State elections loom in Karnataka, a state split wide open
With legislative assembly elections in the state of Karnataka just weeks away, politicians are preparing for an ugly battle for a state whose political future looks wide open.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be hard pressed to hang on to its lead in the state after its once tight-knit leadership ranks frayed under corruption charges and infighting. Given their recent poor performance in the urban local body elections, they might have much to worry about.
“Infighting cost us. KJP (Karnataka Janata Paksha) and BSR Congress also took away our votes,” said state Higher Education Minister C.T. Ravi. But they don’t appear to be too unhappy because only about 30 percent of the state electorate was eligible to vote in the local polls.
Maybe they should be worried. The BJP’s likely candidate for prime minister in next year’s elections, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, didn’t show up for the beginning of statewide campaigning, though party leaders in Karnataka said that Modi will show up later to rally the base. The party needs to worry about this because Karnataka is its gateway to southern India, a region with a separate linguistic and cultural identity than the north, and one that accounts for some 20 percent of the country’s land mass and population. Regional groups often dominate the southern states rather than national parties, and without Karnataka, the BJP risks having no real, dominant presence in the South.
The BJP has had a tenuous reign in Karnataka. It came to power in 2008 and chose the charismatic and outspoken B.S. Yeddyurappa as chief minister. But infighting was there from the start, and breakaway groups sapped at the party’s influence. Yeddyurappa, who was forced out of the party in 2011 over accusations of illegal land deals and corruption, formed the KJP, while another disgruntled member, B Sriramulu, formed the BSR Congress. Both factions no doubt took votes from the BJP in the recent elections.
Still, the BJP won’t say it’s a complete loss. “Local elections are fought on local problems, and assembly elections on larger issues, so if you look at these results, we are not worried. We will certainly win the assembly elections,” said BJP Karnataka spokesman S. Prakash.
Politicians in this race are likely to seek their fortunes among voters in the state’s more rural and agricultural central and northern regions. That means paying less attention to the southern city of Bangalore, where foreign investment has cooled in the past few years, and the water supply and environment have suffered as the city has grown.
The Congress party, meanwhile, plans to keep corruption on people’s minds to best its rival in the state. “We will reach out to voters with the issue of governance and ‘definitely clean’ governance,” said Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee President and former minister G. Parameshwara.
Politics in Karnataka, like many other parts of the country, is about caste. The BJP’s main backers are the politically and economically powerful Lingayat community, whose vote is split. Yeddyurappa and his rival, present Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar, belong to the same community. The other major group is the Vokkaligas, commonly known as the Gowdas. They mostly back the Janata Dal (Secular), a party formed by former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda. Gowda and his son H.D. Kumaraswamy also were chief ministers of the state earlier. Although the JD(S) can count on the Gowda backing, the strength of the party is concentrated in southern and coastal Karnataka and the Mysore region. There are also various scheduled castes that add to the complex mix.
But Karnataka typically is not the most important southern state when it comes to influencing the balance of power at the centre. Neighbour Andhra Pradesh sends 42 lawmakers to New Delhi, compared with 28 from Karnataka. Tamil Nadu sends 39 members. Also, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have strong regional parties whose support is key to coalition governments. Karnataka, by contrast, has always elected MPs of either the Congress Party or BJP, making them safe bets that don’t need a lot of cajoling. The last time that Karnataka played a big role in deciding the make-up of India’s central government was when it helped the Congress party form its UPA government in 2009. Half a decade later, its chance might come again.
(Photo: Voters check their names on the voters list close to a polling booth during the first phase of the state elections of Karnataka in Bangalore, May 10, 2008. Arko Datta)