Assembly elections in the southern state of Karnataka next week are a crucial faceoff between the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the challenger Congress, in the run-up to the general elections of 2024. The battle for Karnataka, home to India’s Silicon Valley, is witnessing a fierce fight between the two national parties.
The BJP is attempting to fight off anti-incumbency and retain its grip on its only bastion in southern India, while a resurgent Congress party is trying to ensure that it converts its best political opportunity to a much-needed electoral victory. Karnataka will vote to determine the fate of 224 seats in the state assembly on May 10 with results being declared on May 13.
So important is this election for the fate of the BJP that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has flown down from New Delhi to the capital, Bengaluru, several times and is campaigning aggressively in the state. He is addressing 15 rallies and road shows in a span of six days. The BJP is hoping that Modi’s charisma will overshadow the corruption allegations dogging the government of Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai.
In fact, the opposition Congress has pegged its campaign on ousting the “40 percent Sarkara” (40 percent commission government). Contractors in the state had held a press conference alleging that BJP leaders and officials are demanding bribes that amount to 40 percent of the tender amount for state-funded infrastructural projects.
Corruption and inflation are the burning issues in this election, and the Congress party is cashing in on it. For a change, the beleaguered Congress cadre and leaders resemble a battle-ready unit.
Rahul Gandhi’s recent long march, the Bharat Jodo Yatra, which covered 511 kilometers in Karnataka alone, has enthused the rank and file of the Congress. For the much-experienced Congress party veteran Mallikarjun Kharge, who became party president recently, a Congress victory in his home state Karnataka is crucial. Not surprisingly Kharge has been closely monitoring the party’s campaign and is keen that Congress win with a clear majority of 150 seats.
Incidentally, Rahul Gandhi’s recent disqualification as a Member of Parliament, which is now being challenged in the courts, does not figure anywhere in the Congress electoral campaign.
Unfortunately for the BJP, everything that worked for the party in the past seems to have gone awry. Its much-vaunted claim of running a “double-engine government,” i.e., BJP in power at the center and the state level, has evidently not worked.
Disgruntled senior leaders like Jagadish Shettar, who quit the BJP after being sidelined and joined the Congress, have added to the BJP’s woes. Shettar, a leader of the powerful Lingayat community, has vowed revenge. To control the damage, the BJP was forced to call back another of its miffed leaders, former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa.
Moreover, the BJP’s communal polarization and anti-Muslim rhetoric, which helped it across the state in the past, now seems to be resonating mainly in coastal Karnataka, a stronghold of the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
It was here that the Bommai government’s controversial hijab ban in schools and colleges, barring hijab-wearing Muslim girl students from attending classes, was set in motion. The BJP has not raked up the issue in its statewide poll campaign thus far. However, it will favorably impact and influence its loyal voters in the coastal region and further consolidate its stranglehold over the constituencies there.
Left with little to talk about in terms of achievements during its term, the BJP has strategically started raising an emotive issue for devout Hindus – the monkey god Hanuman. Bajrang Dal (Brigade of Hanuman) is the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, one of the affiliates of the RSS. Bajrang Dal’s youth cadres are often in the news for inciting violence in the name of Hindutva.
So when the Congress in its manifesto stated that it would ban the Bajrang Dal, the BJP and Modi promptly latched onto it, claiming that the Congress had “insulted” Hanuman and his devotees. The issue resonates in the state since Hampi in Karnataka is believed to be the birthplace of Hanuman.
In the last five years, Karnataka has had three chief ministers. The 14-month tenure of H.D. Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal-Secular with Congress as an alliance partner was followed by a change of government. BJP strongman Yeddyurappa served as chief minister for two years. In 2021, he was unceremoniously removed by the BJP leadership and replaced with the more pliant Bommai.
With its promise of good governance not clicking with the masses, the BJP has resorted to poll promises on divisive issues of implementing the Uniform Civil Code for Karnataka, which would introduce uniform laws for all, replacing the existing personal religious laws for Hindus, Muslims, Christians, etc. in areas such as marriage, birth, and death. Muslims constitute nearly 13 percent of the population in Karnataka.
The Congress party, on the other hand, appears to be more poll-ready than usual, with even its senior leaders, state unit president D. K. Shivakumar, and former Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, normally at loggerheads with each other, now putting up a united front.
The Congress has promised developmental programs for the state, including textile hubs, IT parks, irrigation projects, a Western Ghat policy for environment protection, and more employment opportunities. In its manifesto, the party has also promised to address the traffic woes and civic problems plaguing Bengaluru.
Apart from this, the Congress has promised an unemployment allowance for graduates, 200 units of free electricity for households, free bus travel for women, a monthly allowance for women-headed households, and 10 kilograms of rice per person for Below Poverty Line (BPL) families every month.
The BJP too has announced a list of freebies to entice voters. These include half a liter of milk and 5 kilograms of millet per BPL family every month. It has also promised three free cooking gas cylinders annually for all BPL families.
Desperate to win a second term, the BJP announced earlier this year an increase in reservations in government jobs and admissions in educational institutions for the powerful Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities. The Bommai government did this by scrapping the existing 4 percent reservation for Muslims and shifting the community to the Economically Weaker Sections category. Expectedly, Congress has promised to restore the 4 percent quota for Muslims if it returns to power.
Significantly, both national parties are hoping that the rejigging of the caste reservation factor will bring in rich electoral dividends for their respective parties.
Also in the reckoning is the regional party, the JD-S, which has support among Vokkaligas in southern Karnataka. Analysts say that the party could emerge a kingmaker in the event of a hung state assembly.
As one BJP leader disclosed to The Diplomat, the party is hoping that Modi’s whirlwind campaign in the final week before voting will turn the tide in their favor. For the BJP, winning Karnataka is imperative to retain its foothold in south India.
While a combative Congress is exhorting people to oust the corrupt BJP government, it has also started an aggressive poster campaign “PayCM” with the face of Chief Minister Bommai on it. Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi Vadra also labeled Modi the “CryPM.”
At an election rally, Vadra said, “The Prime Minister does not care about the struggles of people and instead comes crying to you to gain sympathy.” Earlier, Modi had alleged that he had been abused “91 times” by the Opposition.
The BJP is on the defensive; opinion polls predict a Congress victory in Karnataka
But the BJP has not given up and is resorting to intimidation to win votes. Home Minister Amit Shah threatened that there will be communal riots if Congress wins.
In the words of Congress General Secretary Jairam Ramesh, should the Congress emerge victorious, it will be a “booster dose” for the party as it gears up for elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh later this year. More importantly, Congress will no longer be perceived as a spent force but as a force to reckon with, possibly even leading the opposition ranks in the battle to oust BJP nationwide in 2024.