Can Modi's charisma hold fast at 17 in Karnataka?

At a recent rally of Mr Modi in Hubballi, people were seen leaving the venue before his speech was over.

As Karnataka gets into poll mode for Lok Sabha elections, the big question on everyone’s mind is: Will the BJP’s southern citadel stand by Mr Narendra Modi once again and deliver the 17 seats the party had won in 2014, or maybe even more?

State leaders may be optimistic as ever but there are enough indications coming from ground zero that the Modi magic of 2014 has waned and to compound the BJP’s problems, the fizzled out ‘Operation Lotus’ and the ‘Audiotape’ controversy involving BJP state president B.S. Yeddyurappa have only served to besmirch the image the party once enjoyed among Karnataka’s electorate. Political experts confide that the party should consider itself lucky if it is able to retain a little more than half the seats it won in 2014.

What could prove to be an unsurmountable obstacle for the BJP is the coming together of the Congress and JD(S) – something which did not happen in 2014 – and the putting up of common candidates in the 28 seats Karnataka has. A triangular fight would have helped the BJP retain its 2014 tally.

In fact, the signs of a dip in the PM’s popularity are already evident. At a recent rally of Mr Modi in Hubballi, people were seen leaving the venue before his speech was over, something unthinkable a few years ago. Hubballi is a city in the Mumbai-Karnataka region where the BJP is considered pretty strong along with other bastions like Central and Coastal Karnataka and Malnad. But the saffron party could still hold on to its seats in these regions as voters tend to get divided on communal lines before the polls.

The real headache for the party is in Bengaluru city where it had swept all three seats in 2014. With Bengaluru South strongman H.N. Ananth Kumar passing away, the search for his successor is on in right earnest but has proved inconclusive so far. The Congress, realising that it has a chance of wresting this seat, is searching for a strong Vokkaliga candidate for the constituency.

The Bengaluru Central seat, won by P.C. Mohan of the BJP last time, no longer seems to be a sure seat, while JD(S) supremo H.D. Deve Gowda could sound the death knell for BJP hopes in Vokkaliga-dominated Bengaluru North if he decides to enter the fray.

In the last election, the BJP had fared very well in most Hyderabad-Karnataka seats but the spectacular victory Congresss candidate V.S. Ugrappa scored in the Ballari Lok Sabha bypoll goes to prove that the tide has changed and the party could be on a sticky wicket this time. The failed Operation Lotus only added to the BJP’s embarrassment.

But will the talks on seat sharing between the Congress and JD(S) succeed? The JD(S) is insisting on 12 seats and the Congress would at the best concede one-third of the 28 seats – 9 to 10. The rivalry between Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy and former CM Siddaramaiah too could rock the coalition boat with the Congress insisting on seats like Mandya, Mysuru and Bengaluru North. If the negotiations fail and the coalition partners decide to contest independently, the BJP could hope to retain all its seats in Bengaluru as well as the other seats in the state.

Acutely aware of what JD(S) support can do for its poll prospects, Congress poll managers too are working out a game plan to keep the party in good stead and win more than half of the seats in this election at least 15. They may, however, have to watch out in constituencies like the Kalaburgi reserved seat represented by veteran Mallikarjun Kharge, who seems to have antagonised many leaders from the Scheduled Castes, OBC and Lingayat communities. Baburao Chinchansur and Malikayya Guttedar, who were once close to Mr Kharge, have fallen out with him and have joined the BJP. Local Congress MLA Dr Umesh Jadhav, representing Chincholi, may join the BJP making things none too comfortable for Mr Kharge.

Not too different is the situation in Chikkaballapur and Chitradurga, two of the seats the Congress won in 2014 where infighting could pose a formidable challenge to Congress prospects. And in Ballari, Mr Ugrappa may find the going extremely tough if local Congress MLA B. Nagendra who was in the rebel camp, crosses over to the BJP before the polls. Rebel MLA Ramesh Jarkiholi too could mar Congress chances in the Chikkodi seat.

What could finally make things work for the coalition is the ability of its leaders to forge unity between JD(S) and Congress workers, particularly in the Old Mysuru region. If the two parties could overcome irritants like the tussle for the Mandya and Mysuru seats and check dissent within their ranks, the BJP may face a herculean task in repeating its stupendous success of 2014.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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