A certain degree of dissonance is expected when parties distribute election tickets. But it seems that the Karnataka Bharatiya Janata Party is dogged by more than its normal share of problems. Denying a ticket to former chief minister and long-time party faithful Jagdish Shettar must have been a difficult decision for the party’s top brass, especially when the six-time MLA had not taken it kindly. He has now decided to contest as an independent from his old constituency in the Hubli-Dharwad region. Whether he stays in the contest or is persuaded to withdraw will be known soon. Fortunately, for the BJP another Karnataka veteran and a former deputy chief minister K S Eshwarappa has accepted the inevitable and has decided not to challenge the denial of the ticket. Eshwarappa, another long-serving RSS-BJP veteran, was tainted by charges of corruption when a PWD contractor in a suicide note blamed him for demanding a huge cut for the release of payment.
The above two instances might be the most prominent on the BJP side, but it seems even the Congress and the JD (S), the other two contenders for the May 10 poll, have their share of dissidents. However, as the outgoing ruling party there is focus on whether or not the Modi magic will work in a state where the BJP has particularly spoilt its copy-book by several instances of political corruption and general administrative sloth and civic inefficiency, particularly in the high-profile tech capital, Bengaluru. The former Chief Minister and Lingayat strongman, B Y Yeddyurappa, has opted out of the contest, offering his traditional seat, Shikaripura, to his son, B Y Vijayendra. The saffron party, aware of a strong anti-incumbency, has sought to neutralize it by giving tickets to 52 new faces. It is a well-tried strategy the saffron party had successfully tried in other States. Karnataka electorate is generally divided on caste lines with the two dominant castes, Lingayats (17%) and Vokkaligas (15%) along with the Kurubas (6%) claiming a major share of nominations from all three main parties. Thanks to Yeddyurappa, the Lingayats were firmly in the BJP corner, while the Vokkaligas tended to go with the JD(S), though of late the Pradesh Congress Chief D K Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga, commands support of a section of the community. Former Chief Minister and Shivakumar’s rival, Siddaramaiah, a leading member of the Kuruba caste, has his influence among the OBCs. In short, instead of the focus remaining on the various acts of omission and commission of the outgoing regime, the poll calculus revolves around the play of castes. The BJP is trying to wean away Kurubas and Dalits from the Congress’s social coalition, hoping to divide it on religious lines, especially after the recent controversy over hijab, love-jihad, forcible conversions, etc. Muslims, who constitute about 12 percent of the electorate, are divided between the Congress and the JD(S), though Siddaramaiah has sought to unite the Muslim-Kurubas in a single anti-BJP unit. Also, the saffron party is playing up the rivalry between Sivakumar and Siddaramaiah to convey the message that the Congress is a house divided and post-election the party may split into two rival factions inside and outside the Assembly. Even the JD(S) has its own problems with the two sons of the former prime minister Deve Gowda, former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy and H D Revanna fighting over the political legacy of their father.
In recent weeks the Congress and the JD(S) have sought to kick up a controversy over the alleged threat to the State’s home dairy brand, Nandini, from the Gujarat-based Amul. A few months ago, Amit Shah had suggested that the two brands together could grow hugely, opening dairy units in every district of the country if they decided to work together. The Opposition parties twisted these remarks to claim falsely that the BJP government might shut down Nandini by merging it in the bigger Amul brand. The issue of Kannada pride thus is being flogged by the two Opposition parties. Given that all parties appeal to various caste groups, issues of mis-governance and even corruption recede into the background. How far the BJP’s double-engine bait will succeed in negating strong anti-incumbency is unclear, but there is no denying the high personal popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Whether Rahul Gandhi is an asset or a liability on the electoral front too is unclear. All in all, an election hard to call, though we think that the chances of the voter denying a clear majority to a single party remain high.