The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have expectedly put in every possible effort and resources into the Karnataka election. Their desperation to win forced them to declare Yeddyurappa as its chief ministerial face and bring back the tainted Reddy brothers to campaign.
The desperation shows. The South with 130 seats in the Lok Sabha has become even more crucial because of the ground BJP is losing in Uttar Pradesh. The loss of byelections in Gorakhpur and Phulpur—constituencies won and then vacated by BJP’s Chief minister and the Deputy Chief Minister in UP—signalled the writing on the wall.
But despite its best efforts, there are six reasons why the BJP is unlikely to win Karnataka:
The 2011 census put the state’s population as 6.15 crore, out of which around 83% are Hindus, tempting one to conclude that the demography of Gujarat and Karnataka is not very different. However, in Karnataka 17% of the population belong to Scheduled Castes and 7% to the Scheduled Tribes. Besides, the Brahmanical order of the RSS leadership and the language barrier has also made the SC and STs in Karnataka more alienated from upper caste Hindus and even Lingayats. Thus, the generalisation that all Hindus prefer the BJP does not seem to work in the state. The Dalit-upper caste clashes of recent years in many BJP-ruled states and cases like the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula have also led SCs to have second thoughts about the BJP. Nor does the minority community, which constitutes 15% of the population see the BJP, as the party of their choice. The smaller caste groups belonging to the OBC fold and comprising roughly a quarter of the population also don’t like the dominance of the big castes like Lingayats and Vokkaligas. This also weighs against prospects of the BJP in Karnataka.
BJP is still perceived as a North Indian Party in the southern states and the events of the past four years have cemented the perception. Be it the controversies on beef or the primacy of the Hindi language, the Modi Government is seen as the force promoting the agenda of the RSS. The way of life defined by the RSS’s Hindutva is still somewhat alien to Kannadigas. What also works against the BJP is that North Indians living in Bengaluru and elsewhere in the state are largely youth who are uncomfortable with the moral policing done by Hindutva outfits. This section may well root for Narendra Modi as PM but are not necessarily enthusiastic about BJP rule in Karnataka.
Like every sportsperson, every politician peaks and then declines. In the case of Yeddyurappa, he seems to have passed his prime while Siddaramaiah is clearly peaking. The taint of corruption for spending time in jail has stuck with Yeddy permanently. The BJP is claiming that the taint has been cleared by a court of law, but politics is more about perception and less about technicalities. In this context, it is not easy to wipe out the taint on the former CM from the political narrative. The eight nominations given to the Reddy brothers and associates might have been necessary to win in Ballari, but the signal of the return of Reddy brothers and their cronies may well harm the prospects of BJP even in urban areas, where BJP is more comfortable. As an administrator also, Siddaramaiah appears to have a better record than Yeddyurappa.
Depending on dominant castes does not always fetch handsome political returns. BJP itself has won several state elections by strategically distancing itself from the dominant castes and thus attracting smaller groups to come together and turn the table. The BJP distancing itself from the Jats in Haryana, Marathas in Maharashtra, Yadavs and Jatavs in Uttar Pradesh are some such examples.
In Karnataka, however, BJP’s strategy revolves around the Lingayats, who comprise 17% of the population and provide BJP its main support base. While the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, the latter aligned to the JD(S), did determine electoral outcomes earlier, a rainbow coalition of smaller groups, minorities and OBCs is likely to work better this time round.
In politics, it is said to be advisable to avoid anything that can be counterproductive. In 2013, former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) had polled a respectable 21% of the votes and had come second. But in a highly polarised election, the party is unlikely to retain the votes of minorities and other castes which see the BJP as the bigger evil. Also, in a two-horse race, JD(S) is more likely to be the loser with those of its voters who see the Congress as the bigger evil voting for the BJP.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi is still BJP’s best bet and has been on fire in the run-up to the Karnataka election, he has become predictable and his poll rhetoric jaded, fetching diminishing returns. It appears highly unlikely that he will be able to pull off what he could in 2014.