With days to go for the Karnataka Assembly election on May 10, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be spending the weekend hectically campaigning in the state. Going by what political scientist and psephologist Sandeep Shastri says, could this could be a sign of concern in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, especially about support for the party from the key Lingayat community?
BS Yediyurappa, the party’s tallest Lingayat leader is no longer in electoral politics. This, combined with the BJP’s refusal to name the incumbent chief minister, Lingayat leader Basavraj Bommai as its candidate to head the government should it win and the exit of Lingayat leaders from the party could result in a drop in support, Shastri told Scroll.
“…I think the BJP does face a challenge in terms of the Lingayat vote,” said Shastri. “Maybe it’s a little early to say whether that dip is going to significantly impact the seat count of the party.”
Unhappiness with the state government is visible across the state – even among BJP supporters Shastri told Scroll in an interview. The party’s time-tested strategy of raising the communal temperature to consolidate its vote bank is unlikely to work, he said. After 2018, the BJP has realised that “the vote on that factor has reached the saturation point”.
Either way, said Shastri, Karnataka will deliver a clear verdict – either in favour of the BJP or the Congress.
For the BJP, the key difference between the last election in 2018 and this one is that party veteran BS Yediyurappa, the man with the widest mass appeal particularly so among the numerically and electorally significant Veerashaiva Lingayat community, has retired from electoral politics. Will the BJP be able to retain the support it has built over the years among Lingayats?
Over the last few years, the BJP has been able to secure the support of the Lingayat community and the community clearly knew that if the BJP came to power, a Lingayat would be the chief minister of the state. Studies have shown anything from 60% to 75% of the Lingayat vote was bagged by the BJP, save of course once when the party split and Yediyurappa formed his own KJP [Karnataka Janata Paksha].
Now, how does the situation change today?
Yediyurappa is still the tallest leader of the community. But as he campaigns seeking votes for the party, the voter knows that he will not be the chief minister. Secondly, the BJP chief minister Basavraj Bommai, who is a Lingayat, has not been made the chief ministerial face of the party. And thirdly, a few prominent Lingayat faces of the BJP have now left the party, especially from Northern Karnataka. So if you combine all these three factors together, there is that possibility of a slight dent to the Lingayat vote for the BJP.
Will that dent result in a major seat loss is a different question. It may be true that some of the leaders who have left the party and gone to other political shores were not mass-based leaders, but as I always say, the optics are critical. The optics that such an action results in.
Now, will the campaign of the central leadership of the party, which is largely happening in the northern part of the state where the Lingayat community lives, make a difference? It could. But I think the BJP does face a challenge in terms of the Lingayat vote. And there definitely will be a slight dip in that vote. Maybe it’s a little early to say whether that dip is going to significantly impact the seat count of the party.
Can you talk about the significance of the Vokkaliga dominated Old Mysuru region? The BJP has traditionally not done well here. In 2019 though, among the Congress and JDS [Janata Dal (Secular)] MLAs who defected to the BJP, were a number of Vokkaliga leaders. The party also made inroads here in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. In recent months we also saw an attempt by the party to communalise Old Mysuru by claiming that purported Vokkaliga chieftains, Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda killed Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan
No party has been able to get a majority in the assembly if they did not do well in Old Mysore and Mumbai-Karnataka regions. Whoever has got a majority in the assembly after 1956 has got it because of a stellar performance in Old Mysore and Mumbai-Karnataka. The BJP not getting a majority in 2008 and 2013 had a lot to do with its poor performance in the Old Mysore region.
Now, when the Congress and JDS MLAs defected to the BJP, this was preceded by the Lok Sabha election [in 2019] in which the JDS and Congress fought together and the BJP did very well. The BJP’s success, I would argue, in the Old Mysore region in that parliamentary election, was at the cost of the JDS.
The JDS is the one which literally drew a blank save for one seat, the Hassan seat, in an area which they had considered their stronghold. Many of us have argued that the Congress-JDS alliance did not impact the Congress negatively as much as it impacted the JDS. It allowed for the BJP to make inroads into the old Mysore region.
However, that was a Lok Sabha election and the dynamics of Lok Sabha elections in Karnataka are very, very different. The JDS has generally never done well in a major Lok Sabha election except in 1996. So when you are talking of an assembly poll, I think the JDS is a factor in the Old Mysore region. The Congress has a uniform presence in the Old Mysore region. Will the JDS impact the BJP more or the Congress more is the question.
In straight Congress-BJP fights in the Old Mysore region, the Congress seems to have an upper hand because the unhappiness with the state government is transparently visible. Many BJP supporters will tell you, next year we are voting for Mr Modi to become prime minister again, but this year we want this state government out. They are not able to identify themselves with the state government. And this you see quite visibly in many parts of the state.
What about the Congress party?
The Congress faces a lot of rebel candidates in the Old Mysore region. Most of these rebels are in seats which were declared at the last minute. And these were seats where there were contests between Siddaramaiah’ s nominees and [Karnataka Congress President] DK Shivakumar’s nominees. The Congress leadership has done a very interesting balancing act between the two. But will the rebel candidates pose a threat to the Congress?
We have always said Congress has this unique capacity of defeating itself. It does not need an opponent to defeat it. They have the capacity. They have done it three times. So that’s what we are looking out for keenly in terms of is that going to be an issue for the Congress in the Old Mysore region.
What do you make of neither party projecting a clear leader, a chief ministerial candidate?
The BJP and the Congress have not declared a leader for distinctly different reasons. Last time, the BJP had declared Yediyuurappa as the chief minister candidate more than 18 months before the election. This time, they have taken a call not to do that.
One reason I think is, if you declare a chief ministerial candidate who is not your incumbent chief minister, it then raises questions about your state government. It then forces an additional spotlight of attention on the state government. I think a second factor which did not convince the BJP to project a chief ministerial candidate is...they were very clear that the centre of their campaign would be their central leadership. If you have a chief ministerial candidate, then you are taking attention away from what they thought would be their most vital vote-getter.
But in the last few days, there have been ripples within the BJP on this. There are groups within the Lingayats who are saying, I think we should declare a chief ministerial candidate to be able to retain the Lingayat vote. On the other hand, [veteran BJP leader KS] Eswarappa who has taken a very strong stand on many issues,has come out in support of a Vokkaliga candidate saying CT Ravi is the ideal choice for chief minister.
Ever since 2014, the BJP has converted parliamentary elections into the election of a prime minister. But that’s not happened at the state level where given the dynamics of the party, the central leadership continues to be the face and the decision makers very much like the Congress, though they use different terminologies; I think the high command is critical in both the parties on this.
In the Congress, there are the two very tall leaders, both openly aspiring to be chief minister, but both realising that our chief ministerial ambitions will only come into play if our party gets a majority. And for the party to get a majority, we need to work together. So, this is a catch-22 situation both of them find themselves in, that we need to work together for the party to get a majority, but then we also need to project ourselves as the face.
DK Shivakumar did something very clever two weeks back where he said he will be happy to work under [Congress President] Mallikarjun Kharge as the chief minister and have a Dalit chief minister for Karnataka. But I think the message Shivakumar was conveying was not who he wanted as the chief minister, but who he did not want as the chief minister. Not mentioning Siddaramaiah’s name was the more important message that was being sent out.
Would it be correct to say that the BJP has realised that hardline Hindutva has limitations in Karnataka? The communal rhetoric on display months ago has now abated, what explains the change in tack?
Two points on that. One, I think the politics south of the Vindhyas is very different from the politics north of the Vindhyas. The type of polarisation that can happen on [the] grounds of religion is very different in West India and North Indian states.
In Karnataka, I would believe that in 2018, the intensity of the polarisation which was achieved had reached a saturation point. I think post-2018, even the BJP realises that this is an issue which will not get us any more votes. Because the vote on that factor has reached the saturation point. If I could give an example for that, in the coastal areas of Karnataka, where BJP did exceptionally well last time – in Dakshina Kannada, they won all the seats, save one.
This time they have tried something like the Gujarat model only in coastal Karnataka. In coastal Karnataka, they have replaced many sitting MLAs with newly-minted candidates who come from the frontal organisations. Because on the question of polarisation, you have been able to get the maximum, now you can’t push that anymore. So they have looked at a change of candidates. They have also looked at what I would call the social matrix.
Now, what has happened in Dakshin Kannada is [that] those groups which have been carrying out the work of their frontal organisations and face the brunt of violence and attacks and all that, hail from one social segment. But the political representation is from another social segment. So that’s why when Praveen Nettaru [district secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha] was killed and the BJP state president went to offer his condolences, there was a huge protest. So some of the changes done in ticket distribution takes this factor into account.
What will the Karnataka election results portend for the 2024 parliamentary polls?
Right from 1984, Karnataka has always had a different verdict at the state level and at the central. Very clear. In 1982, [former Prime Minister] Rajiv Gandhi got 24 out of 25 seats after the death of his mother and four months later, [politician RM] Hegde’s Janata Party got a majority. So that trend which now you see in a lot of states in the rest of the country started in Karnataka 40 years ago.
In 2013, the Congress came to power in Karnataka, the very next year in the Lok Sabha elections, where our survey shows in 2014 when people are asked ‘what do you think about the Siddaramaiah government?’ Ninety per cent said it’s doing a good job, 90%. But then, 17 to 18 seats went to the BJP out of 28 in Karnataka in that election. In 2018, BJP stopped short of a majority, but in the Lok Sabha, they just romped home with 24 seats.
I believe the verdict two weeks from now alone will not have an impact on next year’s election by itself, taken in isolation. Because I think the Karnataka voters vote very differently in the two elections.
Finally what do you make of the pre-poll surveys?
I hesitate to comment on them unless I have a clearer picture of the methodology that they use. Because except for one or two of them, most of them have unclear ways of defining their sample and all that. So I’m a little hesitant because of the lack of transparency a lot of these surveys have.
It is a very tight race at this stage. And the next two weeks are critical in this race. But I believe the Karnataka voter will not give an unclear verdict. I think it will be a clear verdict either in favour of the Congress or the BJP. I don’t think we will have a hung assembly.