The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is banking heavily on a high voltage presence by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last leg of campaigning in the state before it goes to polls on May 12.
Mr. Modi's presence is being dubbed as the X factor in this tri-cornered contest in the Karnataka assembly elections. While there is no evidence of any anti-incumbency wave against the present Congress government led by Chief Minister Siddaramiah, the confidence exhibited by former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy and his father, former Prime Minister H. D. Deve Gowda seems to indicate that a fractured mandate might make this closely watched election anybody's game.
In all this speculation, where does the Prime Minister fit in? Clearly Narendra Modi is an unparalleled campaigner. He brings energy and tumult to state politics whenever he lands to campaign. And, it seems to have worked every single time for the BJP other than in Bihar, where the Bihari 'brothers' campaign run by election strategist Prashant Kishore, once a BJP acolyte, worked in favour of the coalition against Modi. But in the end, the BJP had the last laugh with the party being back in the saddle in Bihar in cohorts with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
Here in Karnataka, the BJP plans to make its Dravidian entry and dispel the notion that it is only a north-based political party. However, it has a following only in pockets in the state, unlike the Congress party which has a long history and a strong pan state presence.
But before Narendra Modi arrives here to campaign for his party's so far mild mannered chief ministerial candidate Yeddyurappa, he heads to China to meet with President Xi Jinping. The Prime Minister clearly putting foreign relations on priority before domestic agenda. But is he? When he begins speaking at rallies in Karnataka, if he can speak about a rapprochement with China, increasing trade relations, improvement in bilateral ties, more job opportunities with a potential tie up with the Asian giant, would it click with urban voters?
In urban Karnataka, the main issues remain the same as in the election of 2013, of pot-holed roads, incomplete and ineffective public transport, unemployment, corruption and a sluggish business environment.
Prime Minister Modi could tap into the urban discontent and present a larger picture to first time voters and mid-career professionals. Promising a robust economy for the state in tandem with the centre's projection of a seven to eight percent growth for the country could work. But he would have to stay clear of claiming that demonitisation was a success or that the GST (Goods and Services Tax) was a brilliant idea. Most here feel that the GST was a rushed job when the country wasn't ready for it and that demonitisation was a random and ill thought of step.
As has been the BJP's strategy in all election campaigns, Prime Minister Modi is expected to come out all guns blazing, addressing almost 16 rallies beginning from May 1. The slog overs matter and the undecided voters is what he will target first. Prime Minister Modi's language barrier in the south is also a niggling doubt, with anti-Hindi sentiment getting more aggressive as politics becomes contentious closer to the general elections.
BJP President Amit Shah has done the initial kite flying on all topics during his several visits to the state. He has led the campaign for the party with chief ministerial candidate Yeddyurappa, the party's Y factor, barely speaking to the media and keeping a very low profile during public meetings.
Clearly the Y factor of the BJP will play second fiddle in the coming weeks to the X factor, Narendra Modi. What really is Y's USP (unique selling proposition)? Other than being a former chief minister and a member of the powerful Lingayat Community, there is little that the party can hope for from Y.
When Prime Minister Modi comes here, he will have a tough time in promising voters that Y will head a dynamic go-getting government. Y just doesn't seem to have the energy of a Shivraj Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh) or a Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh). He is more in the mould of Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje (Rajasthan), moody and sporadically effective. But then non-performance or lethargy by a BJP chief minister in the penultimate year before general elections is not something that is negotiable for Amit Shah or Narendra Modi as has been evident in Yogi Adityanath being reportedly read out the rules of engagement recently.
Governance or otherwise in 2018 in states will impact upon perception at the national level on how the BJP fares. Yeddyurappa must be aware of that. He did manage to run an effective campaign before the distribution of tickets with old loyalists from his Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) days.
There is palpable excitement in Karnataka that the entire country's focus is on the state election. It is also a test to see if Congress party president Rahul Gandhi is able to help Siddaramiah hold on to the only big state that the Congress has in the country, or, will it be yet another loss for the grand old party. A hung assembly is everyone's nightmare. Everyone other than the BJP. They know how to play that game very well.