Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The curious case of Karnataka - Southern Right!

Since 1985, the party that has won a larger share of the 28 seats in the state has sat in the opposition in Delhi! Don’t ask why. Nobody can explain it and an attempt to do so could result in hugely faulty and dangerous political analysis. It must just suffice to know that this has been the trend so far.  It is best not to forecast on the basis of this trend but, the Congress fancies its chances here.

In fact, senior Congress leaders openly admit that if there is one state, with a bipolar BJP congress fight, where the party has an edge, it is here. In 1977, then Congress CM Devraj Urs forged a remarkable combination of OBCs, Dalit and minorities to give the party a victory here, defying even a huge anti-emergency national trend. Congress hopes Siddaramiah can do the same.   

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah rose from the ranks of a fiercely anti Congress Janata movement. He served with Janata Party stalwarts like the late Ramakrishna Hegde and shifted to the Congress as recently as 2005. He walked out of former Prime Minister H.D.Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) after Gowda chose his son H.D.Kumaraswamy as the leader.

Siddaramiah belongs to the OBC Kuruba community and under his leadership the Congress forged an alliance of OBCs, Dalit and Muslims to defeat a corruption struck and split BJP in the 2013 assembly elections. IT must be re iterated that this was similar to the alliance made by Devraj Urs in 1997.

This is important because politics in the state has been dominated by two major blocks. The Lingayat sect which as one block form a majority and the Vokkaliga caste that forms the second largest caste block.  There has to be a conglomeration of all the rest to beat these two. The BJP has consolidated amongst the Lingayats and Janata Dal(S) has a stranglehold over the Vokkaliga vote.

The fact that Siddaramiah was chosen as Chief Minister was a departure from Congress culture where “Long term loyalty matters and outsiders remain outsiders”. It is probably the first time that such a politician has been chosen to head a Congress government.

It is believed that he was given the Chief Minister’s post with a mandate to deliver at least 20 of the 28 seats from Karnataka in the Lok Sabha election. But, can he?

Sandeep Shastri says “You have to extend the southern regional party feeling to Karnataka and Kerala. Here national parties matter because of strong regional faces they have. That is what makes Siddaramiah important”.

Congress had beaten the JD(S) in its stronghold the Old Mysore region in the 2013 polls. The Gowdas have dominated politics here (geographically areas around Mysore and Bangalore) with their hold over the Vokkaliga  vote. This region accounts for nearly 14 of the state’s 28 seats and the caste base is consolidated here.

In this region, apart from the four seats in urban Bangalore, the BJP has minimal presence and the battle is between the JD(S) and Congress.  The BJP’s strongholds are in the rest of Karnataka, especially northern parts of the state.

Unlike Siddaramiah who shifted from a regional party to a national one, B.S.Yeddyurappa grew from the ranks of the RSS. He led the BJP to its first victory in a southern state in 2008 but, had to step down as Chief Minister after serious allegations of corruption.

He was a belligerent regional satrap who rebelled and walked out, splitting the party. Yeddyurappa belongs to the Lingayat sect. He had consolidated the Lingayat vote for the BJP and his departure split that vote resulting in a defeat to the Congress in the assembly polls of 2013.

This is why Narendra Modi ensured that Yeddyurappa returned to the BJP. Despite pressures from within, Yeddyurapp returned and will now contest the Shimoga seat. He is considered a formidable force and these elections in effect will be a huge test.  A loss this time could send him into serious trouble. He has to prove one simple point- For the BJP to win here the party needs him!

In the 7 to 10 seats in Northern and Central Karnataka, Yedyyurappa’s return would make the BJP favourites. In Dakshin Kannada the battle will be close and this could prove which of these two parties will get more of the 28 seats in the state.  

 It must be mentioned that if there is one southern state where Modi himself has an appeal and electoral power it is in Karnataka, specifically in urban middle class pockets of Bangalore with the stereotype IT population.

This is why it will be interesting to see how Nandan Nilekanai performs as the Congress candidate for the Banagalore south seat. The Chairman of the UID initiative and one of the founders of IT giant Infosys, Nandan will battle out BJP’s five time MP(last two times from Bangalore South) H.N.Ananth Kumar. It is expected to be the most interesting battle in the state from a national point of view.

Many have wondered why Nandan actually wanted to fight a tough election. He could have chosen the Rajya Sabha route. After speaking with those close to him the impression is that he wanted a “reality check” for himself. He also strongly feels “being with a big party and fighting elections is the only way to change things and does not believe in the AAP route”

The point now though is can he win?

Sandeep Shastri says “Nandan’s campaign is focused on his persona and that could negate a Modi effect in urban pockets”. This will determine if the Congress finally has at least local answer to Modi!

Ananth Kumar himself is a tough cookie but, faces local level anti-incumbency but, that’s not enough. Nandan will have to evolve a campaign that gets him the basic Congress vote and then add to that with a vote for his image. In effect it would be something like getting the Congress vote plus an Aam Aadmi party vote. If he does it then victory would be achievable but, doing it is not easy.

The Aam Aadmi Party too has a presence in this same urban space. Another Infosys biggie V.Balakrishnan joined the party after he quit as CFO and will contest the Bangalore central seat. Their campaign though, is not even close to what was seen in Delhi but, the overall Kejriwal impact may get them some votes making them factors in a close battle.

In the end the Karnataka verdict may actually add to both the Congress and the BJP but, may not make a significant change in the final tally for either.

Going back to the fundamental thesis I started with on how South India will affect stability at the Centre. The analysis is simple. If the Congress wins more than the BJP and does not become the ruling force in Delhi, then numbers from Karnataka will not add to stability at the centre. The BJP does not seem likely to win even close to the 18 they won in 2009 and they seem likely to be the ruling force in Delhi – if true this would mean that Karnataka will be another southern state adding to instability in Delhi – read as not contributing to increasing the numbers of a central force in a national coalition!

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