Congress hopes its 'five guarantees' will blunt BJP's aggressive push in Karnataka

Economy, universal basic income and north-south divide are major talking points

PTI04_14_2024_000396A Divine support: Prime Minister Narendra Modi garlands the statue of Narayana Guru before a roadshow in Mangaluru, Karnataka | PTI


WINNING KARNATAKA IS central to the BJP’s plans to make deeper inroads into the south. The saffron party tasted power for the first time in south India in 2008, when B.S. Yediyurappa formed the government in Karnataka, despite falling short of a majority. While a clear majority has been evading the BJP in the assembly polls, it has broken the Congress monopoly in the state and paved the way for alternatives (coalition government). Another significant shift has been the BJP emerging as the preferred party in Parliament elections. Since 2004, when the party bagged 18 of 28 seats, the Congress has been reduced to single-digit results.

In 2019, the BJP won 25 seats with a vote share of 52 per cent. The Congress was reduced to just one seat with a vote share of 31.3 per cent, despite its alliance with the JD(S). This time, the BJP has struck an alliance with the JD(S), leaving three seats to its partner.

Last year, the Congress had dethroned the BJP in the assembly polls, winning 135 of 224 seats. The BJP lost even its traditional bastions in the North and Central Karnataka Lingayat belt, while the JD(S) was routed in the Old Mysuru Vokkaliga heartland, which had always backed the regional party. While the Lingayats were unhappy with the BJP about the ouster of Yediyurappa, the Vokkaligas chose the Congress, expecting to see fellow Vokkaliga D.K. Shivakumar as chief minister. It remains to be seen if the same caste considerations would be at play this time as Yediyurappa’s son B.Y. Vijayendra has been made state chief of the BJP, while Shivakumar continues to be locked in a leadership tussle with Chief Minister and Kuruba strongman Siddaramaiah. The possibility of Shivakumar replacing Siddaramaiah after the polls continues to be a talking point.

The run up to the polls―to be held in two phases on April 26 and May 7―saw the Congress giving 10 seats to the kin of cabinet ministers, while the BJP dropped 15 sitting MPs. While the Congress is facing rebel threat in Kolar and Bagalkote, the BJP is facing rebellion in at least six seats, including Shivamogga, where former deputy chief minister K.S. Eshwarappa, upset over his son Kantesh being denied a ticket, is contesting as an independent.

In a surprise move, the BJP dropped firebrand hindutva leader Pratap Simha and picked Mysuru royal scion Yaduveer Wadiyar, a political novice, in Mysuru, the chief minister’s home turf. To fight incumbent D.K. Suresh, younger brother of Shivakumar, in Bangalore Rural, the BJP has named prominent cardiologist Dr C.N. Manjunath, son-in-law of JD(S) supremo H.D. Deve Gowda. The strategy seems to have clicked as both Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar are spending a lot of time and energy to ensure the victory of their candidates.

While the political discourse on Ram Temple, dynasty politics and Hindu nationalism are becoming feeble, their place is being taken by issues such as development, guarantee schemes, corruption and misuse of enforcement agencies. The state of the economy, universal basic income, capital expenditure and the north-south divide are also being talked about.

The Congress hopes that its 'five guarantees' campaign will blunt the BJP's aggressive push for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's third term. The five promises―free rice to BPL families, free bus ride for women, free power up to 200 units, monthly assistance of Rs2,000 to female heads of family and unemployment benefit for fresh graduates―were the main reason for the Congress’s thumping victory in the assembly polls.

Leader of the opposition in the assembly, R. Ashoka, said the Siddaramaiah government had become bankrupt because of the guarantees. “In Karnataka, both debt burden and the budget size are increasing, but there is no increase in capital expenditure. But Modi is focusing on infrastructure development,” he said. Interestingly, the BJP is chanting ‘Modi ki guarantee’ and is holding beneficiaries’ conventions, which is common to both parties this elections.

Along with the five guarantees, yet another poll plank for the Congress is what it claims to be an ‘unfair’ devolution of tax receipts for Karnataka. Siddaramaiah said the Modi government reduced Karnataka's share of Central funds from the common tax pool and was delaying drought relief funds for the state. “Despite Karnataka's substantial contribution of Rs4,30,000 crore in tax revenue every year, we receive just about Rs50,000 crore from the Union government.” He said the BJP’s narrative that ‘freebies’ were scuttling development work was not correct and blamed the financial troubles of the state on the “step-motherly treatment” by the Centre. Several non-BJP ruled states have come together to oppose the Modi government over its “biased fiscal policy”.

With digital revolution, all political battles are being fought first on social media. Tech-savvy war rooms sift through the political landscape for the right content that can be amplified to make campaigns effective and viral. Last month, a social media post triggered a raging political debate in water-starved Bengaluru. A photograph of devotees wading through knee-deep waters of the Cauvery at Kanakapura and a video of Cauvery waters gushing towards Tamil Nadu had irked many Bengaluru residents who were shelling out big bucks to buy water.

The post was shared by thousands of pro-BJP social media handles, blaming the Congress for ‘appeasing’ its INDIA bloc partner DMK in Tamil Nadu by releasing Cauvery waters. As the post went viral, Kanakapura MLA and deputy chief minister Shivakumar had to clarify about the situation and minimise the damage. “It was a video clicked by a karyakarta (worker) and we amplified the message through our leaders and workers on the ground,” said Prashant Makanur, who heads the BJP’s 15-member state-level social media team in Bengaluru, which is connected to 48,000 booth committees.

However, unlike in the 2019 elections, when the BJP was way ahead on social media campaigns, the Congress has emerged competitive this time. Recently, when Union Home Minister Amit Shah alleged that Karnataka was three months late in submitting its proposal for drought relief funds, Siddaramaiah took to social media and posted the timeline of drought assessment and appeals made by Karnataka to prove there had been no delay.

On social media and outside, the battle is only going to get tougher in the days to come.