As Karnataka goes to polls in 2018, it may come down to just two issues - water and religion. While the ruling Congress hopes to retain power by playing the religion card and pandering to the dominant Lingayats, the BJP is desperately fighting back by pushing for an amicable solution to the decades old water sharing dispute over the Mahadayi River between Karnataka and Goa. As the two national parties battle it out, the Janata Dal (Secular), that has been out of power for almost a decade, is still struggling to find a foothold.
In 2013, the lotus party lost heavily at the polls due to its internal squabbles that led to a split in the Lingayat vote bank and the launching of a party by former Chief Minister, B S Yeddyurappa. Marred by scams and charges of corruption, the BJP government he headed saw three Chief Ministers, which did not bode well for the party at the hustings. Despite the efforts of its supremo, H D Deve Gowda and state chief, H D Kumaraswamy, the Janata Dal (S) too failed to impress voters.
Grabbing the opportunity, the Congress won enough seats to form the new government. Almost five years later, infighting mars both national parties. While the BJP leaders make no bones about their differences, those in the Congress prefer to indulge in shadow boxing , with a section working strongly against a second term for Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.
Mr Siddaramaiah's own poll strategy is to woo minorities, backward classes and Dalits, which hasn’t gone down well among the upper caste Lingayat legislators. Despite the unrest in the ranks, Mr Siddaramaiah continues to call the shots as the Congress high command has weakened with the party losing power in 19 states. With polls due in May, he has lost no time in capitalising on the Lingayat issue, constituting a seven-member expert committee to examine the representations from for a separate religious status. The idea is clearly to break the BJP's hold on the Veerashaiva-Lingayat votes. Lingayats can make or mar poll results, especially in Mumbai-Karnataka and Hyderabad-Karnataka regions.
In a counter, the BJP played what it thought was its trump card using its own Chief Minister in Goa, Manohar Parrikar to help resolve the vexed Mahadayi river water dispute that has been hanging fire for years. But once again, it appears to have reckoned without the Chief Minister, who by his swift response to Mr Parrikar's letter, offering to hold a meeting with him at a time and day of his choice , has emerged as a leader with the farmers' interests at heart. There's no discernible Modi wave, and certainly no Siddaramaih wave as yet. The challenge for the Congress, is less from anti-incumbency, and more from those who see themselves as the “original” partymen. Can it hold fast? The answer is only a few months away.