Karnataka, the last big bastion of the Congress, is headed for the Assembly elections next year.
The leaders of three parties — the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the regional Janata Dal (Secular) — have begun their campaigns. For now, all eyes are on Gujarat: Will Prime Minister Narendra Modi return with a huge haul or would the election be an upset for the BJP?
The Gujarat results will influence the BJP’s strategy in the southern state, which, in the assembly elections, has a record of electing a party that is in opposition to the one in power at the Centre. “It depends on the nature of the verdict in Gujarat. If the BJP gets fewer than the present number (119) (in Gujarat), it will be huge setback for the party and a morale booster for the Congress in Karnataka,” says Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro vice-chancellor at Jain University. “If they do exceptionally good and breach the 120 mark, it will clearly send a positive message to the BJP cadre in Karnataka.”
In the past four decades Karnataka has not returned the party in power. The last time it had done so was in 1978, when the Congress returned to power under D Devaraj Urs, a backward class leader. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, another backward class leader of the Congress from Mysuru, to which Urs also belonged, is attempting to break the 40-year pattern.
“Uttar Pradesh is different, Gujarat is different, and Karnataka is different,” said Siddaramaiah. “In Karnataka, the Congress will return. People here will not be swayed by Modi.”
The BJP, which had seen wrangling between its two senior leaders — B S Yeddyurappa and K S Eshwarappa — has an uphill task in mobilising voters. Operation Kamala is the legacy of its rule (2008-13). The experiment engineered by former ministers G Janardhana Reddy and Sriramulu, his close confidant, led to massive corruption charges, including a scam that involved smuggling iron ore.
Yeddyurappa was also accused of corruption, for which he had to resign. The Karnataka High Court discharged him due to technical reasons.
Yet the BJP is confident of a sweep in Karnataka.
“There is a BJP wave sweeping Karnataka. We will ensure we get a majority,” said S Prakash, BJP spokesperson for the state. “The differences are history. We will fight the elections unitedly and come to power.”
Analysts say Siddaramaiah has turned to his favour what seemed to be the BJP's base even two years ago. He has divided the Lingayats through his offer to give them the status of being a religious community.
“Gujarat shows that local issues dominate in any assembly elections. Till two years ago, the BJP was setting the agenda. By taking up the local cause, essentially focusing on the Kannada identity, Siddaramaiah has trumped the BJP,” says Shastri.
He also says empowering local leaders has given an edge to the Congress in the state as against the BJP, whose leaders rely on the high command of the Modi-Amit Shah combine.
Siddaramaiah built his political career in the Janata Parivar and remained loyal to former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda. After Gowda ditched Siddaramaiah to favour his son H D Kumaraswamy to be chief minister in 2006, the backward class leader shifted loyalties to the Congress. His statewide rally to mobilise the minorities, backward classes, and Dalits, or what in Kannada is called Ahinda, endeared him to then Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who tasked Siddaramaiah with the job of leading the party in the 2013 assembly elections.
In the past 18 months, Siddaramaiah stepped up his focus on governance, launching multiple programmes targeted at rural Karnataka and reviving efforts to build infrastructure in Bengaluru.
On December 13, he began a month-long tour across the state.