Bangalore: If the state election in Karnataka heralds things to come, then one of the key battlegrounds in the fight to govern India will be the issue that angers Meena Govindaraj, a mango seller.
“All the prices for household goods have shot up,” said 36-year-old Govindaraj in a market of Bangalore. “We can’t even buy enough cooking oil.”
Govindaraj is the political nightmare of India’s ruling Congress party—someone who says she will vote for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to punish the government over inflation, now at a three-year high of more than 7%.
The winner of the fight between the two will get a major boost ahead of the general election due by early 2009. And the BJP thinks it has it made.
“Price rises have become an ambush for Congress,” said Arun Jaitley, BJP’s main election strategist, credited with helping the party win a string of?state?elections?this year.?“I’ve never seen a government at the Centre with this kind of inflation issue win an election.”
The Karnataka election is the first major one since inflation hit headlines this year. The vote is a test to see how rising food prices will hit the Congress and if the BJP is correct in betting it could bring it back to national power.
But inflation is not the only issue in India, or in Karnataka.
Caste politics and infrastructure problems will play a big role in these state elections, highlighting how politics in a federal India of 1.1 billion people can often be more about complex local conflicts than overarching national issues.
Nevertheless, national issues do matter.
The Congress came to power on the promise of “inclusive growth” and now worries it could suffer the same fate as the BJP in 2004, when a backlash from the rural poor helped throw the party out despite a booming economy.
But the Congress believes it can win Karnataka, a former bastion, with promises of political stability after four years of chaotic coalition governments involving the BJP and regional party Janata Dal (Secular).
“I think price rises are an issue, but not the decisive issue,” said S.M. Krishna, former Karnataka chief minister now helping run the Congress’ election bid.
Some economists say this inflation will just be a blip. A similar jump in prices last year proved temporary.
But rising prices are a global concern, as international commodities prices rise on speculation, surging demand in Asia, bad weather and biofuel.
In Ramanahalli, an hour’s drive from Bangalore, villagers around a temple complained about prices, among other things such as land seizures by the state government and water shortages. But no one said they would vote for the BJP. Many waited for directives from village leaders. “Kitchen life is becoming very difficult,” said Aruna Venkatesh, a 28-year-old villager. “When politicians come they try and give us assurances, but they never do anything.”
But the BJP does not seek to win all voters. Just enough to win power, which comes down, it says, to swing voters.
“We are looking for 4-5% of voters switching preferences because of this issue,” said Jaitley.