Bangalore: Arun Jaitley, the suave 55-year-old lawyer-turned-general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is camping almost full-time in Bangalore for the Karnataka assembly polls, which start on 10 May. Credited with strategizing the National Democratic Alliance’s, or NDA, victory in Bihar and Gujarat, Jaitley has a challenging task on hand with a re-energized Congress and the redoubtable Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), making it a triangular contest in the state. Amid meeting party workers, Jaitley took time out to answer Mint’s questions on the party’s poll prospects. Edited excerpts:
Polls are 10 days away. What’s your assessment of the situation?
The Congress could not have hoped for a worse environment, and even worse arithmetic. Worse environment beca-use you have a Central government which has run out of ideas to control prices, and price rise seems to be hurting where it hurts the most...food, steel, cement and housing.
When I said the arithmetic, though the principal contention may be (between) the Congress and the BJP, there are three other players in the field—the JD(S), the BSP and Congress rebels. This creates a little difficult arithmetic for the Congress. They can’t even decide on a leader.
Rebels are not unique to the Congress. Even you have the same issues...
We had a lot of aspirants. Where winnability prospects are higher, the number of aspi-rants also increases. When we decided the seats, we thought we will have a lot of problems but, within 72 hours, the problems were all over. When you change sitting MLAs, when you bring so many people laterally, you expect larger trouble but, in most cases, our rank and file have accepted them and there is no significant trouble as far as we are concerned.
You are a little dismissive about the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) prospects. SP leader S. Bangarappa is challenging B.S. Yeddyurappa at Shikaripur. Will it tie down Yeddyurappa to his constituency?
Smaller players always try and confront a centre-stage player. So, the Congress, the JD(S), others falling in line, allowing the SP to take the lead against us doesn’t disturb us. For Bangarappa, the fight is really for his own relevance. He tried an unsuccessful alliance with the Congress, but failed. Contesting against Yeddyurappa will keep him in the news.
Is price rise a key issue?
There are several key issues. I think price rise will ambush the strength of the Congress in this election. Karnataka coming on terrorist map will put the Congress on backfoot. The state of farm sector in the country in terms of both food shortages and plight of farmers will put them on the defensive.
The people of Karnataka will not make the mistake of an indecisive verdict once again because they paid the price for a hung assembly. I think post-delimitation, close to 40% of Karnataka is urban, and urban population has its own kinds of issues. Major urban towns in Karnataka, led by Bangalore itself, present a picture of urban chaos. (All of these) will impact the results of this election.
Former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda has said nobody can form a government without his party, the JD(S).
He cannot exploit the situation without a mandate. He hopes that every time he can exploit the situation without a mandate, but I don’t think you can fool all the people all the time.
Old Mysore region dominated by Vokkaligas is traditionally seen as a weak area for the BJP. You have given tickets to Congress rebels such as Madhu Made Gowda. Is it a deliberate strategy?
Yes. It is a conscious effort of the party for a reason. Twenty years ago, Yeddyurappa was the sole MLA of the party and, since then, we have evolved from a party of one MLA to the front-runner. There are areas where we are very strong and there are areas where our (strength is) limited. When the party grows you have a lot of people from other parties in the repolarized politics joining you. Elections are the time for expanding the base of the party and it is also a time for making these lateral entries into the party. So, we have consciously sought out lateral entries into the party in areas where we needed them to strengthen ourselves and have a presence in the entire state.
You have sacrificed principles for backing winning horses?
There is no principle in an election that you must contest only to lose.
But some of these people have been anti-BJP for most of their political lives.
When a person becomes a member of a party, contests an election and attempts to win...in the changed polity with the anti-defection law the situation is significantly different. I have no hesitation in saying that we are an expanding party in Karnataka and, therefore, expanding into areas which are not our traditional areas of strength. People who will join the party in those areas cannot come from nowhere. They will be either non-political or will be members of other parties.
The BJP seems to have extensively backed real estate and mining barons.
Let me repel this (notion). Politics indefinitely cannot be a domain of one class of people. You have full-time workers doing politics. In a society which is economically emerging, you can have doctors, lawyers, farmers, teachers and also businessmen becoming (politicians). I don’t think in a free society there is a bar on businessmen contesting elections. The idea is that after contesting elections they don’t misuse their position only for their business. That’s something governments will have to be careful about.
Has the sympathy factor (over JD(S) withdrawing support to the week-long BJP government) dissipated?
I don’t think we are banking extensively on the sympathy factor. To call it that is misconceived. There is political logic and anger in that factor. When those who swore affidavits to the governor betrayed those affidavits within hours, it’s the people of Karnataka that they betrayed. When parties behave in such immoral manner, they can at least face isolation from people in an election.
Is the party getting too closely identified with one section of voters, especially Lingayats, as more than one-third of tickets have been given to them while they represent just 16% of the population?
It’s not correct. The party will give tickets on the basis of winnability but, if you see our lists of candidates, various communities have been adequately accommodated. The BJP has never flourished in a caste environment, nor do we seek to create it.
Even last time, though you got the highest number of seats, you weren’t the party with the highest number of votes.
That’s because our votes got consolidated in some regions and not uniformly spread.
Have you already peaked in northern and coastal Karnataka in the last elections, and is there only downhill from there?
I don’t think that logic necessarily applies. This time, in areas where we won lesser seats last time, I can see significant improvement.
If there is a hung assembly, are you willing to tie up with the JD(S) again?
I don’t envisage such a possibility, I see a comfortable majority for the BJP. The political environment, issues and arithmetic of votes developing is such that the BJP will get a comfortable majority.
Just as the NDA government had the ‘India Shining’ campaign (in the last Lok Sabha elections), the Congress seems to be banking on Bharat Nirman..
...I think those advertisements are a bore. Bharat Nirman scheme is a hoax. It’s a repackaging of all existing schemes of government of India. It’s the expansion of the NDA’s telecom sector, national highway programme, rural roads programme and irrigation scheme, which has been now renamed.
You abandoned the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), an ally that helped you grow in Karnataka...
We contested 24 seats for the LS (Lok Sabha) and won 18. We conceded four to the JD(U), and they won nil. We contested 199 seats in the assembly and won 80. We conceded 25 seats to them, and they got only five. Out of that, four have already left them and joined other parties. Therefore, we were keen on an electoral tie-up with them based on realistic assessments. If adjustments don’t take place on realistic adjustments, then seats conceded for the JD(U) would have been a gift for the Congress as it was last time. It’s a reality which our friends did not realize.
Isn’t the BJP relying on populist measures such as subsidized rice?
Giving away colour TVs can be called populism, but cheap ration for families below poverty line is not populism. It’s part of the right to food.
Ajay Sukumaran contributed to this story.