May 2018. A three-day old BJP government had just collapsed after it failed to prove its majority, paving the way for a coalition experiment in Karnataka. Led by the junior partner, JD (S), the 'secular' coalition of the Congress and JD (S) came into existence. At the swearing-in ceremony, there was an unprecedented display of unity of opposition leaders from Kashmir to Kanyakumari which was described as a precursor to the Mahagathbandan for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Political analysts averred that the Narendra Modi-led BJP would receive a jolt in May 2019 when these parties unitedly took on the NDA. And has that really happened? Going by the scene in February, 2019. In Uttar Pradesh, the SP and BSP seem to have given a jolt to the Congress by giving the national party a raw deal. Karnataka, which had written the foreword for coalition politics last year, seems to be witnessing a never-ending battle of mistrust between the coalition partners. And talks on Lok Sabha seat sharing are yet to successfully conclude. The JD (S) and Congress, who chose to be friends-in-public but are foes-at-heart, came together to chant the coalition mantra whenever Mr Modi took a swipe at Karnataka's coalition politics. Barring that, there is no bonhomie between the two parties. Meanwhile, the principal opposition party in Karnataka, the BJP, which was busy making efforts to dethrone the coalition government, seems to have pressed the pause button and decided to focus on the LS polls. The party's local poster boy B.S. Yeddyurappa, failed miserably in his attempts to become CM again and was left red-faced after the Audiogate scandal broke. Now, the BJP, which had won 17 seats in the May 2014 elections, is intent on improving its performance but the non-performance of many MPs and the JD (S) and Congress coming together seem to be giving the party the jitters. Bhaskar Hegde brings to readers the political plight of the three parties at a time when the calendar of events is about to be announced for the upcoming LS polls.
JD (S): Nothing to lose
The party has often made tall claims about giving a real democratic touch to its organisation but as it approaches the elections, it goes back to its winnability mantra, that is family centric politics. Just like the coalition government, which has two family members and a relative in it, the JD (S) wants to win more seats in the LS polls by fielding family members. The buzz is that patriarch, H.D. Deve Gowda may shift to Bengaluru North from Hassan, the JD(S) bastion. Last Monday, he reportedly held a meeting with party workers from Bengaluru North and instructed them to begin the spade work for his entry. His grandsons, Prajwal, son of PWD minister H.D. Revanna may debut from Hassan and Chief Minister, H.D. Kumaraswamy's son Nikhil who is a film star too, is likely to take the plunge into electoral politics from Mandya. The JD (S) leaders' argument in support of fielding more family members is: Vokkaliga voters love the family and they will definitely elect family members no matter how many contest. If the party gets more seats in the Vokkaliga heartland in south Karnataka, it will be in a better position to gamble for a share of the political pie up north. Party insiders feel the talks between Mr Deve Gowda and AICC president Rahul Gandhi, due sometime next week, may seal the seat sharing deal without upsetting the coalition dharma. Since workers of JD (S) and Congress are sworn enemies in several pockets, it will be interesting to see how the contest plays out on the ground. The JD (S) insiders feel that even if the Congress workers fail to back them in constituencies particularly in south Karnataka, the Muslim vote will come in handy to make up the losses.
In coastal Karnataka where the party may get Udupi-Chikmagaluru, it hopes to pocket Christian votes too besides the Muslim votes to neutralise the hardcore Hindutva voters' impact. And up north it wants to make a determined spring to the winning post with Congress votes which party leaders are sure, will be transferred to the JD (S) unlike in the south. Compared to the Congress and BJP, the JD (S) may reap a good harvest this election because it has nothing to lose after winning just 2 seats in 2014.
Congress: Infighting may prove costly
The party which has 10 seats of the 28 in the outgoing Lok Sabha, seems to be determined to double its tally. Except for Muslims, Kurubas and a section of SCs, the party is not sure whether others including the Vokkaligas will vote for them in old Mysuru region. So, the party's grandiose plan to win 20 seats may hit a roadblock. A few months back, a similar dream of winning the assembly polls had failed because of the caste factor. And unlike the JD (S), the Congress has more problems while facing the LS elections. The party could not satisfy the aspirations of many senior MLAs who wanted to become ministers. Party insiders admit that these dissatisfied MLAs may remain neutral in the crucial LS elections which may prove costly.
Two, in constituencies like Kalaburagi, Raichur and Chitradurga, sulking ST leaders may prove counterproductive to the party prospects, observe party insiders.
In Kalaburagi, Mallikarjun Kharge, who became popular at the national level for taking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament, seems to be facing the toughest challenge of his political life. Party leaders from this region admit that he should not have batted for his son, Priyank Kharge to become minister in the coalition government. Almost all leaders from the region admit that senior Kharge tried to hand over the control of the entire Hyderabad Karnataka region to his son which has not been taken to kindly by the powerful Lingayats and other community leaders. Similarly, veteran, M. Veerappa Moily who was elected from Chikkaballapur has a daunting task in convincing voters this time. Congress MPs in Raichur and Chitradurga too are facing similar problems. The Vokkaligas, says a party senior leader, may opt for NOTA, or back a BJP nominee in case Congress candidates are fielded in their home turf. Probably, only 30 per cent of JD (S) votes may come to a Congress candidate and anything above that would be a bonus. So, banking on its coalition partner JD (S) to transfer its votes, may turn out to be a zero-sum game for the Congress in some constituencies.
Historically, Karnataka voters have tended to vote one way in the assembly elections and taken a diametrically opposite stand in the Lok Sabha elections. If that is the case, the Congress can hope to put up a better show than in May last year when its Assembly tally fell by more than 40 seats.
However the Modi factor and the dissent within the coalition are likely to become big stumbling blocks and it would be an acid test for the party to buck the trend and make a new beginning.
BJP: Non-performance the stumbling block
BJP national president Amit Shah's recent visit to the city and his pep talk with party leaders seems to have achieved what the party wanted: Galvanise and enthuse party leaders to get involved in electioneering. But the BJP has several serious problems on hand. Unlike the assembly elections, when the party central leadership gave almost a free hand to party state unit president, B.S. Yeddyurappa on the selection of candidates, it may not do the same this time. The party which had won 17 seats in 2014, is facing serious problems in Bagalkote, Belagavi, Mysuru, Udupi-Chikmagaluru, Bengaluru North and Bidar. In Bagalkote and Belagavi, the non-performance of sitting MPs is a big cause of worry, while in Mysuru, Udupi-Chikmagaluru and Bengaluru North, the coming together of the JD (S) and Congress can pose a serious threat to the BJP. In Bidar, Muslims may upset the BJP's calculations this time.
Mr Yeddyurappa who was blamed by many insiders for letting go not less than 15 assembly seats to rival parties in May, seems to be losing his magic touch. He seems to be blindly hoping that infighting between the Congress and JD (S) would fetch votes for the BJP even in the old Mysuru region. A similar strategy proved costly in the assembly elections and it is sure to hit the party hard if it adopts a similar strategy this time too. Unlike the Congress, the BJP seems to lack the strategists needed to work in teams in different region. The party will certainly miss late Ananth Kumar who was one leader who could match or even outwit the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections.
Mr Shah who was here on Thursday, did not give any hint of the criteria that the central leadership would adopt to select candidates. He, however did elicit the opinion of party legislators on the selection of candidates. Many have suggested that the candidates be changed in several constituencies including Bagalkote. It will be interesting to see if the party takes the risk of bringing in new faces in constituencies where it has received a negative feedback on the incumbents. Or will it continue to bank on the old war horses?...