Every election in Karnataka throws up new issues. If the 2006 Assembly elections paved the way for the lotus to rise in South India, in the 2008 elections, it was the Lingayats’ caste assertion led by B.S. Yeddyurappa, which gave the Bharatiya Janata Party a strong foothold in Deccan politics. In 2013, it was the corruption charges on the Yeddyurappa government that saw the rise of Siddaramaiah on an anti-corruption platform. Siddaramaiah, then a recent entrant to the Congress, rode on the “Bellary March” against mining and a personal popularity wave to wrest power, leaving Congress heavyweights aside. 2018 has thrown up a unique question: who controls the Congress in Karnataka—Rahul Gandhi or Siddaramaiah?
While the Congress campaign for the Karnataka elections in 2018 may have kicked off well, with most pre-poll surveys giving the party an edge over the BJP, in the three weeks after the notification of the polls, the party seems to be losing the advantage it had. The steady campaign by BJP president Amit Shah and the party has started to make things swing the BJP’s way. Not one to give up easily, Shah is travelling across the length and breadth of the state, which has helped the BJP develop a strong connect with the masses.
The panic in the Congress camp is evident, with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president, G. Parameshwara forced to think about contesting from two seats. Siddaramaiah, who had announced he would contest from Chamundeshwari constituency, was forced to think of the safer Badami seat, which has a higher Kuruba population.
Parameshwara’s proposal of a second seat was shot down by the party high command, which said the move would send out a wrong signal. It may be recalled that the KPCC president had lost his seat in 2013, owing to sabotage from within the party.
With polling day less than four weeks away, the wheel has come full circle for Siddaramaiah as he faces a crucial battle for survival. Siddaramaiah, who has to his credit the distinction of being the only Chief Minister after Devraj Urs to complete a full term in office, is unsure whether the party will back him. A nervous Siddaramaiah is opting for a safer constituency, signalling that all is not well. Anticipating that the Vokkaliga community, upset with the Congress for over-wooing the Lingayats, may not support him in the Chamundeswari constituency, he opted for Badami which has a Kuruba majority. Siddaramaiah, a Kuruba himself, is relying on his own community’s support for survival. Many wonder if this is an indicator of the things to come.
The friction among Congress’ old guard and the Congress faction led by Siddaramaiah is out in the open. Siddaramaiah and his supporters, who moved from Janata Dal (Secular) to the Congress, are calling the shots on ticket distribution. Their dominance has triggered a rebellion in the Congress.
The Congress leaders who comprise the old guard angry are angry and term Siddaramaiah’s approach as whimsical. The induction of several Opposition MLAs, including seven from the JDS, Independent Ashok Kheny, Anand Singh from BJP, saw the exit of several Congress loyalists from the party—the allegation being that Siddaramaiah is creating his own coterie, instead of keeping Congress’ interests in mind. Mallakaiah Guttedar, MLA from Afzalpur, joined the BJP, while P. Ramesh, an old Congress hand, firmed up his plans to contest independently after being denied a ticket from C.V. Raman Nagar, a constituency he nurtured for a decade. “I have been a loyal Congress worker, but I did not get any support from any other leader. It was only one man, Siddaramaiah, who decided to axe my ticket to help his close aides,” P. Ramesh told The Sunday Guardian.
The anger in the Congress camp forced the Central Election Committee to hold back the announcement of Congress candidates for the forthcoming polls as the party fears a backlash and rebellion. “In Karnataka, the Congress one sees is different from the Congress which its president Rahul Gandhi leads. Here, Siddaramaiah calls the shots and there is not much that the high command can do as Karnataka is the only big state that the party has. It bows to Siddaramaiah,” said Hemant Kumar, a political analyst.
On the other hand, the BJP, which announced its first list, is actively campaigning across the state. Party president Amit Shah spent the week in the Lingayats’ stronghold in north Karnataka to ensure that the party is able to reach out to the community, which is in a dilemma over the separate religion status.
On Thursday, Amit Shah opted to sit on a fast to express his support for the call of the Prime Minister to observe a day’s fast over the non-functioning of Parliament. Hitting out at the Congress, Amit Shah said that Congress’ defeat in Karnataka will “demonetise the party” and dry up its source of funds, since the state acts like an ATM for the party. The token fast to mark a protest by his party against the stalling of Parliament by the Congress drew a huge support in Dharwad.
“The best opportunity to put an end to the politics of the Congress party begins in Karnataka when the elections are held next month. The Congress is using Karnataka like an ATM and the ATM is going to shut down. It will be a notebandi for the Congress,” Shah told supporters. Amit Shah’s confidence stems from the interactions he has had with the seers of over 10 mathas in the region, many of whom have offered to support the BJP.
As the BJP cadre gains confidence, the party is busy finalising the campaign schedule of its star campaigner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has the ability to be the game changer. The Sunday Guardian has learnt that after returning from his foreign commitments, Prime Minister Modi is likely to address 15 rallies in the state, including conducting a grand roadshow on the final day of the campaign.
“The BJP cadre are known to accept such challenges and Karnataka has seen the performance of the BJP in the past. Now, coupled with the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we can definitely take the state on the development path,” Union Minister Sadananad Gowda told The Sunday Guardian. The confidence in the party may not be misplaced as it sees the Congress infighting help its goal of seeing the lotus bloom again.