Party Politics

Karnataka voters are deciding factor in high-voltage, no-wave assembly elections

By Anjali Chhabra

Venomous verbal face-offs, strategic posturing, and high-voltage campaigning for the 224 assembly seats in Karnataka have set the stage for the state’s voters to pick a new government on May 10. This is an election that follows weeks of political manoeuvres.

The campaign period saw Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) switch flanks while the Janata Dal-Secular (JDS) desperately tried to protect its flock for the end game at the time of government formation.

As blaring loudspeakers start falling silent on May 9 evening in Karnataka — which has the 7th largest legislative assembly in the country — the absence of a visible wave in favour of any party has left analysts perplexed if an anti-incumbency vote or a pro-government mandate is in store when the ballot boxes are opened on May 13.

The shrill campaign dominated by road shows and rallies has seen the ruling BJP and the opposition target each other on corruption, development, and polarisation, amid desperate efforts to woo the three major communities of Lingayats, Vokkaligas, and Kurubas with heavy use of the Hindutva plank. The electioneering in the poll-bound state has been peppered with temple runs by top campaigners and has even seen the name of ‘Lord Hanuman’ being dragged into the poll arena.

The high-stakes clash spilled over to newspaper advertisements as well, with claims from different parties forcing the Election Commission (EC) of India to direct them to seek a go-ahead from its media certification panel before releasing print media advertisements. The EC move pinched INC the most, which alleged that the poll panel had created an uneven playing field. The party was already fuming over a show cause notice issued by the EC to Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president D. K. Shivakumar for advertisements in newspapers claiming a “40 percent commission sarkar” (of BJP) in Karnataka.

The campaign to woo 53 million voters in the state was spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, BJP chief J. P. Nadda, Chief Minister B. S. Bommai, and saffron party’s old war horse B. S. Yediyurappa and INC leaders Soni and Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Vadra, Mallikarjun Kharge, D. K. Shivakumar, Siddaramaiah, Jagadish Shettar, and Laxman Savadi.

For the JD(S), former prime minister H. D. Deve Gowda, his son H. D. Kumaraswamy and the party’s leader in Lok Sabha Prajwal Revanna, campaigned tirelessly and claimed that Modi’s attempt to fool voters through his roadshows would fall flat. Deve Gowda also vented his anger over Modi for calling the JD(S) a B-team of Congress.

While addressing voters, Sonia Gandhi stepped up an attack on the BJP by alleging that the saffron party usurped power through dacoity and its “40 percent (commission seeking) government” looted people. Modi countered by accusing the “Royal family” of the INC of working against national interest and claimed that the word INC stood for “scam, corruption, and 85 percent commission.”

File Collage: Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) and INC leader Rahul Gandhi

Venomous snake barb and backlash on Bajrang

The INC appeared to be on the defensive after the BJP highlighted the grand old party’s manifesto promise to ban outfits like Bajrang Dal. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an RSS affiliate, slapped a Rs 100- crore defamation suit on INC president Mallikarjun Kharge for defaming the Bajrang Dal. The PM also latched on to the emotive issue by claiming that INC now had plans to lock up “Lord Hanumana”, who is also worshipped as Bajrang Bali. The VHP also announced its plan to chant Hanuman Chalisa on May 9 — a day before voting in Karnataka — across the country. VHP said it aims to invoke “Bajrang Bali” to bless the INC with good sense.

State INC chief Shivakumar dismissed BJP’s “Bajrang Bali” related comments as an attempt to divert attention from the issue of poor development in the state. “All that our party has said is that it will ban divisive forces,” he said at an election rally, pointing to Rahul Gandhi’s “Bharat Jodo Yatra” that was launched for exactly this purpose.

The BJP, however, seems to have scored over the INC on the issue by giving a religious spin to the INC’s promise to reign in outfits like the now-banned Islamic extremist Popular Front of India (PFI) and Bajrang Dal — both mentioned in the same section of the party’s manifesto.

Earlier, Kharge courted another controversy by likening Modi to a “venomous snake”. The Prime Minister said he was fine being compared with a venomous snake as it is like a garland on Lord Shiva’s neck. He expressed confidence that Kannadigas would give a befitting reply to the INC’s snake barb by overwhelmingly backing the BJP.

During the campaign, Amit Shah alleged that INC was not happy with the BJP’s effort to secure the country by banning outfits like PFI. Modi also hit out at the INC for supporting terrorists. Rahul was quick to counter these attacks by claiming that he himself was a victim of terrorism as he had lost two of his family members — grandmother Indira and father Rajiv — to the menace and understood the problem much better than those who used terrorism as a vote garnering topic.

Shah added that the INC was following PFI’s agenda by adding to its manifesto the banned outfit’s two suggestions including increasing the quota for the minorities from 4 percent to 6 percent and keeping the state budget for the minorities at Rs 10,000 crore.

While Shah sought votes for the BJP by claiming that only his party can give a secure and safe environment to citizens, INC general secretary Randeep Singh Surjewala tried to drill holes in the saffron party’s claim of being peace-loving and law-abiding outfit by alleging that the BJP was plotting to kill Kharge and his family. He supported his allegation by sharing with media persons a recording of a phone conversation featuring a BJP leader from Chittapur. Sonia Gandhi also hit out at the BJP leaders by claiming that they were openly threatening voters by announcing that riots will break out if the party loses the election.

Muslim voters

The minority Muslim community constitutes over 13 percent of the state’s population and holds the key to electoral outcomes in 40 out of 224 assembly constituencies. The hijab controversy, which saw right-wing groups forcing Muslim women not to wear Hijab in educational institutes, especially in Udupi, to maintain dress uniformity among students from all communities, and BJP’s promise to reverse the previous INC government’s decision to offer a 4 percent reservation to Muslims were also key highlights of BJP’s Karnataka gameplan.

The rhetoric surrounding hijab, azaan, and halal had peaked last year but in the final lap of the campaign, it seemed to have dropped from the top priority of the saffron brigade. A private bill in the legislative council last year had sought a ban on halal food, while attempts by BJP supporters to seek a ban on the use of loudspeakers for azaan were shot down by the state high court.

The BJP, it seems, does not expect Muslim voters to back it. As a result, the party has continued to consolidate Hindu votes by claiming that INC leaders Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah are “members of Tipu Sultan’s family”. During one rally, BJP leader and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma claimed Siddaramaiah wanted to observe Tipu’s anniversary with fanfare but, he claimed, such an event could be organised only in Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Caste dynamics

Looking to dip into the votes of caste-sensitive Kannadiga voters, the INC promised to enhance reservations to 75 percent, beyond the Supreme Court-mandated 50 percent ceiling. Shah, on the other hand, has vowed that if BJP is voted to power it will not offer a Muslim quota and also ensure that reservation for Lingayats is not diluted.

INC’s strong team of caste leaders includes Vokkaliga stalwart Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah, a Kuruba leader, who master weaving a social alliance of Ahinda (SCs, OBCs, and Muslims). No party appears willing to put its money entirely on a caste-based campaign, as a delicate balance between caste and religion issues seems to be the safest bet in one of the most fiercely fought electoral battles in the state.

Young voters

A significant part of Rahul Gandhi’s campaign targeted young voters, including the 1.1 million first-time voters. His engagement with this section of voters included meeting college students, sharing meals with food delivery partners in Bangaluru, riding pillion on a delivery man’s motorcycle and even hopping on to a Bengaluru state road transport bus to interact with commuters. The PM, during his roadshows, tried to win over youngsters by promising jobs and showcased the BJP state government’s record of creating 1.3 million jobs in the state in just over three years. He called Congress a misinformation machine and scoffed at its promise to generate 1 million jobs if voted to power.

Sudan conflict reverberates in campaign

The Sudan conflict and rescue of members of Karnataka’s Hakki Pikki tribe from the war-ravaged country also featured during the campaign, with the PM interacting with over 200 tribe members rescued from the African country. Talking to the rescued HakKi Pikki tribe members in Nanjangud, he took credit for the evacuation operation and claimed that he never “sleeps even if one Indian is in trouble abroad”. The issue of the stranded tribe members was first raised by Siddaramaiah but the BJP was quick to hijack the issue with an eye on electoral gains from it.

Counting on May 13

Only the counting of votes on May 13 will reveal the winner of the ongoing see-saw battle. Till then the BJP and the INC shall continue to boast about winning a clear majority. Shah recently claimed that the BJP would win 127 seats in the 224-member Assembly while the INC’s internal seat expectations range between 106-121. Siddaramaiah, in several interviews, has maintained that INC will cross the majority mark in the Assembly on its own.

Perhaps, both parties are trying to woo the fence sitters who usually prefer going with the winning party rather than wasting their vote on a party that is trailing. It will be a historic moment for the INC if it wins a clear majority but even in that scenario, the party may have to remain watchful to balance the chief ministerial aspirations of its stalwarts like Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah and prevent a meltdown.

In case of a fractured mandate, the balance may tilt in the BJP’s favour, which may bet on Yeddiyurappa to take the party as close as possible to forming a coalition government. If no party manages to get a clear majority, the JD(S) will be the most sought-after player in the assembly, like in the 2018 elections.

The outcome of the Karnataka Assembly elections would also set the tone for the Lok Sabha polls in 2024 amid attempts to compare its results as a referendum on Modi’s popularity and Rahul’s political heft.

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