Karnataka is practice pitch for 2014

Karnataka offers a strange situation, almost a microcosm (albeit in reverse) of the political equations thrown up nationally

Today’s voting in Himachal Pradesh begins a 17-month poll marathon that will conclude only in May 2014, with the verdict of the 16th Lok Sabha election. India has elections all the time but what is remarkable about the bunch of state elections that come in the final 1.5 years of a Central government’s term — at least in the current calendar — is the direct contest between the Congress and the BJP in almost every major state.

In the winter of 2012, the two national parties are competing in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. In the winter of 2013, they will fight in Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Together, these six states will provide the perfect build-up to April-May 2014, when alliances led by the BJP and the Congress will seek the biggest prize: Raisina Hill.
It is anybody’s guess who will emerge on top. There are assumptions that can be made — such as the impact of the anti-incumbency against a Congress-led government in New Delhi that has now spent a decade in office. There are calculations about the strength of the BJP state units in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the TINA factor that may help the Congress chief minister in Delhi, the defeat that confronts the Congress in Rajasthan and the close contest in Himachal Pradesh. Of course, there is also Gujarat — but that probably merits a separate article.
The one state that has not been mentioned is Karnataka, which sees elections in April 2013. In many senses, Karnataka is more crucial than any of the other states. As the first province in southern India in which the BJP formed a government, it represents the BJP’s ability to expand and consolidate its geographical expanse — or simply shrink into a few core states. For the Congress, defeating the BJP in Bengaluru would be much more of a confidence shot than, for instance, displacing its rival party in Shimla. Of course, victory in Gandhinagar would be valued way higher but that is unlikely to happen and the Congress has factored that in.
Karnataka offers a strange situation, almost a microcosm (albeit in reverse) of the political equations thrown up nationally in the second term of the UPA. The Congress-led UPA government has been under par in its performance. Corruption charges, infighting and acrimony have hurt it; it has a huge public perception problem. Even so, the BJP hasn’t quite taken advantage and lacks a coherent strategy and leadership of its own. The next Lok Sabha election is still one for the Congress to lose rather than the BJP to win.
Karnataka is a mirror image. Despite the BJP’s efforts to make a mess of the mandate it won in 2008 and render itself unelectable and unworthy of a second term, the Congress is not battle ready. The fact that it has to turn to S.M. Krishna, the former foreign minister, to appeal to voters speaks for its lack of options and of any new energy. Mr Krishna is a distinguished politician and a former chief minister, but at 80 his best years are behind him. As a state politician, he stopped being relevant after the 1990s.
Though a Vokkaliga — one of Karnataka’s two major caste groups; the other, the Lingayats — propelled the BJP to office four years ago, Mr Krishna is scarcely the sort of caste leader who is appropriate for contemporary politics. An urban and urbane face, his chief ministry is fondly recalled among non-voting adherents in Bengaluru. In the rest of the state, he is a distant memory. In the Vokkaliga heartland of Old Mysore — which includes the rural parts of greater Bengaluru — the Congress is not the force it was in Mr Krishna’s prime. In the past few years, the tussle here has been between the Janata Dal (Secular), the party of the Deve Gowdas, the leading Vokkaliga family in Karnataka politics, and the BJP.
Perhaps the last remaining grassroots leader in the Congress is Siddaramaiah, a former JD(S) rebel and strongman of the Kuruba (shepherd) community. The Kurubas comprise eight per cent of Karnataka’s people and are its largest backward caste. However, it is unlikely the Congress will project Mr Siddaramaiah as its leader. Being a relative newcomer, he may not be trusted enough. Besides, there will be other contenders. A local television discussion during the 2008 election had counted 23 Congress aspirants for the chief minister’s job.
Nevertheless, the Congress has 30 per cent of the vote, a solid chunk that could prove decisive in case the Opposition splinters. In multi-cornered contests involving the Congress, the BJP, the JD(S) and B.S. Yeddyurappa’s breakaway party — should the former BJP chief minister actually walk away from his parent party — a 30 per cent base could be enough to win a majority.
Nothing is settled yet. The BJP government has been a media spectacle but has not done as badly, party insiders insist, in terms of satisfying its political constituency in primarily north and central Karnataka. It has to contend with its scarred image, especially in the bigger cities, and guard against the collapse of the carefully-crafted social coalition that brought it such dividends in 2008.
What were the elements of this coalition? K.S. Eshwarappa was and is the state’s best-known Kuruba politician other than Mr Siddaramaiah. D.V. Sadananda Gowda, former chief minister, provided the Vokkaliga component. The party had an adequate Brahmin quotient in its upper echelons. Finally, the two tallest Lingayat leaders of Karnataka, Jagadish Shettar, the current chief minister, and of course Mr Yeddyurappa brought almost their entire community into the BJP fold. Critical to this social coalition was Mr Yeddyurappa’s primacy in the party, and the Lingayat identification with that sentiment.
Without preserving that coalition, the BJP cannot hope for re-election — or perhaps even a strong performance that will leave it with an advantage in a hung house. That is what makes retention of and reconciliation with Mr Yeddyurappa non-negotiable. Unfortunately, a section of the BJP’s Delhi-based leadership seems supremely oblivious to that. The party needs to push them aside.

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