Lok Sabha polls: It’s Modi vs Karnataka

The Congress guarantees got goodwill, but really, the people may just have had enough of the Centre’s neglect

Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge addresses a public meeting in Bidar on 24 April (photo: PTI)
Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge addresses a public meeting in Bidar on 24 April (photo: PTI)

Naheed Ataulla

The Lok Sabha polls in Karnataka are not a battle between the Congress and the BJP this time, or even between the Congress and Modi, says veteran political journalist D. Umapathy. In 2024, it is actually Karnataka vs Modi, he feels. The sentiment, amplified in the Congress campaign too, is shared by many, with good reason.

Barely three days before polling for 14 of the state’s 28 Lok Sabha seats on 26 April, the Modi government sought a “week’s time” from the Supreme Court “to do something” about Karnataka’s complaint against the union government. The state had moved the court in March, alleging that the central government had deliberately ignored its need for drought relief. Significantly, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman refuted the charge the very next day.

The Supreme Court bench of justices B.R. Gavai and Sandeep Mehta has to tell the Attorney General of India, “Resolve this amicably. We have a federal structure. Both the Union and the states are equal partners.” The state had sought Rs 18,171.44 crore from the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) six months ago.

The state argued that the Centre’s inaction was violative of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, in which the Manual for Drought Management requires the central government to take a final decision on granting NDRF assistance to a state within a month of receipt of the report from its inter-ministerial central team (IMCT). The IMCT visited Karnataka in October 2023 and submitted its report within weeks.

Charges of deliberately neglecting Karnataka have been made against New Delhi ever since the Congress formed the state government in 2023. The chief minister and the deputy chief minister led an unprecedented dharna in New Delhi on 7 February, alleging discrimination in tax devolution had resulted in a revenue loss of over Rs 45,000 crore in the last four years.

The Congress government accused the Food Corporation of India (FCI) of going back on its commitment to sell it rice for Karnataka’s Anna Bhagya scheme that distributes free rice, of withholding payment of wages under the MGNREGA and denying special grants to the state. Although the state elected 25 BJP MPs in 2019, none of them, the Congress alleged, raised their voice in or outside Parliament to protect Karnataka’s interests.

Other, ‘minor’ allegations included the matter of the Koli community’s inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes list, a promise made by the BJP in 2019 but on which New Delhi is still dragging its feet. The previous BJP state government had also failed to complete several projects initiated during the previous Congress government’s term, including a trauma care centre in Kalaburagi, alleges Priyank Kharge.

A pre-poll survey report released on 16 April by eedina.com, a Kannada digital platform, held the Congress was certain to win nine seats this time and the BJP–JD(S) combine would get seven. The portal, which correctly predicted a Congress sweep in the last Assembly election, believes there is a close contest in the remaining 12 seats, where polling will take place on 7 May, but with the Congress having an edge in 5–7 seats.

The survey also estimated that the Congress may win 13–18 seats and the BJP–JD(S) alliance 10–13 seats. If the Congress can keep up the momentum, it said, the party stood a good chance of winning 18 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats from the state.

Cultural activist Prof. N. Ganesh Devy feels the 2024 Lok Sabha election is crucial for saving Indian democracy and our Constitution: “Voters have realised that not just in Karnataka, but elsewhere too, they have to block the BJP from coming to power.”

After winning just one of the 28 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress this time has a target of bagging 20 seats in the state. Speaking to news agency ANI, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said: “People want change; they want a government of the poor and [they want] unemployment and inflation to come down. We have set a target of winning 15–20 seats and we will definitely win.”

Acknowledging a new aggression in the party’s campaign this time, Umapathy says, “The Karnataka Congress has in the past lacked fire in the belly. The party would always bank on the charisma of Indira Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi and depend on anti-incumbency to do the trick.” But this time, he says, the Congress is displaying a hunger to win.

The party is also more united than in the past, commentators agree, with chief minister Siddaramaiah and the D.K. brothers—D.K. Shivakumar and D.K. Suresh— putting up a more cohesive front alongside Mallikarjun Kharge and others. Umapathy does, however, caution that the contest also resembles a race between a Ferrari and a broken bicycle, alluding to the resource gap between the two parties.

The five guarantees that were promised by the Congress before the Assembly election and since implemented are proving to be a gamechanger, especially those for women—the direct transfer of Rs 2,000 per month to women ‘heading’ poorer families, free rides on state transport buses and free power up to 200 units have earned considerable goodwill.

First-year law student M.A. Jayashree presented a garland made from her free bus tickets to Siddaramaiah while he was campaigning on 22 April . “Thanks to the Congress government’s free travel initiative, I have been able to pursue my studies without any financial strain. I kept all the free tickets and made this garland,” news agency <ANI> quoted Jayashree as saying.

Women, especially in the rural areas and from poorer families, do seem to be rooting for the Congress, as opposed to the wealthier and the more educated electorate in urban constituencies, who seem more inclined towards the BJP. It will be interesting to map the electoral outcome to the class and context divides eventually.

The Congress is banking heavily on the Vokkaliga votes (the community which Shivakumar represents) as well as minorities such as Dalit communities, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the Lingayats to a lesser extent. However, while the Muslim, Dalit and OBC communities see their leader in Siddaramaiah, the Vokkaligas want to see Shivakumar as chief minister.

The BJP has also been kept busy dousing fires in its own home, with open rebellion in several districts. Union minister Shobha Karandlaje had to be shifted from her constituency, Udupi–Chikkamagaluru, to Bengaluru North, with local BJP workers raising slogans of “Go back, Shobha” in both places!

Former chief minister Jagadish Shettar, who returned to the BJP after a brief stay of eight months with the Congress, was also confronted by angry BJP workers.

An emotional sitting MP from the BJP—Pratap Simha, representing the Mysuru–Kodagu Lok Sabha seat—went live on Facebook to taunt the scion of Mysuru’s former royal family, Yaduveer Krishnadatta Chamaraja Wadiyar, who is the new BJP candidate. The MP taunted ‘royalty’ for finally emerging from air-conditioned chambers to engage directly with the people.

Bengaluru North MP D.V. Sadananda Gowda, denied a ticket, warned that the party’s decision to shun candidates representing the Vokkaliga community would impact the BJP in 12 districts, where they have large numbers. 

The most significant rebellion was by former deputy chief minister and a founder of the BJP in Karnataka, K.S. Eshwarappa. Livid that the party denied his son a ticket, he is contesting as an Independent from former chief minister Yediyurappa’s home turf Shivamogga, whence the latter’s son seeks to return to Parliament.

A lot is at stake for the BJP here, hence its alliance with the JD(S), hoping that the stature of former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda and the regional party’s popularity in Old Mysuru will shore up its tally. But will they succeed at transferring votes to each other where it matters?

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