Karnataka Election 2023: Battle joined, with BJP literally on the offensive

Short of EVM fails, K'taka polls will change the nation's political narrative, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge believes; the BJP shuns Muslim voters and 'warns' riots will follow a Congress win

Vidhana Soudha, the seat of the state legislature in Bengaluru (photo: Getty Images)
Vidhana Soudha, the seat of the state legislature in Bengaluru (photo: Getty Images)

Naheed Ataulla

Union home minister Amit Shah told voters in Karnataka last week that riots would convulse the state if the (Indian National) Congress were to be elected.

A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA was quoted as saying that he did not want votes from Muslims.

BJP leader K.S. Eshwarappa declared that while nationalist Muslims were with the BJP, the party had no need of votes from ‘anti-nationals’.

All these statements are violative of the Representation of the People Act, points out Trilochan Sastry, chairman of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). Yet the Election Commission (EC) of India has failed to act.

While a Congress delegation planned to call on the Commission to lodge complaints and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh called out Shah’s disturbing statement as 'brazenly intimidatory', they are not really hopeful of any action, given the Commission’s record in the past few elections. Congress leaders in the state, in private conversations, echo the uneasiness when they say, "We fear EVM manipulation and large-scale deletion of names from electoral rolls. Everything else is in our favour."

Such apprehensions do not seem entirely misplaced, since an independent candidate this week alerted the Election Commission about a phone call he had received, offering voter data for a price. The dubious company, named by the candidate, openly offers sensitive data about voters. It is being investigated whether the company is being used to bribe voters by depositing money into their accounts using UPI (Unified Payments Interface).

A complaint was registered with the police on April 24. Earlier, Congress leaders D.K. Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah had escalated allegations of large-scale deletion of names from the electoral rolls. Even earlier, in November last year, an investigative report published by the news portal thenewsminute.com exposed how another private company had collected personal data, including phone numbers and WhatsApp numbers, by posing as officials from the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike.

The Congress has indeed put its best foot forward in these high-stakes elections. A loss in Karnataka despite favourable circumstances will be a body blow to the party before the general elections of 2024. The stakes are equally high for the BJP, which is determined to retain power because a loss will not only be a loss of face, but will give the opposition the momentum it is looking for.

The desperation is obvious, as Shah calls upon voters to hand over Karnataka to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. "This is not an election to choose MLAs," he said. BJP national president J.P. Nadda also warned that the state would be deprived of Modi's "blessings" if the BJP loses in Karnataka. Referring to Shah’s statement, Jairam Ramesh tweeted that now that it is clear that BJP is losing decisively, Shah’s four-in-one strategy­—namely insult, inflame, incite and intimidate—is becoming clearer.

Congress president Mallikarjun M. Kharge, who hails from the state, also underscores the importance of the Karnataka assembly election this time. The result in Karnataka will change the political narrative in the country, he has been saying at election rallies and in media interactions. The high stakes are also reflected in the seizures being made of unaccounted cash by the Election Commission, meant apparently to bribe voters.

Opinion polls and surveys so far have also given the Congress a clear edge, predicting 120–143 seats in the 224-member Karnataka assembly. The halfway mark is 113. Congress leaders themselves have claimed it is going to be a sweep for the party and predict a minimum of 150 seats. While the hyperbole may well be meant to boost the party workers’ morale, historically Congress has had a strong base in the state. Even in 2018, when the BJP bagged more seats than the Congress, the party secured higher votes, garnering 38.04 per cent of the votes compared to the BJP’s 36.22 per cent. In the last three elections in the state, the Congress won 80 seats (2008), 122 seats (2013) and 78 seats (2018) respectively.

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