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Karnataka Assembly polls 2018: Congress, BJP both look at new equations

Akash Bisht | Updated on: 17 August 2017, 18:34 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)


As Assembly elections draw closer in Karnataka, the two dominant political forces – the Congress and the BJP – are desperately trying to create a new political arithmetic to win the forthcoming state elections. Both parties hope to woo communities that have traditionally voted against them so far.

While Congress is trying to rope in the Lingayat community over the separate religious identity issue, BJP has set its eyes on the Vokkaligas who have traditionally voted in favour of JD(S).

These attempts have added to the political suspense in the state which has not thrown up a clear potential winner as of now.

The ruling Congress is hoping to defy the anti-incumbency by adding the Lingayats to its vote share by backing their demand for a separate religious identity. Having been in power for the last five years, Congress needed an issue that could give it a fighting chance of retaining power. Interestingly, no party has retained power in the state since 1994 and it would be a major boost for the Congress if it manages to do so.


What are the odds?

The circumstances that have led to the Congress even thinking of having an outside chance of retaining Karnataka have all been created by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. Siddaramaiah played a masterstroke after he announced that he would make a representation to the central government if the entire community petitioned to him on the separate religious identity issue.

As the single largest community in Karnataka, Lingayats make up close to 17% of the state's population and have always played a decisive role in determining who gets to rule the southern state. Many believe that the Congress' plan to support the issue could turn out to be a game changer for the party. If the Lingayats do decide to rally behind the Congress, it would mean a major setback for the BJP that has been receiving their support in the past.

In fact, it was the Lingayats that propelled the BJP to power in 2008 and led to BS Yeddyurappa being crowned chief minister. Later in 2013, after two prominent Lingayat leaders Yeddyurappa and BS Sreeramulu parted ways with the BJP, the party was routed out of power largely because of the division of the Lingayat votes.

Turning the tables

This time around, the Congress is hoping to create a similar division by supporting demands of a separate religious identity which has surprised the saffron party.

Considering themselves to be the custodian of Hindus and Hinduism, BJP has out-rightly rejected the demand with Yeddyurappa calling Lingayats to be an integral part of Hinduism.

“If we manage to get some Lingayat votes along with our traditional Ahinda votes bank (minorities, backwards and Dalits), we are certain to win elections or be in a position to dictate terms over who would rule Karnataka. But, it remains to be seen whether this remains an issue till the elections,” said a senior state Congress leader.

In addition to their support, Congress has also assigned several of its ministers to tour Lingayat-dominated northern Karnataka to rally others in favour of a separate religious identity. If these ministers return with a positive feedback, the chief minister could move Centre over the issue.

However, to hope that the Narendra Modi-led central government would agree to this demand is highly unlikely which again could be exploited by the Congress for immediate political gains. Congress leaders also fear of the move backfiring if the BJP succeeds in its push for a Hindu consolidation and portraying the grand old party as anti-Hindu.

“All Lingayats are not supporting this demand and if the BJP manages to portray the Congress as anti-Hindu, the move could totally backfire. Therefore, we must tread very carefully and ensure that we are always a step ahead of BJP,” said the Congress leader. He added that if such a situation arises, Siddaramaiah could pull another rabbit out from the hat to counter the saffron party.

The BJP plan

Meanwhile, wary of the division of Lingaya votes, BJP is luring the Vokkaligas – the second largest community after Lingayats who have traditionally supported the JD(S) and even the Congress.

The BJP's outreach to the community clearly reflected when party president Amit Shah met Nirmalanandanatha Swami, the head seer of the Adichunchanagiri Mutt in the Vokkaliga heartland of Mandya district, on 13 May.

Sources say that Shah's visit is unlikely to break any ice with the community that solidly stands behind the JD(S). BJP may have roped in former Congress chief minister SM Krishna, another Vokkaliga leader, but his popularity dwarfs that of former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda's.

What has further hurt BJP's prospects in winning Vokkaligas support is the political witch hunt of its another prominent leader DK Shivakumar. Shivakumar's premises were recently raided by the income tax department after he gave refuge to 44 Congress MLAs from Gujarat before the crucial voting for the Rajya Sabha elections.

A powerful Vokkaliga leader, who is also considered to be close to the mutt, Shivakumar's witch hunt has further eroded the community's trust in the saffron party which has given the Congress hope of returning to power. However, the grand old party is sceptical of Deve Gowda's role in the forthcoming Assembly elections.

“Deve Gowda would choose a party that offers him the best package and since the BJP is the party with the largest pool of resources in the country, it is likely that former prime minister may support them. If he wins close to 60 seats, he would hold the master key to the state Assembly,” said a Congress functionary based in Bengaluru.

Meanwhile, he added that Gowda could have supported the Congress if it wasn't for Siddaramaiah.

“The two hate each other and have publicly announced that they would never join hands. Moreover, JD(S) cannot be trusted because they can have a pre-poll alliance with us but can go and support BJP after polls. If the BJP can convince Nitish Kumar, Gowda is far more gullible,” he said.

Troubles within

Marred by infighting within its ranks, BJP's Karnataka unit has gotten divided into several groups with the prominent ones being led by Yeddyurappa and KS Eshwarappa. It is for this very reason that BJP President Amit Shah's recent visit to the poll-bound state is also being seen as an attempt to unite the many factions in order to present a united front to take on a resurgent Congress.

The current political mood in the state is very heightened with both Shah and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi camping in the state to ensure victories for their respective parties.

While the Gandhi scion rolled out the populist Indira canteen scheme in the capital, Shah held meetings with party leaders, intellectuals and opinion makers to seek opinions on how to ensure BJP's victory.

Under the prevailing circumstances, it is extremely hard to pick a winner in Karnataka but the Congress does seem to have an upper hand over its political rivals. Upbeat after its dramatic victory in the Rajya Sabha polls in Gujarat, Congress is hoping that support of the Lingayats and infighting within the saffron party could help it secure yet another term in the poll-bound state.

But, it would be foolish to underestimate BJP under Shah that has been on a roll ever since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Political pundits believe that this election too could go down to the wire with results possibly positioning Gowda as a king maker. If that does happen, who will Gowda choose is anybody's guess.

First published: 17 August 2017, 18:34 IST