Mangaluru/Chikmagalur: The Karnataka election is crucial for the Congress party—the polls will decide whether the party can halt the march of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into southern India and whether it is able to prevent its expansion to newer territories.

If indeed the Congress manages a verdict in its favour, it would be the first time since its historic defeat in the 2014 general elections that the party has retained a state. Interestingly, no incumbent government has been re-elected in Karnataka since 1985.

At stake for Congress is also the future of one of its last remaining regional bigwigs, chief minister Siddaramaiah, and the fight for electoral survival ahead of general elections next year. In the past four years, Congress has been defeated by the BJP in over a dozen states, drastically shrinking its political footprint.

Politically, one of the big bets of the Congress party in Karnataka is to cement its support base among economically weaker sections, particularly through populist schemes like the Anna Bhagya—a free rice scheme.

“This government has worked for the people. It has offered relief to people from poorer sections by providing several schemes like Anna Bhagya and health schemes. People always look for change but we feel that Siddaramaiah is connected to the grassroots and understands our problem," said P.S. Jagadeesh, a farmer and departmental store owner at Pattangere village in Kadur assembly constituency of Chikmagalur district.

To craft its return to power, the Congress in Karnataka is relying on the votes of Dalits, who make up 17% of the population, Muslims (11%) and Kurubas (8%), the community to which Siddaramaih belongs.

Voters in coastal Karnataka also feel that with the Popular Front of India, a pro-Muslim political outfit, deciding that its political wing, Social Democratic Party of India, will not contest elections in the region, Muslim votes could further consolidate in the favour of the Congress party.

However, a section of voters are of the opinion that the trend of not returning an incumbent should continue and a change in regime should be sought.

“Modi is doing very good work at the centre. We also want to give BJP a chance in the state because it can work in tandem with the Union government," said Arun Patil, a salesman at a jewellery shop in Puttur assembly constituency of Dakshin Kannada district.

Political analysts say that the stakes are high for the Congress in this election and that populist schemes floated by the Siddaramaiah government could give the party an edge.

“Karnataka is the last remaining bastion of the Congress party and so the stakes are very high. It is a make-or-break election for the Congress. The outcome of the Karnataka polls has the potential to change India’s political map, particularly with respect to BJP’s entry in southern India," said Muzaffar Assadi, former professor at Mysore University.

“There is neither much anti-incumbency against Siddaramaiah nor is there an outright vocal support in his favour. But under Siddaramaiah, the state has been an experimental laboratory for populist schemes for the underprivileged and that can go in his favour," Assadi added.