Saturday, May 26, 2018

Can Congress retain power and stop the Modi tide?

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After weeks of hectic and often aggressive campaigning, which also included visiting mutts and temples, the new trend in Indian politics, the day of reckoning has finally arrived. Voters in the southern Indian state of Karnataka will be flocking the polling centers today (Saturday) in their drove to elect their assembly members and thereby the next government of the state.

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power at the Center in 2014 riding on the back of the unprecedented 'Modi-wave', BJP has been forming governments one after the other in non-BJP held states mainly in the north and north-east of the country.

BJP, in their declared aim of achieving a 'Congress Mukt Bharat' (Congress-free India), is now in power in two-thirds of the states in India either on their own or as part of coalitions. The effect of the saffron wave in the electoral victories in the states is incomparable.

Whether this trend will be replicated in Karnataka is open to question. As the current Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has very categorically said Karnataka's politics is swayed by local concerns and the elections will be decided by factors in various constituencies.

But what is peculiar to Karnataka is no incumbent ruling party has returned to power in the state after Ramakrishna Hegde won the Assembly election in 1985. Siddaramaiah seems to be confident of overturning this trend mainly because he firmly believes that a number of welfare schemes undertaken by his government have proved to be popular with the people.

The Congress campaign has been led mainly by chief minister Siddaramaiah though Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has criss-crossed the state addressing close to 100 small and large rallies, besides visiting a number of temples and Lingayat mutts. Mrs Sonia Gandhi also visited the state to address a few meetings. But the real face of the campaign has that been of Siddaramaiah who is contesting from two seats.

By contrast, the BJP campaign was led not by its chief-ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa but by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself addressing 21 rallies in just 10 days. BJP chief Amit Shah also addressed a number of rallies. So did Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath trying to entice Hindutva among the voters of Karnataka.

The campaign unfortunately instead of delving on various development issues of the state and the nation was focussed mainly on personalities, criticising the opponents and corruption, with Modi making the dynasty politics of the Nehru-Gandhi family a big issue.

He even brought out the issue of Sonia Gandhi's Italian origin in one his public speeches. Political observers have opined that Modi spent most of the time in his speeches in criticising his opponents mainly Congress, a bit on himself and mush less on real issues. His speeches in Hindi didn't seem to go very well with the locals and translators had to be drafted in.

The Congress, countering Modi's allegations of corruption, criticised the BJP for courting with copper mining mafia the Reddys, who are embroiled in huge scandals and whose members have also been given tickets by the BJP to contest these elections.

Congress also asked Modi why he was keeping silent on the Nirav Modi scandal. Siddaramaiah in the initial stages of the campaign mainly dealt with local issues and Kannada identity, but lately he harped on national issues as well.

The main issues affecting the people of Karnataka were totally ignored and what gained prominence were divisive issues like separate religious status to Lingayats, new Karnataka flag to placate locate sentiments and the North-South divide on the issue of language, mainly imposition of Hindi.

The campaign was not of short of dramas as well. Nearly 10,000 'Voter ID cards' were seized from a flat in the state capital Bengaluru and the two main parties, Congress and BJP, lost no time in trading charges against each other. And on the last day of the campaign, Congress released a video which purportedly shows B Sriramulu, a close confidante of Janardhan Reddy, copper mining baron, speaking about offering bribes with the son-in-law of a former Chief Justice of Supreme Court of India, R G Balakrishnan. B Sriramulu is contesting on a BJP ticket.

Caste politics and regional influence also play important roles in Karnataka politics. Siddaramaiah appears to have the support of the dalits and OBCs and if the Muslim votes could be polarized in favor of Congress, it would help them in crossing the winning threshold. BJP, on the other hand, seems to have garnered support of the Lingayats and the Brahmins.

 But, since Siddaramaiah started his campaign for separate identity for the Lingayats, Congress has been able to get support from that community. The Vokkaligas have traditionally supported the Janata Dal (Secular) - JD(S) - led by former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda and his son H D Kumaraswamy.

The election in Karanataka is a three-way contest, with JD(S) likely to play a spoilsport for Congress. The party has a dominant presence in the southern regions where their vote and seat shares were in excess of 40 percent. In the 2013 elections, JD(S) bagged 40 seats in the 224-seat assembly.

The tallies for Congress and BJP were 122 and 40 respectively in a voter turnout of 71.5 percent. But recent opinion polls indicate that no party will be able to gain absolute majority though Congress is likely to emerge as the single largest party. A couple of polls, however, show that Congress will just cross the half-way mark.

In the event of a fragmented verdict, the pertinent question that will be asked is: which way will JD(S) sway? Modi in the past was full of praise for Deve Gowda saying he held the former prime minister in high esteem. But, in recent rallies, Modi claimed that JD(S) was in a secret alliance with Congress and said that a vote for JD(S) was a total waste.

Even if JD(S) cannot become the king after the elections, it could very well be the kingmaker if it can win around 35-40 seats and BJP can increase its tally. Going by past experience of alliance with H D Kumaraswamy, Modi will have to make smart moves to forge an alliance with JD(S). On the other hand, H D Deve Gowda has always been a harsh critic of Siddaramaiah ever since he left JD(S) to join Congress. A tie-up between Congress and JD(S) can still not be ruled out.

When the results are announced on 15th May, it will be clear if the 'Modi wave' has reached its peak and so it can only spiral down. This will augur well for the opposition parties as they make desperate efforts to forge a credible alliance before the 2019 general election. If BJP wins, as they are claiming to win 130 seats in Karnataka state assembly, the party will go another step forward in achieving 'Congress Mukt Bharat'.

Karnataka State Assembly Election 2018 can rightly be termed as a 'practice match' for 2019 general election.

The writer is a senior journalist, political commentator
and sports analyst

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