This Article is From May 15, 2018

In Karnataka, It Appears To Be Advantage BJP

Who has won Karnataka? The answer is nobody knows - look at the exit polls which offered totally opposing results. So much so that Times Now decided to get two polls done, just to make sure that they had it right. Of course, both polls gave different results, leaving everyone even more bemused.   And then one of those polls - the one that forecast the Congress in the lead - was played down. 

There is no doubt that this was a very confusing election to predict. There was no anti-incumbency on the ground, even the most ardent of BJP supporters were unable to articulate what has been so bad over the past five years. Of course, the BJP played hard on corruption and described Chief Minister Siddaramaiah as "Mr 10%", but that lost it punch early on when the BJP declared BS Yeddyurappa as the Chief Ministerial candidate and added the notorious "Bellary Brothers" to the list of its contestants. Which is why, on May 1,  the BJP was trailing the Congress and Siddaramaiah looked like having upset the Karnataka hoodoo of Chief Ministers not being re- elected. And that was when, like in Gujarat, the BJP decided to change tack and throw everything it had at the Congress.

The seriousness of the situation was apparent as the BJP increased PM Narendra Modi's campaign from five days to eight, including two nights spent in Bengaluru, so that he could campaign early and longer.  Staying over is not something the PM likes to do, but obviously those extra hours gained for campaigning were seen as very important. And like in Gujarat, the BJP campaign upped its vitriolic attacks and emptied its magazine on the ghosts of Nehru, Cariappa, Tipu amongst many, along with remarks about Sonia Gandhi's Italian ancestry. And why not? Rubbish like this paid dividends in Gujarat, where the BJP was struggling ten days before final polling.
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The BJP increased PM Narendra Modi's campaign from five days to eight, including two nights spent in Bengaluru. 

As BJP President Amit Shah found in his long campaign in Karnataka, communication was a problem and much of these speeches made in Hindi lost their punch by the time they were delivered. Watching Modi in Tumkur before a goodly but not overwhelming crowd, one saw much of his talk was lost in translation. Attempts to rouse the crowd were somewhat flat except for party workers who did provide the requisite cheers. Also the speech was replete with boring bureaucratic information on the "lakhs of crores" that were pouring down upon the electorate from BJP schemes. Since few understood what a crore was, these were wasted words. Which is why his later speeches cut the "vikas" and focused on the Congress's unholy alliances, farmers' deaths, communalizing society and the appeasement of minorities. And certainly the "appeasement card" was working well in areas with large Muslim populations and in Coastal Karnataka.

The tragedy of Karnataka lies in it divisions of caste and religion. Despite its villagers being far better off than those in UP or Bihar, these divides are physical as much as they are social. In Niddagahatta village, south of Bengaluru on the route to Mysuru, in deep JDS territory, this is very apparent. The Dalits on either side of the highway live in tiny clusters close together in houses with open drainage. The entry to the village where the Muslims live has slightly larger and better housing, and finally, just beyond the school, is the Vokkaliga area, generally quite prosperous with big houses and villagers on motorcycles. Similarly, in Srirangapatna, where there are no Muslims, the Vokkaligas are clearly much better off and deeply committed to the JDS. To the extent that they are vociferous in their anger at us visiting the Dalit part of the village - "you only want to hear them".

This anger may well be from the realisation that the JDS has lost ground with Dalits who by and large indicated support for the Congress with JDS supporters saying 90% of Dalits would vote for the Congress.  That was surprising given that Mayawati has tied up with the JDS. But witnessing her at a joint rally with JDS Chief Ministerial aspirant HD Kumaraswamy in Kolar, one saw great support for him from a reasonably large and vocal crowd, but her monotone roused nary a person.  

Similarly, many Muslims also seemed to have slipped out of the "secular" hold of the JDS and seem to be consolidating behind the Congress. And while in the Old Mysuru state this may help the Congress, there is the strong possibility that Hindu votes will consolidate behind the JDS in this region and the BJP in others. As the UP election showed, the BJP actually does well in Muslim areas with Hindus coalescing around it. And this could well happen here in Karnataka. 

The fact that the turnout in the Old Mysuru state has crossed 80% in many constituencies is an indication of the big fight between the JDS and the Congress for supremacy here. Both need to do very well here to maintain their political relevance.

Such small changes in voting can have a huge impact on the result. In Karnataka, the margins of victory in 2013 (when we added votes for parties that are now with the BJP) ranged from tiny to small; as many as 36 seats could move either way on a swing of 1.25% and 104 on a swing of just under 4%. That's almost half the seats.

And as NDTV's Battleground showed, different swings in different areas can change Karnataka result dramatically on Tuesday.
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It is these tiny margins, and the lack of any real wave, that has worried all parties. Waiting for Chief Minister Siddaramaiah in his constituency, where he was running 10 hours late for a road show, there was just a motley crowd of people waiting. It may have been the long hours of hanging around that dwindled them but that's what it was, and while Siddaramaiah managed to galvanise them with his oratory skills, there was a sense that things had slipped since we first met him in late April.

It was this fear of the unknown that drove both parties to throw everyone they could lay hands on into campaigning in the last days of the election. The BJP had 50 leaders, which, beside Modi and Shah, included most of the cabinet and the Chief Ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. And when every vote counts, the Congress brought Sonia Gandhi in for the first campaign speech in two years, had a press conference by Manmohan Singh, and dragged its northern band of young leaders to various parts of the state to sway Biharis, Marathas, and other minority voters. The Congress also got a small gift from the much-aggrieved Chandrababu Naidu, who called on all 7.5% Telugu-speaking Kannadigas to throw out the BJP.

In this election, the "ifs' have it, by a long shot. Even the satta market is unsure. The fact remains that if the BJP wins, it will be due to the Modi lifeline again. Having campaigned in 21 constituencies that should have galvanized cadres in 60 plus segments. In UP and Gujarat, that was enough for victory; will that be the case in Karnataka? That's a difficult call. Unlike Gujarat, there is a firmly entrenched third party - the JDS. If they get above 35 seats, they could help the BJP to power either by eating into Congress support or by providing the BJP with a coalition. And while they deny the latter as likelihood, they have done it before. If the Congress manages more than 105, they should be able to ward off the moneybags of the BJP; anything less and they will be outbid. Of course, the JDS could opt to sit out a hung house which would mean President's rule, as Kumaraswamy has threatened, but President's rule suits the BJP well - after all, they are the President.

The Congress is obviously wary of the outcome which is why Siddaramiah is already offering to step down in favour of a Congress Dalit leader. This he hopes will be more palatable to the JDS if they need to come together, given that he is not remotely acceptable to the JDS from which he had a bitter break-up over a decade ago. The JDS continues to say that in a hung house, it is the Congress that must make the first move. That is probably true, and if that happens, the JDS will be under pressure from "third" front leaders like Mayawati to do a deal with the Congress as a "secular" party.

Finally, even if the BJP loses in Karnataka, this should not be taken as a signal that the Modi days are over. There is a clear sense on the ground that a lot of people who may have voted Congress or JDS in the assembly election will vote for Modi in 2019. Amongst the young, Modi is an icon and with more young voters joining in by next spring, the BJP is unlikely to lose its 17 Lok Sabha seats here.

(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.