet known, but the Congress seems to have drawn first blood in the urban context.

The BJP, as usual, has fallen back on Narendra Modi and Amit Shah for its campaign. The Prime Minister is said to have made nine visits to the state in the last four months, inaugurating highways to trains to IITs. True to style, he combined these official functions with political speeches, lashing out at the Congress, speaking of corruption, dynastic politics and nepotism in the Opposition. These familiar tropes, however, seem to be gaining far less traction than earlier, partly because of the fatigue factor but largely because the BJP itself appears equally guilty in the state, if not more.

With barely two weeks to go before campaigning ends on May 8, the BJP is planning 20 more rallies with the PM as highlight. Curiously, details of the huge expenditure incurred by the Karnataka government on the PM’s visits have been appearing in the state’s own Karnataka Gazetteer, to the embarrassment of the BJP.

The PM’s 110-minute visit to Dharwad on March 12, ostensibly to open the IIT campus there, cost taxpayers Rs 9.49 crore, the Gazetteer revealed. Similarly, his visit on February 27 to Shivamogga to inaugurate the new airport and other projects apparently cost the state government a lot more, specifically Rs 36.53 crore.

Can the PM’s presence and attempts at communal polarisation (Tipu Sultan, hijab, namaaz, love jihad, cow, etc.) be enough of an edge for the BJP once more, though? The jury is still out on that question

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