The Election Commission is likely to announce elections to the Karnataka state assembly early this week and the polls are expected to be held in May.
The Karnataka elections, coming in the wake of a populist Union Budget, would be a real acid test for the Congress party, which has not won any significant state election for over three years.
With the clock ticking down for the big battle—the Lok Sabha elections slated for 2009—the battle for Karnataka is likely to come down to the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which are also the two rival contenders for power at the Centre. Whichever wins Karnataka would gain a psychological advantage over the other as they head into more state elections later in the year.
In November, Karnataka was brought under President’s rule after the Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), refused to honour its commitment to support a BJP-led coalition government for the second half of a power sharing pact. The JD(S), meanwhile, is likely to pay a big price for its behaviour.
As matters stand, the BJP is clearly ahead of the rest and seems poised to get a majority on its own even though it is by no means a cakewalk. The BJP will actually need a substantial vote “swing”, of nearly 7%, in its favour to secure a simple majority. That seems possible given the perception that the party has been “betrayed” by the JD(S), led by the father-son duo of H.D. Deve Gowda and former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy.
For the Congress, several factors are making this election a difficult contest.
Apart from the “sympathy” in favour of the BJP, the JD(S)-BJP coalition government’s mid-term demise has raised people’s expectations and made the BJP a preferred party for governing the state.
Karnataka has been ruled by the Congress, and different versions of the Janata Dal, for many decades. That the BJP has never led a government in the state and “deserves a chance” to rule is the overriding public sentiment in Karnataka today.
Loan waivers announced by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in the 2008 Union Budget are unlikely to be of much help in Karnataka. First, elections will happen in May, much before the deadline of June set by the Central government for implementing the loan waiver scheme.
Second, other loan waivers were announced by BJP’s B.S. Yediyurappa, who as the deputy chief minister and state’s finance minister in the last two state budgets, reducing a dramatic impact from the Central waiver.
Meanwhile, the nascent Bahujan Samaj Party is starting to prove to be a problem for the Congress and threatens to damage its prospects in a number of seats by poaching on its traditional Dalit vote bank.
Rising prices, particularly that of food articles and construction materials, is a major problem facing the Karnataka voter. Whether this will hurt the Congress, because it is in power at the Centre and the state is ruled indirectly by the party through President’s rule, is a matter of debate. If it does, then the Congress party will suffer losses in urban Karnataka, where the party is otherwise strong.
Yediyurappa and Kumaraswamy are the chief ministerial candidates of the BJP and the JD(S), respectively, while S.M. Krishna seems to be the unofficial chief ministerial candidate for the Congress party.
Yediyurappa is very popular among farmers and rural electorate, thanks to his previous budgets. He belongs to the dominant Lingayat community, which accounts for 17% of the state’s electorate. Lingayats are strongly backing his chief ministerial bid to avenge his “betrayal” by the JD(S) and will vote overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP.
Kumaraswamy is a Vokkaliga, a community that accounts for 14% of the electorate. He has grown in stature after becoming chief minister due to his frequent rural visits and stays, but he has lost some sheen due to the opportunistic politics pursued by his father and the JD(S).
Krishna, the Congress party’s lead campaigner, is also a Vokkaliga by caste. Krishna is articulate, urbane andindustry-friendly, but is not popular among the rural electorate. Much like the Telegu Desam’s N. Chandrababu Naidu in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Krishna is known as the ‘IT-BT’ (information technology-biotechnology) chief minister and under his stewardship, the Congress was comprehensively defeated in the 2004 polls.
Krishna’s entry, meanwhile, has also further fuelled factionalism in the Congress party, which already has as many as six factions, all led by chief ministerial aspirants. The BJP realizes that it can capture power in the state only if it gets a majority on its own. The JD(S) is also aware of the negative voter sentiment and is hoping to win around 20 seats and use that leverage to claw back to power in a possible hung assembly.
For the Congress, losing Karnataka to the BJP would be a disaster as it would mean that finance minister P. Chidambaram’s election budget bubble would burst and, perhaps, with it, hopes of another five-year mandate at the Centre stemming from a populist budget. Unless it prevails, the BJP could see its post-Gujarat momentum evaporate, endangering its renewed national hopes.
G.V.L. Narashima Rao is a political analyst whose day job is managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at the firstname.lastname@example.org