On March 8, just days before the results to the Assembly polls in five states were announced, HD Deve Gowda decided to give regional parties in South India a wake-up call.
The former prime minister had been named the man of the year by the Bengaluru Press Club. Many in attendance at the award ceremony thought Gowda would take a trip down memory lane and talk about his association with the media. Instead, the Janata Dal (Secular) leader chose the platform to send out a warning to political parties about their future: either unite against the Bharatiya Janata Party or perish.
“If the BJP manages to win Uttar Pradesh elections on its own, the party’s focus will be on the southern states, starting from Karnataka,” he said. “The regional parties here do not have the strength to stop BJP’s political growth as they lack unity.”
As the results showed on March 11, BJP did win Uttar Pradesh – and with a thumping majority – giving a fillip to the claims that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s influence has begun transcending caste and regions.
Gowda’s words reflect the unease of the political class in Karnataka, where the threat of a marauding BJP – and political realignments – looms large ahead of the state elections early next year. The Congress, in particular, which squandered its chances to form governments in Manipur and Goa, despite having the highest number of seats in a hung assembly, is under pressure and its leaders here now have the unenviable task of defending the only state the party holds in the South.
It has been a tough few months for the Congress in Karnataka.
In February, the party was named in a bribery scandal that implicated key leaders and nixed a controversial infrastructure project.
The BJP alleged that the contents of a dairy found by the Income Tax department from senior Congress leader K Govindaraj’s house last year pointed to kickbacks paid to the party high command to clear a steel flyover in Bengaluru. Already, the flyover, which would ease the commute to the city airport but would require more than 800 trees to be cut down, had been much-criticised and prompted citizen-led protests.
The controversy spiraled out of control after television channels reported that the notings in the diary – in the form of abbreviations with amounts next to them – implicated party President Sonia Gandhi and Vice-President Rahul Gandhi. This forced the government to scrap the steel flyover on March 2. But by then, the Congress’ credibility had taken a beating.
A bigger blow came a month earlier from within. Former External Affairs Minister SM Krishna, one of Karnataka’s veteran leaders with a 42-year association with the Congress, decided to quit the party, accusing the leadership of sidelining him.
The BJP successfully wooed him and the Krishna, also a former Karnataka chief minister, is all set to join the saffron party. Krishna’s departure has fueled the perception that the Congress is a sinking ship. Since January, the Congress has also lost senior Dalit leader Srinivasa Prasad and former minister Kumar Bangarappa, from the Idiga community, to the BJP.
Moreover, Krishna is from the Vokkaliga community, which accounts for a decisive share of votes in several constituencies in South Karnataka. This is also the community to which Gowda belongs, which is one of the reasons why the Janata Dal (Secular) does so well in the region. So when Gowda made his clarion call for the parties to unite, it may have had something to do with the presence of new Vokkaliga leaders in the BJP ranks.
Before the big battle in 2018, the Congress will face its first test as early as April 9, when two Assembly constituencies in the Mysore region – Nanjangud and Gundlupet – will witness by-elections. The Nanjangud seat fell vacant after Prasad, the MLA from the constituency, resigned from the constituency. He is now likely to contest the bypoll on a BJP ticket. In Gundlupet, the Congress is trying to rope in as a candidate a relative of former minister HC Mahadeva Prasad, who died in January.
While BJP state chief BS Yeddyurappa has said Karnataka will see a repeat of the Uttar Pradesh results in 2018, the Congress is putting on a brave face. Leaders are pointing out that BJP is not a peaceful house either.
In January, Yeddyurappa and KS Eshwarappa, the leader of the Opposition of Karnataka’s legislative council, publicly fought over the latter’s insistence on floating an independent platform to mobilise scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes. Eventually, BJP President Amit Shah had to summon the leaders to New Delhi to douse the fire.
“The BJP wants to portray the Congress as a divided house when two of their senior-most leaders cannot see eye to eye,” said BK Hariprasad, Rajya Sabha member.
However, when asked about Gowda’s remarks on the necessity for the Opposition to unite, Hariprasad gave the classic Congressman answer: “The high command will decide.”
While the BJP will look to expand its footprint down South starting with Karnataka next year, it is nowhere close to capturing power in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
In Tamil Nadu, the party has no presence and has not been able to find a strong ally. In the 2016 Assembly elections, it found it hard to identify candidates for the 234 constituencies and gave close to 60 seats to fringe parties like the India Jananayaga Katchi.
However, the infighting in the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which is now split into factions supporting party general secretary VK Sasikala and former Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, has given the BJP a ray of hope.
A senior BJP leader said they were hoping Panneerselvam would join hands with the party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, paving the way for them to ally when Tamil Nadu goes to polls next. “He has a great rapport with Modiji,” the leader said.
In Left Democratic Front-ruled Kerala, the BJP is more optimistic, given the gains it made in the 2016 Assembly elections. The party improved its vote share by 8.98% compared to 2011 and managed to win its first seat in the state.
Over the last eight months, the violence between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) especially in Kannur district, which has been the hotbed of political violence, has increased media attention for the BJP, pushing the Congress to the background.
In Kerala too, the Congress is rife with infighting. Last week, Congress leader VM Sudheeran resigned from the post of state party president. This has paved the way for a showdown between rival factions led by former Chief Minister Oomen Chandy and senior leader Ramesh Chennithala, both of which will vie to get their loyalists chosen as Sudheeran’s replacement.
In Andhra Pradesh, the BJP is maintaining a low profile, given that the ruling Telugu Desam Party is part of the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre.
Also, the Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh and Telengana will take place along with the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. “We don’t want to irk Naidu given how crucial it is to perform well in the Lok Sabha elections,” said a BJP leader.