Opinion | Why BJP Faces An Uphill Battle In Karnataka, Its 'Gateway' To South

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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has set a target of winning 50 seats in South Indian states in the upcoming general elections. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party had won 30 seats, 25 of which came from Karnataka. The state is considered a BJP stronghold in general elections; the party won the maximum number of seats there in the four elections from 2004 to 2019, and has consistently fared better than the Congress. 

The BJP hopes its alliance with H.D. Deve Gowda's Janata Dal (Secular) (JD-S) can help it sweep the state again in 2024. Strategists feel the party's alliances with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Jana Sena in Andhra Pradesh; with the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), former chief minister and now ousted AIADMK leader O. Panneerselvam, and Amma Makkal Munnettra Kazagam (AMMK) in Tamil Nadu; and small gains in Telangana and Kerala with the help of new joinees from other parties, could help it achieve its 'Mission 50' in the South of Vindhyas.

However, post the announcement of tickets in Karnataka, it seems all is not well within the BJP. The alliance with the JD(S) is facing turbulence, and the Congress government's implementation of its promised guarantees is threatening to sway voters towards the grand old party in general elections. 

In 2019, while the BJP won 25 seats, the Congress and the JD(S), as well as Independents backed by the BJP, won one seat each. The JD(S) and the Congress, which were in an alliance back then, won 9.7% and 31.9% votes, respectively. The BJP,  in contrast, bagged over half-51.4%-of votes. The JD(S), which had entered a pre-poll alliance with any party for the first time ever, contested seven seats, while the Congress fielded candidates for 21.

However, in the assembly polls last year, the JD(S) ended up suffering a harsh wipeout, with the Congress gaining a 5% vote share at the expense of the JD(S). Kumaraswamy's party saw its minority support base, including that among the Vokkaligas, diminishing, and it finally decided to part ways with the Congress and join hands with the BJP. 

There are a couple of factors that can jeopardise the BJP's prospects in Karnataka.

1. Discontent After Ticket Distribution

According to the current seat-sharing deal, the BJP will be contesting 25 seats, while the JD(S) will field candidates in three (Kolar, Hassan and Mandya). The BJP has announced candidates for all its quota seats except Chitradurga. Against the 24 names announced, tickets have been denied to 12 sitting MPs. One MP, Shobha Karandlaje, has been shifted from Udupi to Bangalore North. Eight of the 12 MPs who were denied tickets had served for two terms. 

Former deputy chief minister K.S. Eshwarappa, upset that his son K.E. Kantesh did not make it to the list, has launched a pointed attack against former chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa. As a protest against "dynastic politics in Karnataka", he has announced that he will fight the elections from Shivamogga against Yediyurappa's son B.Y. Vijayendra.

A number of supporters are also unhappy over denial of tickets to those who support Hindutva proponents C.T. Ravi, Pratap Simha, Basanagouda Patil Yatnal,  Sadananda Gowda and Anant Kumar Hegde. Former chief minister Gowda has even hinted that he might consider joining the Congress. 

2. JD(S) Alliance Faces Turbulence

Several JD(S) leaders are also upset with the BJP for the late announcement of seat-sharing deals and for toying with the idea of nominating Sumalatha Ambreesh from Mandya, which is a JD(S) stronghold. The historical animosity between the two parties due to Kumaraswamy's refusal to hand over the CM's chair to Yediyurappa in a power-sharing deal in 2007 is also fresh in the minds of many. 

A joint meeting organised on Monday in Tumkur was marred by clashes between party workers. The trouble started when JD(S)'s MLA M.T. Krishnappa blamed BJP leader Kondajji Vishwanath for his defeat in the 2019 general elections. 

In both BJP and JD(S), there are several leaders who have jumped ship from either party and thus share a history of rivalry. In forming an alliance with the JD(S), the BJP's aim had been to shore up its prospects in Southern Karnataka/Old Mysuru, where the latter enjoys good support among the influential Vokkaliga community. However, these incidents put a question mark on whether the transfer of votes across the two alliance partners can be seamless in the upcoming elections. 

3. Labharthis Under Siddaramaiah Government 

The Siddaramaiah government has already implemented the five guarantees it promised during the assembly election last year. These include free travel for women, free electricity up to 200 units, unemployment allowance, cash support to women, and free rice every month for BPL (Below Poverty Line) families. The Congress government has earmarked Rs 50,000 crore towards these schemes in its current budget. 

The programmes have earned the Congress considerable support among women and the poor, especially the SC-ST and OBC communities, as well as minority, or 'Ahinda', vote blocks. These groups are the Congress's key pillars in the state. It has also been able to seed, to an extent, the narrative that beneficiaries could lose out on these schemes if the BJP comes to power at the Centre. 

4. Ahinda Consolidation Against BJP-JD(S)

It's well-acknowledged by now that the BJP has been able to cement its position in the Hindi heartland by consolidating anti-dominant OBC support. It has brought together, for example, non-Yadav OBC voters against Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and non-Jat voters against Jats in Haryana and Rajasthan. In most of these states, the BJP has managed to bring together lower or most backward OBC voters, who far outnumber the dominant groups. 

However, in Karnataka, a significant chunk of Ahinda voters side with the Congress. The reason is that the BJP is still seen as a party representing Lingayats and influential upper-caste sections. In that context, the alliance with the JD(S) is being perceived as a handshake between two dominant communities-the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas. This poses the risk of further distancing SC/ST, OBC, and minority voters, who may then turn towards the Congress. 

Can The Modi Factor & Ram Mandir Help?

The Modi factor, the unique advantage that the BJP enjoys, thanks to the popularity of PM Modi in elections, accounted for 53% of the BJP's votes in Karnataka, against an all-India average of 32%. That is, one out of every two voters in the state backed the BJP due to PM Modi, against a ratio of one out of every three across India. The party hopes this factor will again help it sail through Karnataka, where it seems to have maxed out on its winnability by already having won 25 out of 28 seats and a 50%-plus vote share. 

The party also believes that the Ram Mandir's inauguration could play a crucial role here as the state is believed to have a deep religious connection with Lord Ram. It's believed that he spent five years of his exile in Karnataka, while the birthplace of Hanuman, according to Hindu mythology, was the Anjandri Hills in Hampi. The import of such religious links may not be as significant as in North India, but it's still fairly high.

An interesting battle is on the cards in Karnataka, with most opinion polls predicting that the BJP may have to part with a few seats. It remains to be seen whether the party will be able to repeat its 2019 performance. 

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar, he was a corporate and investment banker.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.