As Karnataka Votes, BJP vs Congress Alliance - The Numbers

If you were to take the opinion of middle class families and friends sitting at Kamat, a popular pit stop on the Bengaluru-Mumbai highway, then Prime Minister Narendra Modi is headed to repeat his party's success of 2014 in Karnataka - the BJP won 17 of the 28 seats.

There is almost near unanimity as you go round the tables at a local dhaba asking "Who are you voting for?" "Modi" or "Modi-ji" is the answer; the name of the party is not even mentioned.

When you ask why, the answers are standard as if taught by rote: he has done much development; he has given the country international standing; we need a strong leader.

And yet when you ask what the development has been, there is a strangled search. Somewhat despairingly, young Rangeeta from Shivamogga said "Demonetisation" Then, realising this may not be the most apt answer, she explained " You can't expect to see the benefits so quickly, it will take time." Her father sagely added, "He needs ten years". Rangeeta also says it's just not her, but her friends, in fact" all the youth is for Modi."

The support amongst young Karnataka voters for Modi seems considerable; not just the middle class but even the less well-off seem keen on him. Manjunath Valo has been selling fruit for ten years at a local train station and is passionate in his support. "Modi has defended the country and the jawans like never before. What he did at Balakot showed the world that".

Like anywhere in India, how people vote is complicated by other factors, caste being the most dominant, especially in non-urban areas.

Nelamangala is a prosperous Vokkaliga village in rural Bengaluru, where everyone says that they vote for JDS chief and Vokkaligga biggie Deve Gowda and his alliance with the Congress. Chetan Gowda is quite clear: "We are always supporting Gowda. Who else will we give a chance to?" When asked how the current JDS-Congress state government is delivering, there was a cryptic "Good." The general consensus in the village is that 80% will support JDS.


Voting in Bengaluru took place on April 18 in the first phase.

The BJP, beside extensive support from the middle class and upper castes, has its own dependable caste, the Lingayats. And they have sworn off the JDS ever since now Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy abruptly yanked his party out of an alliance with the BJP in 2007, which meant BS Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat leader from the BJP, was Chief Minister for barely a week.

"I voted JDS until then, but after that, only BJP" says Shiv Deva, a relatively prosperous farmer in rural Chitradugra. The betrayal of Yeddyuappa rankles with almost all Lingayats  and this pays huge dividends for the BJP. Before the assembly elections last year, then Chief Minister Siddaramaiah tried to break the BJP's grip on the Lingayats by offering them minority status. The ploy failed and almost brought the BJP back to power. And it certainly lost Siddaramiah his gaddi.

In Karnataka, it is these two castes, the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, who together form 29 per cent of the population and dominate politics; while the Vokkaligas are based broadly in the belt around Bengaluru and to its south, the Lingayats are to north and west. This caste geography explains the parties position in the state.


Without Bengaluru, the BJP would be an insignificant force in the South. Also see how weak the JDS is in the north which is voting in Phase 3. The BJP's 50% vote share in the north, in a three-cornered contest, is extraordinary.

Karnataka is an oddity in southern politics. Everywhere else in the south, regional parties dominate the political landscape. (In Kerala, the CPM is a more of a regional party than a national one and the Congress leads a ragtag coalition of local parties.) So Karnataka is the only southern state where the two national parties, the BJP and the Congress face off, with Deve Gowda's Janata Dal Secular often a minor partner to one of them. Currently, they are in an unhappy marriage with the Congress since last year's assembly election, forced together by "the national opposition" pressure to keep the BJP from power.

The unhappiness is undeniable and that fact that they have survived almost a year is remarkable. Their leaders openly admit that former Congress Chief Minister Siddaramiah (once of the JDS), has never accepted that the fact that the larger Congress party had to surrender  his post to Deve Godwa's son, HD Kumaraswamy for the JDS to accept this alliance. D Shiva Kumar, the Congress's man for all seasons, admits that Chief Minister Kumaraswamy and he have been "enemies for 40 years" but says that both of them are now working closely to keep the alliance together. He frankly admits that on the ground, not everything is going according to plan and getting the supporters of both parties to transfer support is tough.

Kumaraswamy agrees and says that the BJP has tried everything to bring down this government, even offering him five years of rule, but insists he will not be enticed. "I will not go with the BJP again". Having said that, he laments the fact that the alliance is often working at cross purposes in the state and especially at the ground.

Really troublesome for Kumaraswamy is the lack of Congress support in Mandya, ( just south of Bengaluru) where his son Nikhil is fighting the Lok Sabha seat. He complains that the BJP-supported independent candidate Souma Lata has "been attracting Congress support, their flags are at her rallies"! The seat, which used to be a sure bet, is said to be too close to call. A defeat for Kumaraswamy here could put more pressure on the alliance. 

The lack of coordination and cooperation is likely to be an important cause for the likely failure of this alliance to reverse the BJP's majority of Lok Sabha seats in the state. People forget that BJP has been a major force in Karnataka in the last 20 years. In fact, even when the UPA won nationally in 2004 and 2009, the BJP was the majority party in Karnataka in the national election (see table below).


Had the JDS-Congress alliance held together better and repeated the level of coordination on the ground that led them to sweep Bellary Lok Sabha by-election in January, they could have looked at reducing the BJP to single digits in Karnataka. That would have made a huge difference to the BJP, which can ill-afford to lose a dozen seats here, given the threat it is under in the Northern India, especially in UP.

But they can take heart from the lack of coordination between the two allies and the BJP's formidable on ground organisation. The BJP's ability to call on its workers is enormous and reflected outside at a polling station in Chitradurga half an hour before polls close.

40 BJP workers, including their General Secretary for the town, stand there monitoring voters. This well-organised group is vociferous in their support and as soon as they see TV cameras, they break out into chants of "Modi-ji, Modi-ji.: On the other side of the gate is a much smaller Congress group, but there is no JDS person there.


The Congress-JDS alliance in Karnataka has survived almost one year in Karnataka.

In the battle of caste loyalties, and alliance cooperation, there is no clarity to where this election is headed. The BJP is upset that the low turnout in Bengaluru (under 55%), which voted on April 18, could stymie their efforts to hold three seats there; the JDS is unsure of Congress support to the Gowda family which is contesting three seats - Deve Gowda and his two grandsons.  

This Gowda family promotion has also caused a rift, many voters seemed angry that Deve Gowda" is promoting his family and not the state." And in two of the three seats, they seem to be struggling. Similarly, family promotion seems to have put Yeddyruppa's son effort in Shimoga, a BJP safe seat, into jeopardy.

(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV.)

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