The Congress prospects in Karnataka have received a serious setback, with 49 party rebels who have entered the fray, threatening to affect the chances of the official nominees, in the Assembly elections slated for 12 May. Attempts to pacify them ahead of the last date of withdrawal of nominations did not succeed, and the party’s primary concern was that they would definitely prove detrimental to the chances of the selected candidates—many of whom previously pledged allegiance to the Janata Dal (Secular) and moved to the Congress on account of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.
The dissidents include 14 sitting MLAs and 35 party nominees, who had contested the Assembly elections of 2013 and yet were denied tickets by the high command. The principal grouse of the rebels is that they were sidelined so as to accommodate the Chief Minister’s loyalists despite the fact that they had built the party, in their respective constituencies, from the grassroots. The political significance of this revolt is that in the last election there were 17 seats where the victory margins were less than 1,000 votes. This time around, there would be many more seats where the confrontations would be too close for comfort and thus consequently every vote would be relevant.
In sharp contrast, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which in 2013 had fought the polls as a divided entity, with B.S. Yeddyurappa and B. Sriramulu fielding their own candidates, is contesting the current elections unitedly. In addition, the party is hoping that once Prime Minister Narendra Modi commences his campaign, there would be a shift in the mood and a saffron wave would sweep Karnataka, putting to an end the challenge offered by the Congress.
However, the superstitious amongst politicians are confused on the possible fallout of a BJP victory in Karnataka. There is a strong belief in political circles that since 1983, any party that has won the polls in the state has subsequently not been able to form the government at the Centre. It is obvious that core BJP and RSS supporters would want Narendra Modi to overturn this trend and lead the party to a dramatic victory, with or without the help of Janata Dal (Secular), which could play the role of a kingmaker. Politics is not guided by irrational thinking, though politicians often are swayed by unfounded apprehensions and therefore the BJP would indeed not wish to lose an opportunity to wrest the state, given a divided Opposition would be in no position to overturn the 2014 mandate for the Centre next year.
Interestingly, former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda is still a force to reckon with in Karnataka, and members of his own Vokkaliga community in particular are working overtime to ensure that the JDS rakes in a sufficient number of seats to ascertain the future political course of the state. As yet there is no indication whether the JDS would align with the BJP or the Congress in the post poll scenario, since its top leadership continues to maintain that the party could upset the calculations of both the national players.
The problems within the Congress are enormous. Siddaramaiah has completely dominated the political discourse in Karnataka and at times, while taking decisions, has defied the high command. His main election plank is to kindle and awake Karnataka’s pride by pitting it against the BJP—which he has described as a North Indian party—wanting to erode the Kannadiga ethos. He has sought to draw a wedge between the Lingayats, a dominant community, which has by and large supported the BJP, and considers Yeddyurappa its primary leader.
Siddaramaiah’s attempt is to replicate the election model of his senior predecessor, Devraj Urs, who in the late 1970s had galvanised insignificant castes into a major political force, so as to end the domination of major castes. He has administered the state with an iron hand and has not given an inch to his detractors from both inside and outside the party to voice their opinion.
In fact, on crucial matters including the grant of Rajya Sabha seats, he has overruled the Congress leadership, thereby disallowing senior functionaries such as Mallikarjun Kharge, the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, and B.K. Hariprasad to flex their muscles in state politics. The Chief Minister has created a situation similar to the one which existed in Punjab, ensuring that in case of his being able to retain Karnataka, he would receive all the credit, while in the event of a loss, the party’s high command would be blamed.
However, his overriding control during the distribution of party tickets has had a negative impact on Congress workers, who are now reluctant to work wholeheartedly for the success of the party’s official nominees. In Chikamaglur, for instance, from where Indira Gandhi in 1978 had sounded the bugle of her return to the political centre stage, the Congress tickets have not been granted to any of her unwavering supporters. The fact of the matter is that ironically all the five party nominees from the above mentioned place are former Janata Dal(S) activists. This has further enraged the Congress workers, who are determined to ensure that the official nominees under no circumstance emerge victorious.
Another factor perplexing the Congress workers is that after many decades, it is the first election where the cadres are facing their adversaries without former Chief Minister S.M. Krishna by their side. Krishna, due to his advanced age and ailments, is not actively campaigning in these elections, though he had last year exited the Congress to join the BJP.
In this context, the presence of the rebels—who are trying to assert their right to contest in their respective constituencies—is what possibly could prevent the Congress, under Siddaramaiah, to have its way. Theoretically, the party is confident of comfortably winning 80 seats out of 224 and is prepared to sweat it out in the remaining segments to reach the halfway mark. In the present House, the party has 120 members as against 43 of the BJP and 29 of the JDS. These figures could drastically change, thereby determining which way the wind finally blows in Karnataka. Amit Shah has already declared that the state would be the BJP’s gateway to the South. Therefore it is for Siddaramaiah to ensure that the saffron influence is restricted so as to give a fresh lease of life to both the Congress and its president Rahul Gandhi.