Bangalore: In a final attempt to woo voters, political parties have unleashed star national campaigners in north Karnataka, which goes to polls in the third and final phase of the state’s assembly elections on 22 May.
Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, L.K. Advani, Narendra Modi and Mayawati are spending considerable time in the 69-seat region which accounts for 30% of the state’s 224-member assembly.
Helping hand: Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi campaigns in Belgaum in Karnataka on Sunday.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, won 31 of 70 seats in the eight districts of the region in the last elections before delimitation reduced the number of seats by one, north Karnataka has a reputation of voting out incumbents. Also, unlike most other parts of the state, here the fight is mainly between the two national parties — the BJP and the Congress — with the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP, only expected to play the role of spoilers.
“This is the real battleground between the BJP and the Congress,” said Sandeep Shastri, a Bangalore-based political analyst. “They (leaders) realize how critical the third phase is because it could make or mar a party’s prospects.”
All the leaders are promising development as these northern districts have been less prosperous than the southern parts of the state. The districts were incorporated into Karnataka from the erstwhile Bombay Presidency and the princely state of Hyderabad during the reorganization of states on linguistic basis in 1956.
“It’s not clear as to what impact the development issues the parties are raising will have on the people,” said S.S. Patagundi, a former head of the political science department at Karnataka Univesity in Dharwad. “Right from 1983, voting here has been on the lines of anti-incumbency. But, all three parties were in power (through coalitions after the last elections in 2004).”
The BJP remains hopeful of a repeat performance here. “We will win more than 50 out of the 69 seats,” claimed Jaga-dish Shettar, a former revenue minister of the state who is the BJP’s candidate from Hubli Central constituency.
Shettar says the anti-incu-mbency factor that has played an important role in each election will not work this time because of the development work that the BJP initiated when it was in power.
This phase will also decide the political fortunes of Congress stalwarts such as Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president Mallikarjuna Kharge and former chief minister N. Dharam Singh. Both hail from Gulbarga district and have won every assembly election since 1972. Both are looking for a record ninth win.
“Except in 1994 and 2004, the Congress has won a majority in this region in every election,” said Kharge, who adds that he expects his party to win between 38 and 40 seats.
Even the BSP, which got just 1.75% of the votes in the previous election, says it could win 15 seats in north Karnataka. “The campaign by Mayawati (the BSP’s national president) has raised our hopes because the response is more than we expected,” said Marasandra Muniyappa, president of the party’s Karnataka unit. He added that the party is banking on votes from scheduled castes and Muslims who form a sizable population in north Karnataka. “The bigger parties have not given them adequate representation.”
Merajuddin Patel, state president of the JD(S), claimed the BSP would inflict more damage on the Congress than to the others. He says that the JD(S) is confident of winning 22 of the 69 seats up for grabs. The consolidation of the non-dominant backward castes and minorities helped the JD(S) win a significant number of seats in Gulbarga and Bidar districts in 2004.
Lingayats are the dominant community in north Karnataka and a large portion of their votes had previously gone to Janata Party leader Ramakrishna Hegde, a former chief minister and one of most prominent non-Congress leaders in the state. In the mid-1990s, Hegde broke away from the Janata Dal party he had headed during the previous decade and founded a new party, the Lok Shakti, which aligned with the BJP. Analysts such as Shastri believe that the huge following Hegde enjoyed among the Lingayats helped the BJP build a strong support base in the community.