In Karnataka,it may sabotage its chances in an election the BJP is poised to lose
In Karnataka,the Congress party has its best opportunity in over 25 years to win a state election. Three out of four opinion polls predict a majority for it in the state assembly. Leaders of all parties in the state agree that only the Congress might gain a majority. But will it?
There are reasons to be sceptical. Pollsters are usually fairly accurate when they predict vote shares,but they often go terribly wrong when they then estimate the seats to be won. This problem is especially acute in Karnataka because Congress voters are evenly spread across the state while support for its main rivals is concentrated in different regions.
The Janata Dal (Secular) is popular in the southern districts,while the BJP and former Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappas Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) draw most of their support from further north. Those parties are concentrating their efforts on 100 seats or less while the Congress campaigns for all 224. The BJP and the JD (S) are also training their guns on the Congress and not on each other,with a post-election alliance in mind. In 2008,the Congress gained the most votes but won fewer seats than the BJP. This time,it may do well in the vote share but still not win a majority of the seats.
Then there is the well established tradition of Congressmen sabotaging one another. In recent years,every major Congress leader in the state has felt a party colleagues knife in his back,and most of them have responded in kind. Similar things have also happened among the partys lesser leaders,who in some cases are clearly at it again.
Several months ago,in a rally in Karnataka,Sonia Gandhi stunned the state Congress leaders seated behind her on the stage by pleading with them to remain united and not to betray the people. Earlier this month,in private,she read the riot act to them again. She said that if infighting continued,they would end up without a majority,being blackmailed by Deve Gowda in a wretched coalition.
Despite this,there is hope for the Congress. No ruling party in Karnataka has been re-elected since 1985. Voters have even rejected governments that were quite good. The BJP government has been embarrassingly bad.
The Congress will also gain from Yeddyurappas determined vendetta against the BJP. He is carefully targeting not just BJP leaders,but their key supporters as well. Up north in Hyderabad Karnataka,the Congress may make gains not on its own merits but thanks to Yeddyurappas campaign of vengeance. Further south,however,in old Mysore,the Congress may be hard pressed by the JD (S),which has few problems with dissidents far fewer than the Congress.
In 2008,an early 11 per cent lead in the popular vote for the Congress over its nearest rival shrank to 1 per cent by polling day. Now the Congress leads the BJP by 14 per cent and the JD(S) by 17 per cent in the most reliable poll. Those margins will probably shrink during the campaign,but its edge is greater this time.
One key to the 2008 Congress collapse is missing this time. By all accounts,the BJP then had vastly more money than its rivals,thanks to the mining lobby. It knew that it was pointless to try to bribe voters who cheerfully accept gifts and then disregard them in the polling stations. Instead,stupendous sums were said to have been spent buying over key Congress activists in most districts. That will not happen this time. No party has a great advantage in campaign funds.
The Congress can take comfort from one other overlooked fact. Yeddyurappas claim that support from the Lingayats will win elections is a myth. The BJPs national leaders and some media commentators swallowed it,but they were duped. The Lingayats make up only 17 per cent of the states population and they have been unable to influence voters from disadvantaged groups for over 40 years.
Yeddyurappa,a Lingayat,knows this. That is why he has been courting one section of the Dalits and,however improbably,the Muslims. By appealing to the latter,he seeks to revive a Lingayat-Muslim alliance in northern Karnataka originally forged by S.R. Bommai. But Bommai was an impeccably secular Janata leader. Yeddyurappa led a party that tried and failed to foment communal animosity in Hubli and Chikmagalur,and then tolerated anti-Muslim outrages by Hindutva vigilantes in coastal districts.
However,the other factor that triggered the Congress collapse last time bungling and conflict within the party itself may create havoc again. Congressmen fear this. Several weeks ago,two leaders from the BJP and Congress had a casual conversation. The BJP man said that Bangalore had suffered so much in recent times that his party would probably win only two seats there. The Congressmen replied that his own party would make enough mistakes to let the BJP capture at least five.
Poor candidate selection in 2008,and again in the 2009 Lok Sabha election,cost the Congress seats. It has again chosen some questionable candidates. Rebels will again work to defeat them. But the partys organisation is so undisciplined that in many constituencies,any decision would have caused trouble. If,as it claims,the Congress really has placated many disgruntled ticket seekers,then the damage may be limited.
In 2008,the Congress also suffered severely from breathtaking incompetence by a campaign coordinator imposed by the high command. It is not clear who is managing the partys campaign this time. But at least one inept outsider who is woefully ignorant of the state and who refuses to listen to advice has inexplicably impressed Congress leaders in New Delhi. We must wait to see whether he has been given the power to resume the bungling of last time.
James Manor is a professor in the School of Advanced Study,University of London