Karnataka polls: BJP combating anti-incumbency on multiple levels

Congress and the JD(S) hope to lure voters with grand promises

34-Bommai Show of strength: (From left to right) Union minister Shobha Karandlaje, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai and Karnataka Revenue Minister R. Ashoka at a rally in Bengaluru | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Eight years ago, Gorata―an inconspicuous village in Karnataka’s Bidar district―woke up to a unique event. Hundreds of youth chanting “Vande Mataram” gathered at the village to mark BJP president Amit Shah laying the foundation stone for a martyrs’ memorial. It honoured villagers killed by the nizam’s men in 1948 for hoisting the Indian flag.

On March 26, Shah returned to Gorata, now as Union home minister. He hoisted the tricolour to a height of 103 feet to inaugurate the memorial and a 20ft statue of Vallabhbhai Patel alongside it. Shah promised to develop the place into a national memorial if the BJP retained power in Karnataka. Shah sounding the poll bugle from Bidar, close to Hyderabad, is indicative of the BJP’s future aspirations. He even said: “The Telangana government did not celebrate Hyderabad Liberation Day. If the BJP comes to power there, we will.”

Retaining power in Karnataka is central to the BJP’s plans to make electoral inroads in south India. But, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai has been accused of corruption and targeted for “poor administration”. The party is attempting to overcome the negativity by showcasing the achievements of its double-engine government and is using hindutva to consolidate votes in Malnad (region along the slopes of the Western Ghats) and Coastal Karnataka. Its social engineering has helped it garner support of smaller caste groups. The latest such initiative is the tweaking of the reservation matrix to benefit its core vote bank―Lingayats, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

The BJP is hoping to make inroads into the Old Mysuru region, where the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress are both strong, and is wooing the dominant Vokkaliga community. The installation of the statue of Kempe Gowda I―a vassal of the erstwhile Vijayanagara empire and Bengaluru’s architect―at the Bengaluru international airport complex and the enhanced quota for Vokkaligas under the other backward classes list are aimed at yielding a better poll outcome in the region.

Bommai scrapped the 4 per cent reservation for Muslims under the OBC quota, citing the lack of a constitutional provision for reservation for religious minorities, instead moving them to the 10 per cent pool for economically weaker sections. The abolished quota was split equally among Lingayats and Vokkaligas―7 per cent, up from 5 per cent, for Lingayats (who were demanding 15 per cent) and 6 per cent from 4 per cent for the Vokkaligas (against a demand of 12 per cent). The BJP, which had announced 75 units of free power to below poverty line SC/ST families, also hiked reservation for SCs from 15 per cent to 17 per cent and for STs from 3 per cent to 7 per cent. In short, it may well have breached the Congress’s Ahinda vote bank―minorities, dalits and backward classes. Moreover, implementing an internal sub quota for SCs helped the BJP to reward the marginalised, left-leaning SCs for their support. The internal quota issue was put on the back-burner by previous governments fearing a backlash from the dominant SC communities, which had cornered benefits.

There is a 50 per cent cap on SC, ST and OBC reservation imposed by the Supreme Court in a 1992 judgement. But, the revised policy has taken the reservation tally in Karnataka to 56 per cent. So, the government will attempt to use the ninth schedule of the Constitution (which lists laws that cannot be legally challenged) to protect against judicial scrutiny. The BJP asserts the change is a move towards “social justice and inclusiveness”. Politically, it is a masterstroke.

Congress legislative party leader Siddaramaiah slammed the BJP for scrapping the 4 per cent quota for Muslims, alleging “hate politics”. Karnataka Congress chief D.K. Shivakumar pointed out that the enhanced quotas for Lingayats and Vokkaligas were well short of the demands of the two communities. “Reservation is not alms or the BJP’s family asset that can be redistributed at one’s whim,” he said. “Lingayats and Vokkaligas are the land-owning communities and farmers who provide food for the country. We are not beggars. Also, why did the government scrap the 4 per cent quota given to Muslims to hike the quota for Vokkaligas and Lingayats? It could have hiked the ceiling beyond 56 per cent and avoided depriving Muslims. This is a ploy to seed hatred between communities and deepen the communal divide.”

The BJP, which has reached a saturation point in Coastal Karnataka, Malnad and Kittur Karnataka (formerly Mumbai-Karnataka) is looking at newer territories―the Vokkaliga heartland of Old Mysuru and Kalyana Karnataka (Hyderabad-Karnataka)―to get to the clear majority of 113. It is also hoping to add seats in Bengaluru, Bidar and Belagavi districts.

In Bengaluru, the plan is to focus on winning Congress-held constituencies. The BJP now holds 15 of the 28 seats. Meanwhile the Congress and the JD(S) have been reduced to 12 and one, respectively.

In Bidar, the BJP holds four out of the eight seats and Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilisers Bhagwanth Khuba represents the parliamentary constituency. During UPA II, the Kalyana Karnataka region, of which Bidar is a part, was accorded special status to allow reservation in education and jobs and an enhanced development fund of 04,500 crore was set aside. However, the region, which has been represented by political stalwarts like Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and former chief minister N. Dharam Singh, is developing rather slowly. In fact, a transfer there is considered a punishment by public servants.

In Belagavi, the BJP holds 13 out of the 18 seats and is facing a leadership vacuum after the demise of sitting MLAs Umesh Katti and Anand Mamani recently, and MP Suresh Angadi during the pandemic. Also, MLA Ramesh Jarkiholi had to step down as minister following a sex scandal. There is also infighting between Lingayat leaders and Jarkiholi, who is from the ST (Valmiki) community.

In the Congress, the infighting is at the top of the state leadership. The tussle between Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar is evident and concerning for the party as both leaders are important. Shivakumar’s elevation to state chief is expected to garner Vokkaliga votes, but the party will also need Ahinda votes, for which Siddaramaiah is key.

Moreover, despite facing opposition from within the Congress, Siddaramaiah is still popular among the masses. And this rankles the BJP, especially because he is a vocal critic of the BJP. Unlike Shivakumar, who is battling a slew of cases filed by the ED and the CBI, Siddaramaiah has a clean image. So, the saffron party is trying to label him “anti-Hindu”. It also blamed him for the growth of the now-banned Popular Front of India in the state.

Despite soaring summer temperatures, political parties are crisscrossing the state on yatras. The BJP has brought in Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan as poll in-charge for Karnataka, a state where he has handled multiple crises in the past. The party has also roped in its Tamil Nadu president S. Annamalai owing to his prior bureaucratic experience in the state and his appeal among the youth. In Bengaluru, which has a sizeable Tamil-speaking population, Annamalai is expected to make an impact.

The Congress has also rolled out its campaigns, led by Siddaramaiah in the north and Shivakumar in the south. It is promising five flagship schemes and “poll guarantees” of 200 units of power to all households, Rs2,000 monthly assistance to women head of every family, 10kg of rice to every member of a below-poverty-line household and unemployment benefits of Rs3,000 to graduates and Rs1,500 for diploma holders for two years.

The BJP mocked the ‘guarantees’ saying the Congress leaders could not be trusted because there was no guarantee of where they would be contesting from. On a visit to the state in March, Modi pointed out that the Congress had made similar promises in Himachal Pradesh, but have not kept them.

The JD(S)’s H.D. Kumaraswamy, too, taunted the Congress saying that the state was already in a debt of Rs5.65 lakh crore and that the schemes for housewives and the unemployed alone would cost the exchequer Rs70,000 crore. He said that these were false promises. The JD(S) has promised reforms in crucial sectors―education, health, agriculture, employment, women empowerment and housing. This includes free education for all children until class 12, in both Kannada and English, housing for the poor, free health care facilities at the gram panchayat level, a job for every household and making every farmer debt-free and self-reliant.

Deve Gowda, 89, made an appearance at a JD(S) rally in Mysuru despite his health problems. It was an emotional moment for his huge fan base. He appealed to the people to trust his party and later greeted the crowd from a wheelchair, accompanied by his family members. The JD(S) faces the twin challenges of retaining prominent leaders and keeping the feud between Kumaraswamy and his brother H.D. Revanna under wraps. The party is hoping to get back the full support of its core vote bank, the Vokkaligas. It has also appointed former minister C.M. Ibrahim (who quit Congress) as the party chief to woo Muslims.

The Congress and the JD(S) are both hoping that anti-incumbency thwarts the BJP. And with good reason―the state has a tradition of not returning the ruling party to power. Can Bommai break the jinx and become the first incumbent chief minister to return to power since 1985? The answer is getting closer.