Starting from 2022, elections have been conducted in ten states of India, which includes Gujarat and Punjab, wherein the Indian National Congress (Congress) has emerged victorious in only one state, i.e., Himachal Pradesh. In the month of January, this year, three state elections were held in the North-East region, which resulted in the Congress losing all three. Considering such a disappointing performance, the upcoming assembly election in Karnataka holds great significance for the Congress, as it comes after the Bharat Jodo Yatra and before the Lok Sabha election in 2024.
A win for the Congress in the upcoming Karnataka assembly election would validate the ‘new image’ of Rahul Gandhi, which is believed to have been achieved after the Bharat Jodo Yatra. On the other hand, a win for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would bolster its prospects in another southern state, Telangana. The voting pattern in Karnataka has not been decisive for over a decade. In the past three assembly polls held in 2004, 2008, and 2018, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, but failed to cross the halfway mark of 113 seats, out of a total of 224 seats. As a result, the BJP had to either form a post-poll alliance with the Janata Dal Secular (JDS) or resort to defections to secure power, as it did in 2008 and 2018.
The three major political parties in Karnataka are the ruling BJP, the opposition Congress, and the distant third JDS. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and its ally won an overwhelming 26 out of the 28 seats. However, in the 2018 assembly election, the Congress, with the support of JDS, managed to form the government for a brief period. Subsequently, the coalition government fell apart due to defections, and the BJP came to power with the help of turncoats. Earlier, the Congress had been in power for the entire term from 2013 to 2018. The pertinent question is whether the election on May 10th will yield a clear result or lead to a hung assembly.
To secure a clear mandate in its favor, the BJP, which has been enjoying the support of the majority of voters belonging to the prominent Lingayat caste (17%), has undertaken significant measures to gain the backing of the other significant caste in Karnataka, i.e., Vokkaligas (15%).
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has demonstrated a strong commitment to the ongoing assembly election in Karnataka. In November of last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a 108-foot bronze statue of ‘Nadaprabhu Hiruya Kempegowda,’ also known as ‘Kempegowda,’ who was a chieftain under the Vijayanagara Empire and the founder of Bengaluru in the early 16th century. While the statue aimed to invoke Kannadiga pride in the party’s service, the BJP’s underlying message was directed towards the politically significant Vokkaliga community. The party conveyed that it is the only one that can preserve the legacy of the Vokkaliga icon Kempegowda.
The BJP faces two significant challenges in the election, namely, anti-incumbency and corruption, and a social engineering strategy is a useful tool to overcome these obstacles. The Vokkaligas, the dominant community in the old Mysuru region of southern Karnataka, have traditionally supported the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) (JDS).
In the 2018 election, the BJP fielded 28 Vokkaliga candidates in the region but only won six seats. Despite the party’s weak performance in the previous election, it has nominated more Vokkaliga candidates this time. State Congress President D K Shivakumar and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, both from the Congress, are also contesting from the region’s Kanakpura and Varuna constituencies, respectively. JDS chief H D Kumaraswami is aggressively campaigning in the area to retain its support base.
Previously, the contest in this region was mainly between the Congress and the JDS. This time, the election in many seats (total seats in this region are 49) may be primarily between the Congress and the BJP. The incumbent Chief Minister Basavraj Bommai’s recent decision to withdraw 4% Muslim quotas and allocate 2% each to the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas indicates another attempt to gain greater support from the major communities.
In the context of the upcoming assembly election in Karnataka, the BJP has taken several measures to counter anti-incumbency sentiment and strengthen its chances of victory. The recent decision to withdraw the Muslim quota has been interpreted as a strategic move to appeal to the Hindu nationalist base and address the issue of anti-incumbency simultaneously.
Furthermore, the BJP leadership has been proactive in making changes to the party’s leadership in Karnataka. In particular, the replacement of the Lingayat leader and former Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa with Basavraj Bommai two years ago was seen as a significant move.
In the current election, the BJP is running without a Chief Ministerial candidate and is relying on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to drive support for the party. Meanwhile, the Congress is buoyed by pre-poll surveys that suggest a possible victory and has been campaigning hard in Karnataka, including visits by party leaders such as Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjuna Kharge.
Despite negative polling indications and the departure of two veteran Lingayat leaders, Laxman Savadi and Jagdish Shettar, the BJP appears confident. The party has fielded a list of 72 young and first-time candidates, which suggests that it is not only trying to overcome anti-incumbency by introducing fresh faces but also has an eye on future elections.
Aryan Jakhar is a journalist and a Founder of The Shining Media and Business Headline. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.