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Which Way Is The Wind Blowing In The Last Phase Of Karnataka Polls? 

The Congress and the BJP are on the knife's edge and victory margins are expected to be razor thin. This round of polling in Karnataka is crucial for both the parties and will determine whether the saffron party reaches the majority mark in the 2024 general elections. 
Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah during a poll campaign. Photo: X/@siddaramaiah

Bengaluru: Former Karnataka chief ministers Basavaraj Bommai and Jagadish Shettar started off their political journeys in vastly different set ups yet their trajectories  have become aligned in the last segment of their political careers. While Bommai switched from the Janata Dal(United) to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Shettar was a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Jana Sangh member who joined the BJP and went to the Congress briefly last year and rejoined his parent party a few months back. 

Both were made chief ministers by the saffron party in separate instances to keep senior BJP leader B.S. Yediyurappa away from the top post. However, both have been relatively sidelined and have been punching below their weight after stepping down from the chief minister’s post. 

Now, Bommai and Shettar — contesting parliamentary elections for the first time — have been fielded by the BJP by replacing incumbent MPs widely seen as a move to gracefully ‘accommodate’ the two former chief ministers now in their political twilight. Bommai is fighting the polls from Haveri constituency which is his home district. Shettar is not contesting from his home turf Hubli-Dharwad and is being branded as an “outsider” in Belagavi where he is fighting the polls against Congress party’s Mrinal Hebbalkar. 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Both of them, however, are facing the tag of “VIP candidates” as voters are wary of “not being able to get in touch with them” if they are elected. Surprisingly, their previous role as chief ministers is working against them as voters, including BJP supporters, are questioning what work they had done for their constituents when they were in a position of power. 

Against Bommai, Congress party’s Anandswamy Gaddadevaramath has been attempting to focus on issues like poor road and rail connectivity from Haveri and Gokak to Bengaluru, in particular. Likewise, Congress nominee Mrinal Hebbalkar in Belagavi constituency is repeatedly speaking about the poor government health facilities in the district. Even in Raichur seat, Congress candidate and retired IAS officer G. Kumar Naik is emphasising on opening an AIIMS in the quaint North Karnataka town. In a sharp contrast, the heavyweight BJP candidates are relying on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image to make their ship sail. These astute politicians have realised the the only effective anti-dote against a popular state government is the political capital of Modi and core support base of the BJP. 

Sensing the anti-incumbency against the present MPs, the BJP has replaced sitting MPs in six out of the 14 constituencies which will go to polls on May 7. Of those who have been re-nominated, union minister and four time MP Pralhad Joshi, considered close to Modi-Shah, is also facing strong opposition from multiple sections within the BJP. 

Although Joshi is being praised by a large number of electorates for developmental work like IIT Hubli, in particular, the local caste equations are pitted against him. For instance, local Lingayat leaders even from the BJP are upset with the Brahmin union minister for sidelining them. Moreover, the Kuruba voters who have a sizable population in Hubli are backing the Congress due to chief minister Siddaramaiah’s popularity coupled with their anger against the saffron party’s decision to expel K.S. Eshwarappa. A very popular Lingayat seer had also filed nomination papers as a sign of revolt against Joshi and to fight against his ‘high-handed’ attitude towards the Lingayats. Although he finally withdrew from elections he is known to be actively campaigning and making an emotional appeal against Joshi to the Lingayats. 

Also read: BJP Relies on Fear of Muslims Fuelled via WhatsApp, Polarised Media in Key Karnataka Seats

Senior political columnist Rajashekar Hatagundi said that the BJP is trying to balance the anti-incumbency factor with Prime Minister Modi’s popularity otherwise the party would have faced severe crisis in many constituencies due to local factors such as the Kalasa-Banduri issue (irrigation project) which could have swung some votes in Hubli-Dharwad. 

For the Congress leaders, a chance to cement local leadership 

The Congress has strategically tried to utilise the resources of the incumbent ministers by making sure they invest their skin in the game. It is said that several ministers have been given the message of perform or perish which has reduced the apathy among the senior leaders to a large extent given that many within the Congress party also felt a few months ago that the results in favour of Modi were a foregone conclusion.

In Bellary Lok Sabha seat, former state minister B. Sriramulu is fielded against Congress MLA E. Tukaram. Sriramulu was defeated by Congress party’s N. Nagendra in Bellary Rural seat in the 2023 assembly polls. Since Nagendra is the district in charge minister, he is considering it a prestige battle to defeat the BJP candidate and cement his position as a leader of the Valmiki (ST) community. Further, if Tukaram loses, the local murmur is that Nagendra might not continue even as a minister in the Siddaramaiah government. 

Bellary has become more interesting because the BJP has re-inducted mining baron and controversial politician Janardhan Reddy. It will drift the votes of a section of the Lingayats, who were originally from Andhra Pradesh, towards the BJP in this constituency, in particular. The local Congress leadership is trying to consolidate the Kuruba, ST and SC Left voters. 

Similarly, Bagalkot candidate Samyukta S Patil’s father Shivanand Patil, who is a Congress minister is attempting to emerge as a prominent Lingayat leader in the northern region, by ensuring a win for his daughter. Even for Congress leaders Laxmi Hebbalkar and Satish Jarkiholi — who have rival factions in Belagavi Congress unit — and Eshwar Khandre the victory of their children in Belagavi, Chikkodi and Bidar, respectively will elevate their stature in the party. 

The rebel candidates and internal party politics 

In Shivamogga, expelled BJP leader Eshwarappa’s candidature against B.S. Yediyurappa’s son and incumbent BJP MP B.Y. Raghavendra will dent BJP’s vote share. Experts suggest that the triangular fight will benefit Congress candidate Geetha Shivarajkumar to an extent but Eshwarappa’s candidature is unlikely to impact the results of this contest.

For the Congress party, rebel candidate Vinay Kumar G.B.’s electoral debut in Davangere has made party leaders nervous about their prospects. Notably, Kumar belongs to the Kuruba community and has worked extensively in the region interacting and holding discussions among the community and villages across the constituency in the hope of a Congress ticket. In his poll speeches, he has attacked both the Congress and the BJP for indulging in dynastic politics. 

The Congress party has fielded Dr. Prabha Mallikarjun, business tycoon and long-time Congress MLA Shamanur Shivashankarappa’s daughter-in-law and wife of minister of mines and geology and horticulture S.S. Mallikarjun while the BJP nominee is Gayathri Siddeshwara, wife of incumbent MP and former union minister G.M. Siddeshwara from Davanegere. Understandably, Kumar’s presence will hurt the prospects of the grand old party as the Kuruba voters are considered as the core vote bank of the Congress. 

Also read: Interview | ‘North Karnataka Is Mostly Favouring the Congress’: Eedina’s Dr. H.V. Vasu

After initial discontent among the local BJP cadres in multiple constituencies like Belagavi, Chikkodi and Haveri, the party is trying to appear like a united bloc. Post the defeat of the saffron party in the last year’s assembly polls, several district units are in disarray and have started indulging in factionalism. 

Veena Kashappanavar, wife of Congress MLA Vijayanand Kashappanavar, was the party’s ticket aspirant from the Bagalkot seat. The husband-wife duo had initially revolted by not participating in Samyukta’s campaign after she was nominated by the Congress party in the constituency. However, due to the intervention of the leadership, the  Kashappanavars came out publicly in support of the Congress nominee and participated in rallies too. Considered an “outsider” in Bagalkot, Samyukta is putting up a spirited fight to scuttle BJP’s P.C. Gaddigoudar from becoming an MP for the fifth time. 

The socio-economic factor 

Political observers underline that the Congress party’s ticket distribution has been astute in this phase of elections. It has played safe by fielding a Lingayat against a Lingayat in seats like Haveri, Davangere, Bagalkot and Belagavi and an SC Right candidate versus an SC Left instead of Lambani, like in the case of Bijapur. On the other hand, in Hubli-Dharwad, Uttara Kannada and Chikkodi —  considered to be the bastions of the BJP —  the party has done some bold experiments in order to upset the applecart. In Uttar Kannada they have fielded a Maratha against a Brahmin, an ST against a Lingayat in Chikkodi, an SC Right against a Lambani in Kalaburagi and a Kuruba against a Brahmin in Dharwad where they are relying on the AHINDA vote bank and local leadership majorly. 

The North Karnataka region in particular has traditionally concentrated the state’s poor population which is why political observers expect the Congress’s welfare schemes such as Gruha Lakshmi where Rs. 2000 is given per month to the women head of the household and Shakti — free bus travel for women — to reap the most dividends for the incumbent government. The grand old party is hoping that the popularity of these welfare schemes and the chief minister himself to some extent will blunt the popularity of Modi whose cult of personality had assumed massive proportions in the previous general elections. In the last assembly polls, the Congress party performed well in North Karnataka. The party is hoping to continue this form in the parliamentary elections as well. 

Also read: Unemployment ‘Universal Problem’, Modi Promotes Self-Employment: Jagadish Shettar

“Very little,” said Eedina project head Dr. H.V. Vasu when asked if the Modi and Hindutva factors will have any impact on Tuesday’s (May 7) polls in Karnataka particularly since the prime minister held rallies in seven of the constituencies polling on May 7 and is making speeches post the second phase accusing Congress of Muslim appeasement. Echoing the same sentiment, on the final day of campaign in Davangere, chief minister Siddaramaiah told the audience that Modi will not return as the prime minister. 

The Congress’s fightback in the state has been refreshing for any political observer as there was no prospect of a fight just a few months ago. The BJP is jittery as the gaps have narrowed. However, the BJP juggernaut and impressive political apparatus is pulling every possible string to keep the Congress out of the fray. Whatever the ultimate outcome of this phase shall be, the moves and counter-moves in this round of polling in Karnataka —  from a national point of view — will indeed determine whether the saffron party reaches the majority mark in the 2024 general elections. 

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