A decade before the Modi factor entered electoral calculations, the BJP was already a force to reckon with in polls for the 28 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka. In 2004, the BJP won 18 of the 28 seats; in 2009 it won 19; and in 2014, riding the Modi wave, the BJP won 17.
The one key factor in the BJP’s successful run in the Lok Sabha polls in Karnataka since 2004 is the support base it has found in the single largest community in the state — the Lingayats — who make up 17 per cent of the population and are spread across seats in north Karnataka. Follow more election news here.
The alienation of the community from the Congress since the early 1990s — after Rajiv Gandhi dismissed Veerendra Patil from the chief minister’s post, and disintegration of the erstwhile Janata Dal in the late 1990s — propelled the Lingayats into the arms of the BJP at the turn of the century.
Despite the Congress party’s efforts to woo the Lingayats back into its fold over the last decade — especially while in power from 2013-2018 — the Lingayat community remains firmly in the BJP camp with the Narendra Modi factor cementing the support base since 2014.
Despite the BJP’s main rivals — the Congress and JD(S) —forging an alliance and anti-incumbency rising against many BJP MPs from 2014, the ground reality in Karnataka ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls is that the BJP is not expected to lose much ground.
The Lok Sabha polls in Karnataka scheduled for April 18 and 23 are widely expected to be a poll of two contrasting phases. The first phase in 14 constituencies in southern Karnataka will see a battle primarily between the Congress-JDS alliance and the BJP, with the coalition enjoying a clear edge given the fact that the BJP does not have much of a presence in most southern constituencies other than the communally polarised coastal seats of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi-Chikmagalur.
With the Vokkaligas (15 per cent of population), the dominant community of the southern districts and traditional rivals of the Lingayats for power and authority, firm supporters of the JD(S), and the Congress having a strong base among backward classes, Dalits and minorities, the JD(S)-Congress coalition looks formidable on paper in most of the first-phase seats.
The second phase of the polls will see a more direct battle between the Congress and the BJP across 14 constituencies, where the BJP will bank on its Lingayat vote base and the Congress will rely on a consolidation of its backward classes, Dalits and minority vote base to achieve victories.
Issues such as nationalism and the Modi factor are likely to have their biggest influence in seats in three coastal districts — Dakshin Kannada, Udupi-Chikmagalur and Uttara Kannada — and to some extent in urban seats in cities such as Bengaluru.
In the three coastal constituencies where the BJP has a huge right-wing Hindutva cadre base and where the electorate is polarised on religious lines, the BJP has chosen to renominate at least two candidates who have been rated poorly for their performances by the public — two-term Dakshina Kannada MP Nalin Kumar Kateel and Udupi-Chikmagalur MP Shobha Karandlaje.
The BJP is banking on its Lok Sabha candidates in the coast riding the crest of another Modi wave to overcome the incumbency woes. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi is more popular than he was in 2014. The Modi wave has not weakened but is now stronger on the back of his performance over the last five years,’’ BJP leader R Ashok said while justifying the BJP’s decision to renominate as many as 14 of its MPs from 2014.
In 2014, the BJP polled 43.37 per cent of votes – a record for the party in Karnataka – to win 17 seats on the back of the Modi wave while the Congress polled 41.15 per cent of the votes and won nine seats and the JD(S) polled 11.07 per cent and won two seats in south Karnataka.
“The pro-Modi wave that was prevalent during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections has increased by at least 15 per cent ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections,’’ says BJP state president B S Yeddyurappa, the Lingayat face of the party who is a key factor in attracting Lingayats to the BJP despite multiple accusations of corruption, including a recent episode of attempting to poach coalition MLAs.
In the 2018 Assembly elections in Karnataka, however, the BJP polled only 36.43 per cent of votes against 38.61 per cent for the Congress and 20.41 per cent for the JD(S). Although data for elections in Karnataka shows that the regional JD(S) has lost vote share in Lok Sabha polls to national parties when compared to its performance in state polls, the 2019 Congress-JD(S) alliance is expected to arrest this trend in favour of the coalition.
However, one of the big questions being asked ahead of the Lok Sabha polls is whether the ruling Congress-JD(S) coalition can overcome the effects of acrimonious seat sharing negotiations held over the past few weeks and prevent internal sabotaging by dissidents and factions.
Despite seeming formidable on paper in the southern districts of Karnataka due to the joining of forces by the Congress and JD(S), the Vokkaliga community of Deve Gowda and the Kuruba backward class community of Siddaramaiah are arch rivals at the village level in southern Karnataka, raising questions over the coalition.
“All district units of the two parties are being directed to sink differences with each other and aim to defeat the BJP with the intent of protecting the Constitution and defeating communalism. I have the confidence that our party workers will abide by our decisions,’’ Siddaramaiah said recently.
The Congress-JD(S) coalition also has to contend with the label of being dynastic parties, especially with the JD(S) deciding to field two grandsons of Deve Gowda from among the seven seats that the party
was granted by the Congress in a seat-sharing deal.
The Congress and JD(S) are scheduled to put up a major show of unity on March 31 in Bengaluru to kick off the campaign for the two-phase Lok Sabha polls in Karnataka.