Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Karnataka polls announced: BJP faces tough contest, banks on caste mix, Modi popularity

Congress main challenger as JD(S) restricted; the game changer will be who consolidates the caste votes behind them

Karnataka pollsThe BJP, which has never won a clear majority in Karnataka in the two terms that it has formed governments (2008-13 and 2019-23), is hoping that the Narendra Modi factor can erase the anti-incumbency building up on account of corruption allegations and help it achieve a clear mandate in the polls. (Express photo by Jithendra M)
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Karnataka polls announced: BJP faces tough contest, banks on caste mix, Modi popularity
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Fresh off its Northeast electoral win, the BJP is looking at a tough contest in the Karnataka Assembly polls, set to be held on May 10. Karnataka, the only state in south India where the BJP has a government, has never voted an incumbent back to power in 40 years.

In both its two terms in government (2008-13 and 2019 to now), the BJP did not win a clear majority in Karnataka, but is hoping that the Narendra Modi factor will erase the anti-incumbency against it, and see it past the half-way mark of 113 in the 224-member Assembly.

In the 2018 elections, the BJP had won 104 seats, the Congress 80, the JD(S) 37, and others 3. The Congress had got more votes (38.14 per cent of the total, a rise of 1 per cent from 2013) compared to the BJP’s 36.35 per cent and the JD(S)’s 18.3 per cent.

While the Congress and JD(S) had come together to form the government following the results, the BJP had weaned away 17 MLAs and replaced the coalition in power a year later.

What the BJP is taking heart from are the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when the Modi factor powered the party to 25 of the 28 seats in the state.

The Congress, which was believed to have paid a price for overconfidence in the 2018 polls on the back of its government’s socialist and populist policies and the absence of major corruption charges, is the BJP’s main challenger.

Increasingly restricted to the Old Mysore region in southern Karnataka, the JD(S)’s best bet is another fractured verdict like in 2004 and 2018, leaving it in the kingmaker’s seat.


The Congress, which has a good organisation plus several strong leaders in Karnataka, is hopeful of ending its poll drought in big states with the May 13 result. It is also counting on the corruption allegations against the BJP, with senior leaders admitting that the manner in which the government came into existence lay at the root of it.

Karnataka poll facts

In their recent visits to Karnataka, the efforts of the top BJP brass, from Narendra Modi to Amit Shah to J P Nadda, were concentrated on tackling the corruption taint. The leaders said the BJP should be voted in with a clear majority to end such politics, and conveyed that the party would not form tacit alliances with regional parties like the JD(S), unlike in 2018.

But, given the current situation where the BJP and Congress seem to be in the same boat, looking at winning 80-100 seats, with the JD(S) getting 20-40, a consolidation of caste groups could be the decisive factor.


The Lingayats, who make up nearly 17 per cent of the population and are spread around northern districts, are seen as BJP supporters since the 1990s. The Vokkaligas, at 15 per cent and mainly in the south of the state, have traditionally backed the JD(S). The backward castes, who make up 33 per cent of the population; sections of Dalits, who constitute 15 per cent; and the religious minorities, who make up 12 per cent, are considered to be Congress vote blocks, though there are several divisions among them.

The BJP’s best chance lies in attracting castes besides the dominant Lingayats, with this acting as a force multiplier to its narrative of development and welfare measures (particularly those launched by the Narendra Modi government). However, it is nervous about the Lingayat vote, having relegated the community’s stalwart leader B S Yediyurappa to a secondary role.

In 2013, when a similarly snubbed Yediyurappa had broken away and formed his own party, he had taken away over 9.79 per cent of the votes and felicitated a Congress win. That year, in the Bombay-Karnataka region, which is the Lingayat heartland, the Congress had won 33 of the 50 seats – five years after the BJP had picked up 31.

In 2018 though, the Congress last-ditch attempt to sway the Lingayat vote by recommending a separate religion status for the community had backfired.

Apart from a consolidation of its existing caste base, the Congress is counting on a slip in the BJP votes due to anti-incumbency and decline of the JD(S) due to infighting.


Over the past year, the various fringe groups of the Sangh Parivar have also stirred up Hindutva rhetoric via divisive issues, though with so far limited success.

The BJP’s pre-poll caste reshuffle has included increasing the Scheduled Caste quota from 15 to 17 per cent, favourable internal quotas for most backward Dalits, raising Scheduled Tribe share from 3 to 7 per cent, as well as a promise to increase the Lingayat quota from 5 to 7 per cent and Vokkaliga from 4 to 6 per cent, while removing the 4 per cent quota for Muslims.


With old loyalties set to determine results in the north and south, the two areas which might be a clinching factor could be Bombai-Karnataka region (with 50 seats) and extended Old Mysore region (65 seats).

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While the JD(S) is projecting former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy as its CM candidate, the BJP and the Congress have not projected a CM face. The Congress has managed to contain the tussle between former CM Siddaramaiah and D K Shivakumar to be seen as CM candidate, though the latter has been telling his Vokkaliga community to vote for the Congress to facilitate his ascension to the post.

Karnataka poll

First published on: 29-03-2023 at 16:43 IST
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