Karnataka by-polls: Congress wins both seats, BJP's efforts come to nought
With just about a year to go for Assembly elections in Karnataka, the Siddaramaiah-led Congress party won both the by-elections from Nanjangud and Gundlupet constituencies by handsome margins, sending out a clear signal that it is ready to halt the BJP juggernaut south of the Vindhyas.
Kalale Keshavamurthy of the Congress defeated BJP’s V Srinivasa Prasad by a margin of 21,334 votes in Nanjangud and Geetha Mahadeva Prasad retained Gundlupet for the Congress by defeating Niranjan Kumar of the BJP by 10,887 votes.
In his post-election reaction, a jubilant Siddaramaiah took a dig at BJP’s campaign for ‘Congress mukt Bharat,’ and said “Karnataka is not Uttar Pradesh” and “it is the land of (12th century social reformer) Basavanna, which treats everyone equally.”
The by-elections were caused by the resignation of Congress veteran Srinivasa Prasad after being dropped from the cabinet and the sudden death of Cooperation Minister Mahadeva Prasad, a close confidante of the chief minister.
Srinivasa Prasad, a two-time MLA and seven-time MP, who had served as a Union minister in the AB Vajpayee government and also a prominent Dalit leader hailing from the same district as Siddaramaiah, caused ripples in the Congress when he resigned from the party last June.
After weighing all his options for six months, Prasad joined the BJP in January, throwing a gauntlet at the chief minister to defeat him. The Congress was clueless as to how to take him on, before it persuaded Keshavamurthy to switch over from the JD(S) and fight the election on its behalf.
In Gundlupet, Mahadeva Prasad had been a popular leader, winning five consecutive elections on different party symbols. His wife, Geetha became a consensus choice as Karnataka has a long history of electing sitting members’ widows on a wave of sympathy. The BJP tried to bank of reverse sympathy by fielding Niranjan Kumar, who, and whose father, had lost twice each to Mahadeva Prasad, sometimes very narrowly.
Though the Old Mysore region has been BJP’s Achilles heels, both Nanjangud and Gundlupet have sizeable Lingayat populations – the supposed vote-bank of BS Yeddyurappa. Coming close on the heels of BJP’s stupendous success in the north, Yeddyurappa was keen to demonstrate his strength on being made the state party president.
In backing Srinivasa Prasad, Yeddyurappa also saw an opportunity to forge Lingayat-Dalit unity which could serve the BJP well in the coming general elections across the state. He also wanted to demonstrate to his detractors in his own party that he was the supreme vote-catcher who alone could bring the BJP back to power in Karnataka.
Just before the elections were announced, the tumbling out of “the Govindaraju diary” from a Congress leader’s closet, which allegedly contained details of at least Rs 600 crore payment to the Congress high command, helped Yeddyurappa to go on the offensive against Congress.
Siddaramaiah hit back at Yeddyurappa reminding him that he had not come out of the corruption cases he faced as BJP’s chief minister.
In the midst of all the mud slinging, Congress veteran, former chief minister of Karnataka and external affairs minister in the Manmohan Singh cabinet, SM Krishna sprang a surprise by quitting the Congress and joining the BJP. It was supposed to be a high profile catch as Krishna could potentially snatch the Vokkaliga votes from the JD(S) and weaken it, ahead of the 2018 elections.
Krishna joined the BJP election campaign and when he started praising the Narendra Modi government and calling Siddaramaiah “the worst chief minister” he had seen, he sunk in people’s estimation of being a statesman to a petty politician who had turned opportunistic at the age of 84.
While Yeddyurappa and other senior leaders of the BJP camped in the two constituencies for almost a month, undertaking house-to-house campaign, the Siddaramaiah cabinet descended on Nanjangud and Gundlupet for 10 days, even leaving behind drought relief works.
In hindsight, it appears that the BJP miscalculated Srinivasa Prasad’s standing in Nanjangud constituency. The burning to death of three Dalits at Badanavalu village by upper castes Lingayats in a communal clash in early 1990s still carry bitter memories for both communities and Srinivasa Prasad had played a leading part in ensuring a CBI inquiry into the incident. After a prolonged litigation, the trial court handed life sentence to 13 persons last year, which has left the Lingayats seething with anger.
The result clearly indicates that Yeddyurappa could not convince Lingayats to support Prasad and probably they have voted solidly against him to help Keshavamurthy to win. The JD(S) also played a crucial role in the outcome of the elections by not putting up candidates in either Nanjangud or Gundlupet and ensuring that the non-BJP votes consolidated in favour of the Congress.
In fact, soon after the UP election results, JD(S) leader HD Deve Gowda had rued the decimation of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party and called for opposition unity to “save regional parties in the country.” It appears that there was a tacit understanding between the Congress and the JD(S) in these by-elections and the results have vindicated the wisdom behind such a strategy.
At his post-election press conference, Siddaramaiah ruled out any pre-poll alliance or understanding with the JD(S) in the coming elections, but the setback in these by-elections will certainly make the BJP strategists, including its president Amit Shah, to factor in such a possibility into consideration while preparing his party for the polls.