Karnataka, the only southern state ever ruled by the BJP, goes to polls Friday as one of the last remaining bastions of the Congress. Elections will be held to 222 of 224 seats, with polls to one seat put off following the BJP candidate’s death, and to another following the seizure of over 9,000 voter cards from a flat.
The polls are being held at a time when the BJP government in Delhi is entering the final year of its tenure. Through his campaign over the last 10 days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept telling crowds at his 21 rallies how 20 states have come under the sway of the BJP since 2014 and that Karnataka would be next.
The BJP came to power in Karnataka in 2008, the only time so far, winning 110 seats and then cobbling up support from independents. BJP president Amit Shah has said that winning Karnataka again will provide the party a gateway to southern India.
The BJP is challenging a Congress party that has traditionally been on solid ground in a state with vast backward, SCs, tribal and minority populations. During its 2013-18 tenure, the Congress has worked to cement this coalition with various socialist policies under the leadership of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who belongs to the backward caste Kuruba and has roots in the socialist movement.
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As a consequence, antagonism has built up towards the Congress in the ranks of two dominant communities, Vokkaligas and Lingayats, who have traditionally controlled politics and administration in Karnataka. The Congress is hoping that the Lingayats, 17% of the population, will still vote in its favour after the state government recommended a minority religion tag for the community this year.
The BJP has pitched its former CM B S Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat leader, as its CM candidate again. In the final lap to the polls, however, it seemed to have alienated Yeddyurappa by denying a ticket to his son and keeping the veteran away from the main campaign.
The Vokkaligas, nearly 15%, who live mostly in Old Mysuru region, seem to have aligned with the JD(S) of Vokkaliga patriarch and former PM H D Deve Gowda. Several pre-poll surveys have placed the Congress marginally ahead, raising the possibility of a hung verdict. The BJP has soft-pedalled the JD(S) in the campaign. This, and the fact that it has not pushed Lingayat leader Yeddyurappa to the forefront in the final laps, is being seen as a sign of tacit understanding with the JD(S) for a coalition, if needed.
The perception is that neither BJP nor JD(S) is in a position to win a majority on its own since they lack support in major parts, while the Congress has an MLA in every district (except Kodagu, which has two seats). The battle is mainly Congress versus JD(S) in southern Karnataka and Congress versus BJP in the north. The crucial regions are Bombay Karnataka in the north (50) and the extended Old Mysuru in the south (66). In 2013, the Congress’s 120 seats included 31 of 50 in Bombay Karnataka while the BJP suffered following a split engineered by Yeddyurappa. In Old Mysuru, the JD(S) has always won enough to be in a position to be in government, though it has not done so since 2004.