While delivering a speech at Gadag recently, Congress ‘Man Friday’ and troubleshooter DK Shivakumar, in what seems to be a late realisation had personally apologized for Siddaramaiah led Congress government’s decision to create a Lingayath-Veerashaiva divide ahead of the Karnataka state elections.
The BJP leaders including former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa rejoiced it, as they thought that this was another self-goal by the Congress ahead of the crucial by-polls, which could lead to Lingayath consolidation against the Congress. But, what followed was entirely opposite of what BJP had thought. By the time BJP realized its mistake of falling into yet another trap set by DK Shivakumar, the BJP had already lost the by-poll battle.
The recent by-polls result could be an indicator of what’s coming in Karnataka politics for next one year. I want to particularly discuss the Bellary by-polls and the coming together of erstwhile political adversaries such as former Prime Minister HD Devegowda, former CM Siddararamaih, who one time was considered to be Devegowda’s political heir and most importantly Congress’s strategist DK Shivakumar. The Bellary by-polls can give us a hint on the direction of politics in the state of Karnataka and why it is a great setback for the BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in the state next year.
The Bellary by-poll results give us some interesting details regarding the rise of strong coalitions and its impact on BJP’s Karnataka prospects in the elections ahead. Bellary-once a Congress bastion, lost to BJP’s mining barons, Reddy brothers in 2004 and Congress rose to control it yet again in 2018 after it secured 6 out of 8 seats in the assembly elections.
The BJP built it and turned it not only to a fortress but also into a power centre during BJP’s rule in the state in 2008. The victory of Congress–JDS coalition in the Bellary Lok Sabha gives us a clear picture of the how Congress-JDS if combined, can take the battle to the BJP in the upcoming elections. The astounding victory of the Congress-JDS is also a result of an inability of the BJP to function as a strong opposition party to challenge the ruling alliance in the state because of a severe leadership crisis in state BJP.
If the Congress-JDS coalition government is as united as today and contests as an alliance in the upcoming general elections with Karnataka BJP being disoriented as it is now, the saffron party is set to be doomed in the state. The Congress-JDS combined has the leadership ability, resources and more importantly the ability of the leadership to harness the caste politics to garner a much larger vote share than BJP. On the other hand, BJP has relied too much on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its President Amit Shah, as it was evident in the recently concluded assembly elections in May; where PM Modi had to single-handedly save the party from facing severe defeat.
The Congress-JDS has worked out careful caste calculations with effective social engineering by uniting leaders from varied caste to neutralize BJP’s Hindutva vote base, which is not that particularly strong in the south relative to North Indian states barring few coastal districts in the state. The Congress-JDS leaders are very much aware that issues like Ram Mandir, Hindutva or strong economy and to some extent even issues like surgical strikes will have a very limited impact in the state ahead.
The prominent Vokkaliga leaders like DK Shivakumar, Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy are heavily backing the Vokkaliga vote base (11 percent vote share) along with the minority votes which is around 16 percent in the state. The Lingayaths, who are about 14 percent and Dalits around 20 percent in the state, have been careful regarding their choice and can decide the fate of the next Lok Sabha elections, as they did in the Bellary by-polls.
With state BJP crumbling, the caste calculations and state level alliance between Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) can fetch a good number of seats in the Lok Sabha elections. The intense squabbling in the BJP ranks has devoid the party from creating an able leadership to face the formidable Congress-JDS state leadership.
While R Ashok, a prominent Vokkaliga leader of BJP, openly flaunts his closeness to fellow Vokkaliga leaders DK Shivakumar and HD Kumaraswamy, leaders like KS Eashwarappa and Jagadish Shettar, despite their inability to lead, indulge in politics to counter BSY. The BJP also seems to be stuck in ‘Lingayath-Veerashaiva’ hangover, evident in the recent by-polls by sticking to ailing BS Yeddyurappa who neither has the fire to motivate the party workers nor any organizational skills left to sweep elections. The BJP, however, did try with its fiery leader Ananth Kumar Hegde, who belongs to Upper caste, but soon realized that he had a very limited role to play in the state politics with huge caste dimensions.
The BJP’s battle for power in the state can only come from effective leadership, unlike other states, especially in North India, where RSS has much clout with its strong organizational penetration. In states like Karnataka, it is only strong leadership with effective caste calculations can ensure victory to either side. The Congress-JDS seems to be at a very comfortable for now compared to the BJP. Six months before the election, Congress-JDS are at a favourable position to take on the BJP, but six months is a very long time in politics especially at the time of crucial general elections.
The BJP can still secure around 15-18 seats in the Lok Sabha elections with the proper reorganization of state unit and most importantly resolving issue pertaining to the leadership crisis within the party which could also resolve some bitter internal rifts. The BJP needs to be united to fight a much stronger Congress-JDS coalition. Knowingly or unknowingly, the BJP has also brought two of the fiercest political opponents of the state-Former PM HD Devegowda and former CM Siddaramaiah, the former once being the godfather of the latter. The duo can cause severe damage to BJP in Old Mysore region and Central Karnataka where BJP had performed well in the last Lok Sabha elections.
Karnataka politics is as much complex as Uttar Pradesh or Bihar politics because of its sensitive caste dynamics and presence of strong regional parties. The BJP which had won 17 seats from Karnataka in the 2014 elections will be facing one of its toughest fights ahead just to retain its vote base. The BJP national leadership should immediately address the issue concerning the state leadership and evolve an effective strategy to counter the Congress-JDS hegemony in the state. The BJP has to push hard in whatever they do, as it is extremely important for them not to lose Karnataka, which they consider to be the ‘gateway’ to other southern states.
After the loss of Bellary by-elections, the BJP may defend the results by portraying it as a loss of mere one Lok Sabha seat, but it is not that simple anymore. The BJP should realise that the by-poll victory of the ruling alliance in Karnataka may serve as a template for other strong regional parties to come together to form a similar alliance ahead of the general elections. The agenda-less Congress is so desperate to join hands with any strong regional parties to fight the BJP at a ‘constituency-level’ to counter BJP’s ‘Modi vs Rest’ narrative.
The BJP should rework its strategies to not only stitch better alliances but also to counter the regional satraps joining hands with Congress. The strong regional parties and the choices of coalitions they make will be the underlying theme of the elections ahead in the country.