Author: 15 Dec 2019
The Karnataka Assembly elections, to be held on May 12 across 224 constituencies, could set the tone for the polls to follow later this year in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, besides the 2019 general elections. It poses a test to both the BJP and the Congress in different ways. For the BJP, a win in Karnataka would give it a foothold in the south, where its presence, generally speaking, is less than significant. This becomes particularly important for a party that is seen in the south as an essentially ‘Hindi, north Indian phenomenon — a tag that sticks despite the party having established governments from the North-East to the western States. The ongoing row over whether the 15th Finance Commission will end up reducing the shares of the Southern States because of their lower population shares, could hurt the BJP in this context if it is not deftly handled. Hence, the BJP would be keen for an image makeover. The Congress, meanwhile, needs a win in Karnataka to prove that it is the natural choice as the leader of any anti-BJP formation. Even as Karnataka’s Chief Minister Siddaramaiah spearheads the campaign, Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s stature as a nationwide leader would once again be tested in the wake of electoral setbacks in the North-East.
The Congress’ campaign strategy in Karnataka remains more streamlined than the BJP’s. Under Siddaramaiah, it has hit upon a narrative of sub-nationalism (as did Laloo-Nitish in the 2015 Bihar Assembly polls) and Tamil Nadu-style welfarism, whereas the BJP, led by a hamstrung BS Yeddyurappa, is dependent on a centralized (or northern) leadership for cues. Whether the Modi-Shah combine can pull it off in a southern State, as they have done elsewhere, is a moot point. Another crucial factor is the extent to which Janata Dal (Secular) splits the anti-BJP votes. The Congress is tapping into its traditional support base of Muslims, Dalits, and OBCs, while the JD(S) and BJP will lean towards the Vokkaligas and Lingayats, respectively. Siddaramaiah’s move to support a separate Lingayat religion may reorganize the Lingayat votes. The BJP is likely to accuse the Congress of ‘dividing Hinduism’; instead of ‘anti-corruption’, its plank may shift to more emotive issues during the home stretch. Socio-economic issues have not received due attention. Agrarian distress remains a concern even as large parts of the State grapple with water shortage. Particularly disappointing is the lack of focus on jobs in a State that finds itself at a crossroads with the decline of the IT-BPO sector. Whether it is Karnataka or the entire country, voters should reward those who transcend identity politics and focus on key issues like jobs, development, dignity, and rule of law for all.
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