By Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Karnataka goes to the polls today and the verdict of its citizens will have major repercussions beyond the state. The state assembly election is far more than simply the poll to elect state lawmakers. The Karnataka poll, as well as the upcoming elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh will have a significant impact on the 2019 general election.
Both national parties, the BJP and the Congress, have more than a state to lose in this election. The ways in which the parties have campaigned and the direct involvement of and personal attacks exchanged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi make this even more clear.
However, there is a third party in the mix, making this election a three-corner battle. The Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), has strong backing in south Karnataka and especially among women voters. So there are great chances that the JD(S) will play a major role in deciding who forms the government if the verdict is not decisive.
Congress hopes for revival
Karnataka and Punjab are the only major states under Congress rule, so it is all the more crucial to win. If it performs as it did in recent assembly and by-elections, the Congress may well turn the tide of the ‘Modi wave’. A victory in Karnataka could also establish Gandhi as a ‘performer’ or ‘winner’, tags that have eluded him so far. It will instill the ‘can do’ spirit among party workers and functionaries for the upcoming elections.
Besides, if the Congress wins back Karnataka, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s tactics and political acumen will prove a great asset for the party. Many of his initiatives and manipulations of regional, linguistic and religious identity—by way of passing legislation to provide separate religious status to the Lingayats, a separate flag for the state, invocation of Kannada language and ‘son of the soil’ card—may well prove handy for Congress strategies of balancing national issues and regional specificities. But is this enough for the Congress to break the cycle of a different party forming the government in Karnataka every five years? If it does, it will be truly historic. It may well stop the BJP ‘juggernaut’ and its desperate attempts to expand in the southern states.
Modi image at stake
For the BJP, their biggest asset at stake is Modi’s image. Since May 2014, Modi has successfully delivered a swing in the votes for the party, except in the Delhi and Bihar assembly elections. In Karnataka too, the party has used Modi extensively during the last phase of the election campaign. But will Modi deliver again? If not, how will BJP manage the growing desquite within the party? Can the Amit Shah-Modi leadership, which has dented the image of the BJP as the ‘party with a difference’ even among many loyal supporters, remain unchallenged?
Another challenge before the BJP is the growing culture of ‘high command’ and undervaluing the regional leaderships. Even in this election, its chief ministerial candidate B. S. Yeddyurappa, a prominent Lingayat leader and former chief minister, remains a somewhat shadowy figure. The possible rivalries between him and another prominent leader and Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde can not be ignored if BJP were to form the next government in the state of Karnataka. But making Yedyurappa, who has been charged with corruption and spent time in jail, its chief ministerial candidate and distributing tickets to the Reddy brothers seriously undermines the BJP promise of providing a corruption-free government in the state.
The JD(S), a major player in the Janata Parivar and which has played a significant role in Karnataka politics for decades, may well emerge as the king maker this year. In the event of a hung assembly, the JD(S)’s decision on which party to support will have repercussions on emerging anti-BJP alignment among many regional players.
The BJP has already shown its willingness to align with the JD(S) in case the verdict is a hung assembly. However, the JD(S) faces an ideological challenge over aligning with the BJP. If it does align with the BJP, it will likely dent the party’s prospect as a viable alternative political force in Karnataka and in national politics . Take, for instance, the status of the Janata Dal United, or JD(U), in Bihar; by aligning with the BJP, the JD(U) has undermined its regional and national prospect. However, the JD(S) joining hands with the BJP in Karnataka remains a real possibility given its ‘not so cordial’ relationship with Siddaramaiah.
Finally, in a trend seen since the 1980s in Indian politics, this assembly election is about the political parties’ pragmatism rather than ideological stance. And winning election even when compromising on core agendas and principles is now the new norm. In that sense, the Karnataka election is no exception. People have very little ‘real’ choice. The excessive use of money and the misuse/abuse of state machinery is pervasive. Elections are increasingly becoming about winning at all cost, and serious debates and discussions about social and economic reforms and transformations have taken a backseat. Personal attacks and counter attacks, invoking historical figures and other non-issues are taking centre stage while discussions on socio-economic and political challenges facing the country are nearly absent from the campaign.
But there is no denying that especially in this context, there are lot at stake, and the verdict of the Karnataka election may well determine the course of politics across the country at least until, if not including, the 2019 general election.
Mithilesh Kumar Jha teaches political science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati.