With less than a week to go for the first phase of elections in the scorching mid-May elections to the Karnataka state assembly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is clearly leading the electoral race and may inch towards a majority mark in the 224-member assembly or fall just short by a few seats in a hung assembly.
The strong undercurrent in favour of the BJP and the unusual nature of poll arithmetic in Karnataka are working to the saffron party’s advantage.
Consider this: In the 2004 assembly polls, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, winning 79 of the 224 seats against the Congress’ tally of 65 seats, although it trailed the Congress in vote share by more than 5%, a paradox of sorts.
The same trend was evident in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections as well. The BJP-Janata Dal (United) combine and the Congress secured 37% of the popular vote each. However, the BJP swept the polls, winning 18 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats, while the Congress party barely managed to win eight seats.
The BJP and its erstwhile coalition partner, the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), get a disproportionate share of seats compared with their vote share due to favourable distribution of their votes. The Congress vote is more uniformly and thinly distributed across the state leading to “wastage” of votes in seats lost by the party.
There is yet another interesting phenomenon of “ticket splitting” in Karnataka polls. The Karnataka electorate has shown a greater preference for the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls vis-à-vis the assembly elections. In 2004 and 1999, in simultaneous elections to the assembly and the Lok Sabha, the BJP secured nearly 6% more votes in the Lok Sabha elections than what it got in the assembly polls, while the Congress secured only 2% more.
The moot point is whether the BJP can grasp that additional vote by emerging as the preferred party for governance in the state as well. I believe that it has. Although the BJP’s coalition experiment with the JD(S) lasted only for 20 months, it gave the party a chance to participate in a government that was widely regarded as popular.
The stint in power in a coalition for 20 months was successfully used by the BJP to enhance its voter appeal. In addition, the BJP gained public sympathy for having been denied an opportunity by the JD(S) to lead the first-ever government in the South.
Betrayal and price rise have emerged as two major issues in this election. In a DRS-INX News poll conducted last week, 43% voters across the state blamed the Congress for the price rise, while 26% laid the blame on the JD(S) and only 17% on the BJP. As the BJP has been harping on both the themes of betrayal and price rise, it tends to benefit from these issues.
Leadership is yet another issue that is giving the BJP a huge lead in the Karnataka elections. The BJP has declared B.S. Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat by caste, as its chief ministerial candidate, which has helped it consolidate the support of the dominant caste that accounts for nearly 18% of the state’s electorate. His stint as deputy chief minister and finance minister helped him emerge as a popular leader, thanks to the populist decisions such as farm loan waivers and popular decisions such as banning of arrack and lotteries. The Congress party has not declared its chief ministerial candidate and seems to be repeating its past mistakes yet again in Karnataka.
According to my assessment, the BJP is likely to be tantalizingly close to be a majority (with or without a simple majority) in the Karnataka assembly with almost the same share of the popular vote as that of the Congress. In that event, the Congress could end up with just about half of the BJP tally and with almost the same number of seats (65) it won in 2004 or even less in the 224-member assembly. The JD(S) is likely to be close behind the Congress with a tally of 30-45 seats.
There are three factors that could blunt the BJP’s advantage. First, there is a real threat of the party’s upper caste and urban supporters not turning up to vote in the scorching summer as much as the supporters of other parties. Second, the party, which has taken a number of leaders from other parties in its fold, faces a revolt in constituencies where such candidates have been fielded. Third, this is the first election being held after delimitation of constituencies, and this may have altered the poll arithmetic of different parties variedly in the state.
It is a now-or-never situation for the BJP. If the party cannot convert the present upbeat mood in Karnataka into a decisive victory, the party’s dreams of coming to power in the South will prove to be a chimera.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org