The Congress party, which is governing Karnataka in coalition with the JD(S), has plunged its best resources into winning two Assembly bypolls scheduled for May 19 in order to help the coalition retain its wafer-thin majority in the state.
All of Karnataka’s top Congress leaders — former chief minister Siddaramaiah, senior leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and D K Shivakumar, Deputy Chief Minister G Parameshwara, Home Minister M B Patil and state Congress chief Dinesh Gundu Rao — are leading the Congress efforts to retain the Kundgol assembly seat in the Dharwad region and the Chincholi seat in the Gulbarga region.
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The Kundgol bypoll has been necessitated by the sudden death of the popular Congress MLA C S Shivalli, a follower of Siddaramaiah and minister in the H D Kumaraswamy government, in March. Meanwhile, the Chincholi seat fell vacant after the resignation and defection of former Congress MLA Umesh Jadhav to the BJP in March. Jadhav contested the Kalaburagi Lok Sabha seat as a BJP candidate on April 23 against Mallikarjun Kharge.
The Congress has fielded Kusuma Shivalli, 49, the widow of Shivalli in the Kundgol seat, while the BJP has fielded veteran leader Chikanagoudar, 66, who lost the 2018 polls by a narrow 634 votes to Shivalli. Both Congress and BJP are relying on the sympathy factor taking their respective candidates to a victory in the by poll.
Lingayat community to play crucial role
The battle in Kundgol is between a candidate who belongs to the backward caste community and a Lingayat candidate, while the contest in Chincholi is between two scheduled tribe candidates. However, both constituencies have a sizable population of Linagayats. BJP state president and Lingayat leader B S Yeddyurappa stated while campaigning for the bypolls that “it would be a crime if Lingayats vote for the Congress”. The Congress has filed a complaint with the Election Commission over Yeddyurappa’s remarks.
In Chincholi, the BJP has fielded Umesh Jadhav’s son Avinash Jadhav, 30, at the insistence of Jadhav. The Congress had fielded BJP rebel Subhash Rathod, 54, who defected to the Congress after the BJP welcomed his fellow Lambani leader Jadhav. Kharge is hell-bent on winning the bypoll after Jadhav cited “overreach” in the region by Kharge’s son Priyank as his reason for quitting the Congress.
Since the state Assembly polls in May 2018 threw up a hung verdict, the BJP has been banking on a strategy of reducing the strength of the house by getting alliance MLAs to quit and defect in order to be in a position to stake a claim of majority. However, the strategy has thus far been unsuccessful, with Jadhav being the only defector, while around six fence-sitters are said to be awaiting the Lok Sabha results to decide.
The Lok Sabha poll results are expected to create some amount of flux in the coalition government in Karnataka with the BJP likely to adopt an aggressive stance to topple the government in the event of a government headed by the party emerging in New Delhi after May 23.
A UPA government with the Congress in pole position could also lead to changes with the Congress in Karnataka wanting a dominant role in its alliance with the JDS instead of the lesser role it currently enjoys.
“Winning these by elections will take our tally to 106. It is very important that we win these two seats,” said Yeddyurappa, who has instructed party workers that they must not to go on holiday till the by-polls end. The state BJP chief has also claimed that as many as 20 Congress MLAs are in touch with him and willing to switch sides if an opportune moment arises in the post Lok Sabha poll scenario. Karnataka chief minister H D Kumaraswamy has dismissed the claims as “a day dream”.
There is speculation that the state could witness fresh polls in November this year if the coalition fails. There has also been internal jostling for power within the Congress-JDS alliance, with supporters of Siddaramaiah stating that he be made CM again, while Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy has suggested that Kharge, a Dalit leader, deserves to be the CM.
JD(S) state president H Vishwanath has accused Siddaramaiah’s supporters of not abiding by the coalition dharma. Siddaramaiah, however, has said, “They would like me to be the CM if Congress wins the elections in 2023 – is this wrong?”
Meanwhile, JD(S) national president and former prime minister H D Deve Gowda, who is hoping to play a key role of bringing various regional parties together to form the government in New Delhi in the event of the NDA and UPA not getting a clear majority, has maintained a stoic silence throughout the bickering.