Bangalore: Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh were touted as impregnable fortresses for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but, in reality, as results of the 2009 parliamentary elections sink in, Karnataka has emerged as the new kote (Kannada for fortress) for the lotus.
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In Gujarat, of the 26 seats, the BJP managed to win 16, and in Madhya Pradesh, of the 29 seats, it managed to win another 16.
However, in Karnataka, the BJP won in 19 of the state’s 28 constituencies and narrowly lost four seats—Mysore, Chamrajnagar, Kolar and Gulbarga—by a margin of less than 1% of the total votes polled in those constituencies. Even more remarkable has been the increase in vote percentage. From around 4% in the 1984 elections, the BJP today has close to 43% of the votes polled.
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The 25-year growth comparison is apt because it was in 1983 that for the first time a minority government headed by the Janata Party’s Ramakrishna Hegde—with the help of 18 members of the BJP—took office in the 224-member state assembly. The then-nascent, three-year-old BJP tasted power in a southern state fairly early in its political life, and has not looked back since.
The growth is all the more surprising as till recently, Karnataka was considered a bastion for the Congress. When Indira Gandhi lost in the 1977 elections that followed the withdrawal of Emergency, she charted her political comeback via Karnataka—and won from Chikmagalur in 1978. Similarly, when United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi wanted to contest a seat from south India, she chose Bellary in Karnataka, which elected her with a thumping margin in the 1999 elections.
From such a strong base, the Congress has slowly seen its “caste coalition” abandon it. Even D.B. Chandre Gowda, the man who vacated the Chikmagalur seat for Indira Gandhi, is today with the BJP and won the recent elections as its candidate from Bangalore North. “The Congress of today has moved away from its earlier ideology,” Gowda had commented during the campaign.
BJP spokesperson S. Suresh Kumar, who is also the law and parliamentary affairs minister of Karnataka, says the state has always been a fertile ground for the party’s growth. “While we may have fluctuated a bit in terms of the number of seats won in each election, the percentage of vote share garnered has always been going up,” says Kumar.
The BJP’s growth has also been helped by the consolidation of the Lingayats, the numerically dominant caste in the state, behind the party, while the Vokkaligas, the other dominant caste in the state, largely back the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), led by H.D. Deve Gowda. The Lingayats, who form 15% of the state’s population, do not seem to have forgiven the Congress after Rajiv Gandhi abruptly announced the sacking of Veerendra Patil, a senior community leader of the party, from the chief minister’s post in 1989.
Analysts say the BJP has benefited in coastal Karnataka, which has a significant minority population, through its Hindutva agenda, while in the northern Karnataka region, it has emerged as an alternative force to the Congress after the death of Janata Dal’s Hegde, who was seen as a leader of the Lingayats. Hegde, though a Brahmin, was seen as representing the interests of the Lingayat community.
“But it still has a challenge in the old Mysore region. BJP has been able to get only one of the seven seats,” says Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and pro-vice chancellor of Jain University. “It is making a conscious effort to endear itself to the Vokkaligas by getting the community leaders in their fold.”
Also, through its Operation Lotus, the BJP has managed to attract several influential and sitting members of the legislative assembly of opposition parties to join it, thus strengthening its base.
Karnataka pradesh Congress committee president R.V. Deshpande, however, dismisses any suggestion that Karnataka is the new fortress for the BJP. “Even in this election, Congress has received a very high percentage of votes. Because of split in secular votes (with the JD(S)) and some of our own organizational weaknesses, BJP may have benefited. A committee is being set up to look at what measures can be taken to strengthen the party in the state.”
To thwart what he calls the “communal forces” in the state, JD(S) state president and former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy on Tuesday extended unconditional support to the UPA government at the Centre. The JD(S) and the Congress also worked in tandem during the parliamentary elections.
A senior Congress leader, who did not want to be identified, had admitted even before voting began that the party’s candidate against Deve Gowda in Hassan was weak. “He is a dummy who has been fielded as JD(S) in return is not fielding candidates in six constituencies where we have greater chances of containing communal forces.” Deve Gowda won by the highest margin in the state, of 292,000 votes.
Tejaswini Gowda, the defeated Congress candidate from Bangalore Rural who was hoping to repeat the giant killing act, came a poor third in the election behind the BJP’s Yogeshwara. In 2004, Tejaswini had defeated Deve Gowda but was humbled this time by Deve Gowda’s son Kumaraswamy. After the results were announced, Tejaswini had said that sections of her own partymen had sabotaged her chances of winning.
For the moment, though, the BJP seems to be sitting pretty in Karnataka.
K. Raghu contributed to this story.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint