The ruling BJP has almost given up the fight. But infighting and a lacklustre campaign could cost the Congress dearly
With less than 10 days to go before polling,candidates are hurtling through the last stretch before the finish line in Karnatakas legislative assembly elections. Meanwhile,the tablets and smartphones are already being worked to labour out the likely post-election panorama,not just amongst the lead players in the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party,but also between an acronym masala such as H.D. Kumaraswamys JD(S),B.S. Yeddyurappas Karnataka Janata Party,the Reddy mining brothers BSR Congress and the fledgling Loksatta.
The pre-polls surveys predict the simplest of scenarios. The Congress party in Karnataka will rise from its wrecked state (64 seats in 2004,80 seats in 2008) and inch past a simple majority in the 224-member assembly. That could be a quick and painless outcome for voters who,at long last,will see a chance for a stable government in the state.
For,despite the illusion of stability conveyed by the BJPs 110 seats in 2008,a steady ascent from 44 in 1999 to 79 in 2004,the past five years was blighted by chief ministerial changes (three),an abundance of scandals (too many to count) and several precarious situations that nearly toppled the government. All in all,it was a miracle that the BJP government even lasted its full term after pressing the self-destruct button so frequently.
Yet,despite the ruling BJP as good as giving up on Karnataka,the scenario of a comfortable Congress win is easier predicted than done. The pre-poll surveys preceded and,therefore,do not account for,a peculiar syndrome afflicting the Congress party. For want of a better term,it can be called shooting-oneself-in-the-foot-as-one-approaches-the-victory-line syndrome.
Take candidate selection,for example. The Congress party could have vaulted itself to a 1999-like tally of 130-plus seats had it not botched up the choice of candidates. In Bangalore city alone,a series of wrong picks are enough to make the final tally go horribly awry. A grandson of a former union minister,a brother of a central party functionary,and cronies of two prominent Karnataka Congress leaders have all wormed their way into the final Congress list. In many cases,the party rivals of these gentlemen themselves are working to ensure the candidates defeat.
For a party almost guaranteed to emerge as the frontrunner for government formation,the Congress has had an unremarkable campaign. To begin with,there are far too many chief ministerial aspirants in the party,both in Delhi and Bangalore,but too few strategists and managers. The partys just-released manifesto is tame,promising free laptops,rupee-a-kg rice and farm loan waivers.
Its campaign has been devoid of luminosity with even former chief minister S.M. Krishna,who could have been a star campaigner,appearing to be in a sulk after several of his supporters were bypassed for party tickets. To top all this,ferocious infighting between partymen in some constituencies could cost the Congress dearly. Some Congressmen are inferring that the party leadership in Delhi is not taking the Karnataka elections seriously enough.
Out of all this emerges another likely post-poll scenario,where the Congress party does not quite get to a three-figure tally (out of the 224 seats available) and,thus,needs outside party help to form a government. In that event,pundits predict that the BJP,the JD(S) and the KJP will trail a bit behind the Congress,hovering between 60 and 15 seats each. Like in the past,money power will do the talking as parties rush to cobble together a viable equation that adds up to 113,which would be a simple majority. Voters may not wish a coalition government upon themselves,despite having to choose from a swayamvar of parties. But a weak Congress performance will heighten that probability.
A Congress-BJP coalition can obviously be ruled out,so the odds are heavily stacked in favour of the wily H.D. Kumaraswamy and his JD(S) (28 seats in 2008,58 seats in 2004,10 seats in 1999). With almost uncanny ease,the political heir of former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda could adroitly manoeuvre himself into a position where he calls the shots in Karnataka. Kumaraswamy,53,has plenty of experience in this game,having catapulted himself either onto the chief ministerial seat or into a decision-making role multiple times in the past.
All in all,the 2013 assembly elections are not just Karnatakas alone. With Lok Sabha elections a year away,its results could set off a series of events. A comfortable win for the Congress could give it much-needed momentum to barrel ahead towards the parliamentary elections. A spectacular BJP defeat could redefine national-level equations within the party. A good showing by B.S. Yeddyurappas KJP could make way for his return to the BJP. A first-rate performance by Kumaraswamys JD(S) could rekindle hopes within his father,H.D. Deve Gowda,that the 2014 Lok Sabha elections are around the corner,and that his kingmaker ambitions need not be restricted to Karnataka alone.