Karnataka Election 2023: Will the anti-incumbency effect help Congress win?

Caste, corruption and 'revdi culture' are the other cards on the table. Despite the anger at Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, observers believe the intensity of anti-BJP sentiment is inconsistent.

Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai still retains pockets of popularity (photo: Getty Images)
Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai still retains pockets of popularity (photo: Getty Images)

Naheed Ataulla

While the BJP is battling the anti-incumbency history in the state, political observers are divided on the intensity and spread of such undercurrents. Communication by the Congress has so far been effective in stamping the image of a corrupt BJP government among voters, with its current campaign centred on the '40 per cent sarkara' and the earlier 'PayCM' campaign.

Some observers, however, believe that while there is anger directed at Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, the intensity of anger against the BJP is not equally strong across the state. The BJP's 'experiment' of denying tickets to 18 sitting MLAs and fielding 72 relatively younger, new faces is also designed to manage the anti-incumbency trend.

The party has also been trying to extend its support base beyond the Lingayat community. Proposals to project a Lingayat candidate as the party’s chief ministerial face (Chief Minister Bommai is one) after Lingayat stalwarts like Jagadish Shettar and Laxman Savadi quit the party were turned down by Shah on the grounds that it would lead to non-Lingayats massing against the party. Indeed, the BJP has paid great attention to caste arithmetic even in coastal Karnataka, shelving its communal agenda there.

Greatly embarrassed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filing a closure report and describing the death of an 18-year-old youth in 2017 as an 'accident', the BJP has gone all out to woo the Billava community in the region. A Billava Development Corporation has been set up and schools, bus stands and the Lady Hill Circle in Mangaluru have been named after the community’s icon Narayana Guru and two folk heroes revered by the community.

Out of the 19 seats in the coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada, BJP had won 16 in 2018, riding on a blatantly communal campaign. This is the region where RSS affiliates had experimented with campaigns against 'hijab, halal and love jihad'. Even in 2023, the party is highlighting the ban on the Popular Front of India (PFI) as an achievement, telling voters that a Congress government would lift the ban on the Islamic group. However, a lot more emphasis is being laid this time on managing caste considerations and on an outreach to Christians in the region.

The Congress has countered the moves with the promise of a Coastal Development Authority, promoting Mangaluru as the next IT and garment hub and a Narayana Guru Development Board for rehabilitating those engaged in brewing liquor and shendi, a drink extracted from the sap of the palm tree.

While preparing regional manifestos on similar lines, the Congress has promised 'Four Guarantees' across the state. These are: a monthly allowance of Rs 2000 to women; 200 units of electricity free; 10 kg of rice to BPL (below the poverty line) families; and Rs 3000 to be given to unemployed graduates for two years and Rs 1,500 to those with a diploma. It is banking on the 40-4-40 formula (the '40% commission government' charge, the Congress' own 4 guarantees, conceding no more than 40 seats to the BJP).

The BJP is hoping for the mood to change in the next two weeks, especially after Modi, who is expected to address 20 rallies before the May 10 polling, begins his campaign on April 30. All hard feelings will be neutralised following visits from Modi, Shah and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, party leaders believe. "The scenario will change completely from May 1," predicts N. Ravi Kumar, BJP MLC and the Karnataka state unit’s general secretary.

In the meantime, PM Modi has referred to the Congress Guarantees as 'revdi culture' (freebies to win the electorate) that will "submerge the state in debt".

Former MP Rahul Gandhi conceded the PM was right in saying such guarantees could not be implemented—adding that "[a] government which loots 40% commission" certainly could not, explaining the BJP's party line to stay away from such promises.

Observers in turn have recalled BJP's Agresar Gujarat Sankalp Patra 2022 manifesto in Gujarat, mirroring the Congress manifesto for free education; a promised doubling of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Aryogya Yojana allotment from Rs 5 lakh to 10 lakh; and avowal of two free liquid petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders for women — all this as recently as end of 2022.

It would seem, then, that one politician's 'revdi' is another's social welfare scheme.

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