When I was in Bengaluru last week, everyone I met had a view on the upcoming Karnataka elections, which are less than a month away. The important southern state, whose capital is also India’s IT hub and one of the fastest growing metros in the world, goes to the polls on May 10 to elect who will rule it for the coming five years.
Apart from the fact that it has been the gateway to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s foray into the South, the Karnataka state assembly also has a hoary and illustrious past.
In 1881, long before India became independent, the progressive and reformist Maharaja of Mysore, Chamaraja Wadiyar X, established a unicameral Mysore Assembly for the first time in any princely state in British India.
In 1907, an upper house, known as the Mysore Legislative Council, was formed, with the Mysore Assembly continuing to function as the lower house. After India’s independence in 1947, Mysore merged with the Indian Union. Then Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wadiyar dissolved both houses in December 1949.
Elections were held for the first time in the state in 1952. Kengal Hanumanthaiah, the leader of the largest party, the Congress, was sworn in as the first Chief Minister. Following a process of reorganisation, the state of Mysore was constituted in November 1956 by incorporating four districts from the erstwhile Bombay Presidency and three from the former princely state of Hyderabad.
In addition, some areas from the former state of Madras and Coorg, were also joined into the new state. In 1973, the state was renamed Karnataka, which was its old name, closely linked to its language, Kannada. This history is important and continues to be relevant in the manner in which the politics in the state, with its regional, linguistic, caste, class, and religious variations, operates.
With the results expected on May 13th, all the 224 seats in the state’s Legislative Assembly will be up for grabs. The last elections, five years back in 2018, saw a fractured, three-party mandate. BJP led the tally with 104 seats, with the Congress with 80, and Janata Dal (United) with 37, following. Although B.S. Yeddyurappa, the BJP assembly leader, was invited to form the government and sworn in as chief minister on May 17, he could not muster a majority. Just two days later, on May 19, he resigned before the trust vote.
An opportunistic, unholy alliance
The Congress and the JD (U) entered an opportunistic, some would say unholy, alliance. They formed a coalition government, with JD (U)’s H.D. Kumaraswamy, son of the former chief minister and prime minister of India, the southern strongman, H. D. Deve Gowda became the chief minister. However, just 14 months into their rule, 16 MLAs from the coalition defected to BJP. Kumaraswamy lost the floor test by six votes, garnering only 99 votes top BJP’s 105.
Yeddyurappa was, once again, sworn in as the state’s chief minister for the fourth time in July 2019, just a couple of months after Narendra Modi won his second term as India’s prime minister.
But the story did not end there. Two years later and after the Covid-19 pandemic, Yeddyurappa, already 78, stepped down to make way for his own protégé, Basavaraj Bommai. Karnataka got its 23rd chief minister. It is another matter that his father, S.R. Bommai, had been a Janata Dal CM in 1988.
Those I spoke to about the election outcome in the state seemed to believe that no party would get a clear majority although BJP was ahead of the Congress as of now. That is because despite the anti-incumbency and corruption charges, the BJP seemed more united and purposeful. In addition, the Modi-Shah-Nadda trio, at the helm of the party, signified a much clearer victory game plan than the faction-ridden Congress.
As to the blowback against the present dispensation, which had not performed all that well, one senior commentator, who is also a friend, said, “When we speak of anti-incumbency, it is more against a sitting MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly), than against a party.” I asked, “What will the BJP do to counter it?” The answer was simple: “Get rid of the old guard. Change several candidates; bring in new faces, people with a clean image and experience in administration.”
As this column goes to press, the BJP’s first list of 189 aspirants has just been announced. It includes 52 fresh faces — as if to prove my friend’s predictions. Predictably, this has led to protests, even resignations, by the veterans who were denied tickets.
Though the Congress cannot be written off, it has yet to earnestly get into election mode. With its two rival factions, one led by former chief minister, S Siddaramaiah, and the other by D K Shivakumar, former energy minister, jockeying for power, the party resembles a house divided against itself.
This endemic infighting, which is playing out in Rajasthan in a slugfest between incumbent CM Ashok Gehlot and challenger Sachin Pilot, seems typical of the party. I asked another seasoned observer, former Director General of police, “Given the divisions in the Congress, do you think the BJP will get a clear majority?”
He paused and said, “One cannot be sure.” Then he added with a conspiratorial smile, “Long years back, Deve Gowda himself told me that he would remain a kingmaker till 2025!”
The Gowda or Vokkaliga community is closely identified with JD (U); they are known to vote for their own. To counter their influence, the BJP will continue to back the rival Lingayat community leaders, of which both Yeddyurappa and Bommai are members.
There is also a rumour that a very respected spiritual leader from the Gowda community may be put up as the CM candidate. When it comes to the Congress, the BJP’s game plan is to tacitly encourage the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) candidates to split the minority votes in the state.
It is too early to predict the outcome of these elections. But given the persistence of a certain degree of uncertainty, if not perplexity in political situation in the state, the balance of power in Karnataka may well lie in the hands of JD (U).