This Article is From May 22, 2023

Opinion: Will Congress Reap Anti-Incumbency Dividend In Karnataka?

Journalist Ajay Kumar had predicted a Congress gain from BJP's Lingayat exits and the corruption allegations against the Bommai government.

One of the few proven axioms of Indian electoral politics is that the voter does not deliver an equivocal verdict where there is a clear and present alternative and palpable dissatisfaction with the incumbent. The Karnataka result due Saturday will be no different.

This is obvious from the many perceptive ground reports from the state, bolstered in no small measure by the robust pre-poll survey by Eedina, a Kannada media outlet. The same verdict has been returned more recently by two other media outfits, including Network18 owned by the Ambanis.

The main caveats to the prediction too are known: the spoil factor of the Janata Dal (Secular), mainly because of its proven strength in the Vokkaliga belt of Old Mysore with its 60 seats, and the thin spread of the Congress vote across the state unlike the more concentrated vote for the BJP in the five other geopolitical zones of the states, most so in the coastal region, with 21 seats out of the Karnataka assembly's 224.

The fact is the Karnataka election was for the Congress to lose. Not only has it historically enjoyed the highest vote percentage in the state - even in 2018 it had two percent more votes than the BJP though its seat tally was 80 against the BJP's 105 - the momentum has strongly been with it over the nearly four years that this BJP government has been in power in the state.

Nationally, and increasingly in states too, the BJP juggernaut has ridden on three wheels - the undoubtedly huge personal popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the consolidation of the Hindu vote (get 50% of the Hindu vote, which is broadly 80%, and in the first past the post system, 40% of the vote takes you home) and the gratitude of the labharthis (beneficiaries) in what has been labelled as "new welfarism" - roads, houses, gas cylinder, toilets and vastly better deliveries of government programs for the poor, not least free food - for the marked difference these programs have made to the quality of life of even the poorest voters.

Except for the personal popularity of Mr Modi, which will undoubtedly bolster the party's vote, the other two factors have unraveled in various degrees on Karnataka's soil. The consolidation of the Hindu vote, perfected by the BJP in numerous similar pockets across the country, has been confined to 21 coastal seats, where a historically higher profile of the Muslim community in business and society has provided the BJP the right soil to polarise the Hindu vote.

In other areas, Karnataka's Muslims do not present a similarly vulnerable target where the community is in a poorer state.

The incredibly important and ubiquitous mutts of the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas spread across the 108 assembly seats in the three geopolitical zones in the core of the state have a history of greater syncretism and have resisted the BJP's efforts to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment - most recently the failed attempt to credit Tipu Sultan's death to Vokkaliga youth. The mutts, which are far more active in the more secular aspects of life than similar religious orders in, say, Gorakhpur in UP, have also made it clear that they cherish cordial Hindu-Muslim ties.

The labharthis' pay-off is also far more muted in Karnataka than in the Hindi belt. In interviews to journalists, Home Minister Amit Shah and Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai have rattled off impressive statistics of how the focus of the "new welfare" - roads, houses and toilets - have been in areas of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes concentration.

Karnataka's human development index is admittedly weaker than that of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, but the gratitude guaranteed by better deliveries of "new welfarism" is nowhere near the order of magnitude in UP or Bihar. Karnataka's per capita NSDP (Net State Domestic Product), at Rs 2.36 lakh per year, is the highest among larger states; the third highest among all states, only behind Goa and Sikkim; four times that of UP and six times that of Bihar.

Most ground reports have also been unequivocal about the stench of corruption around the Basavarao Bommai "40%" government. The average Indian takes Mr Modi's "Na khaoonga na khaney doonga" pledge in their stride as they live with daily corruption permeating most interactions with authority. But when this charge comes as the topping on the performance of a government that has not distinguished itself in any perceptible way, except the digitalisation of land records, then the BJP can expect a significant erosion of its support among the 37 per cent urban vote, and even in the 35 assembly seats of the Bengaluru Karnataka region that has been staunchly with the BJP.

Finally, of course, this time it is the BJP, and not the Congress, which has shot itself in the foot on the tricky and critical issue of caste support, with seats being denied to prominent Lingayat leaders from its fold, most prominently ex Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar. The BJP under Modi-Shah is anything but un-pragmatic - ask this resident of Goa - so it must have its reason for annoying the state's most influential caste, but for the moment the gain has been the Congress's, which pulled a Goa on the BJP by promptly welcoming Mr Shettar to its party and nominating him from his home seat of Hubbali.

Even otherwise, the Congress has succeeded in presenting itself as ready for the anti-incumbency dividend in a state where, since 1985, no party has won elections twice in a row. In its chief Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress has an accomplished Dalit leader from the state. In Siddaramaiah and DK Shiva Kumar, the Congress has two leaders with proven political credentials who are known across the state. The party also has a robust organisational strength in the state.

Rahul Gandhi's stature has undoubtedly grown since the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Luckily for the Congress, Karnataka did not offer the reality for him and the Congress to make Adani a prominent election issue, doing which would have been as much a waste of political fuel there as anywhere else in India. The Congress, though, did make a late and valiant attempt at a self-goal with its manifesto promise of banning the Bajrang Dal.

The Modi-Shah BJP, even more than the Vajpayee-Advani BJP, thinks decades ahead, now more so with the RSS in total tandem, and practises politics with a ruthlessness rarely seen in Indian politics. Why then did it allow state BJP leader BL Santhosh almost total sway over the other factions in the party in the choice of candidates, knowing well that alienating leaders like BS Yediyurappa could cost it the election? Or is the BJP already focused on the next round of polls? Perceptive Modi-Shah observers will keep an eye on the many young BJP leaders who will emerge out of this election maelstrom, ready for the time when the state BJP will be exactly as Modi-Shah want it and as engineering graduate Santhosh will shape it.

Finally, some significant likely portents from the Karnataka elections for next year's general election. Expect the Congress to stiffen into its reflexive natural-party-of-governance-self in the opposition unity talks ahead, most so with the only other "national party" and current non-ally, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). But it will be good for the Congress for its win to not be credited to Rahul Gandhi, which will reduce the chances of the BJP succeeding in its attempt to make the 2024 contest a presidential Modi vs Rahul contest.

Expect Modi-Shah to renew their focus on the Hindi heartland states with the best potential to harvest the party's three-wheeled juggernaut to bring about a hattrick of national electoral wins. The publication of a map attributed to the Carnegie Endowment, which popped up on social media last week, would have come as no surprise to them. The map showed the possible allocation of 846 (now 543) Lok Sabha seats after an expected delimitation of constituencies in 2026, in which UP may have 143 seats (80), Bihar 79 (42), Maharashtra 76 (48) and Karnataka 41 (28).

(Ajay Kumar is a senior journalist. He is former Managing Editor, Business Standard and former Executive Editor, The Economic Times.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.