As April 9 draws near, when by-elections to the Nanjangud and Gundlupet Assembly seats in Karnataka will be held, the question on every Congressman’s lips is this: is the party’s traditional stronghold crumbling, and who is to blame for this? They have the answer to the question too. If anybody is to blame for the present predicament of the Congress in the state, it is the leadership, they say in whispers.

The bypolls are an acid test for the ruling party, especially in the face of a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party. But beyond the immediate polls, they are also a decisive fight for both parties ahead of the state Assembly elections in 2018.

Additionally, the Nanjangud by-election is a personal battle of prestige for former Congress MLA and Dalit strongman V Srinivasa Prasad, who quit the party after being ousted from the Siddaramaiah cabinet in June. The seat fell vacant with his resignation and he is now contesting the election on a BJP ticket. He has called it a fight between his Dalit “swabhimana” (pride) and the “durahankara” (arrogance of power or ego) represented by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

On the other hand, the bypoll in Gundlupet – necessitated by the death of minister and five-time legislator HS Mahadev Prasad – is being seen as a fight between Siddaramaiah and BJP state president and former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa with an eye on the state elections next year.

Dalits versus Siddaramaiah

Srinivasa Prasad – a veteran who has won the general and state elections for five and two consecutive terms, respectively, on various party tickets – has declared the Nanjangud bypoll a direct battle with Siddaramaiah, saying the actual Congress candidate is inconsequential. The chief minister, on his part, has refrained from responding to Prasad’s challenge and outbursts against him.

But the BJP candidate’s gamble appears to have paid off and he has got the Dalits in Nanjangud, especially the youth, on his side. On Friday (March 31), when Siddaramaiah visited Sanna Kavalande and Badanwalu villages in this constituency in Mysuru, members of the community shouted slogans accusing him of being anti-Dalit and questioning his decision to drop Prasad from his cabinet.

“Siddaramaiah has proved himself anti-Dalit,” agreed S Mahesh, a research scholar from the University of Mysuru. “First, he refused to give the deputy chief minister’s post to KPCC [Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee] chief G Parameshwara. Next, he placated Mallikarjun Kharge by giving his son a post in his cabinet, then he removed Prasad and saw that he quit the Congress. And now, his next target is to remove Parameshwara from the KPCC chief’s post,” he added. Parameshwara, the state’s home minister, is a Dalit.

Sensing the mood of the villagers, Siddaramaiah skipped the meetings scheduled there and went to the next village.

The Lingayat factor

If the Dalits are backing Prasad, so too are the Lingayats, largely because of their loyalty to Yeddyurappa, who is a member of that community. The Lingayats in Nanjangud accuse Siddaramaiah of being “anti-Lingayat” and say he has not given leaders of their community government posts. They also believe a BJP win in both bypolls will boost Yeddyurappa’s chances to return as the state’s chief minister.

“If BJP wins these two seats, it will make the path of Yeddyurappa to the chief minister’s post easy with no one opposing him in his claim for this top post,” said Shivananjappa, a farmer from Chiklahalli in the constituency. “Why should Lingayats, who are in large numbers, not rally behind Yeddyurappa when everybody and every community in the state is making claims for the top post?”

The Congress is aware of the threat from both these communities, and its leaders have been raking up old wounds in an effort to counter Prasad’s march. They refer to the Badanavalu violence of 1993, when Lingayats killed three Dalits over entry to a temple in Nanjangud and Dalits, in turn, set the homes and properties of Lingayats on fire. Prasad is said to have played a prominent role in that act of retaliation.

But many in Nanjangud no longer care about this 25-year-old incident. “We are not interested in hearing this old story as we are now living cordially,” said Channappa, a Lingayat farmer. Sitting next to him, Ramanna, a member of the Badanavalu panchayat and a Dalit, nodded in agreement, indicating their mutual dislike for Siddaramaiah’s Congress.

While the Dalits and Lingayats count for more than 50% of the voting population here, other caste groups including the Nayaks and Uppars are divided between the Congress and the BJP.

In Gundlupet

In neighbouring Gundlupet, the Congress is banking on a sympathy wave after the death of Mahadev Prasad – who retained the seat for five consecutive terms – to carry his wife Geetha Mahadev Prasad, the party’s candidate, to victory. But the conditions here are not too different from Nanjangud. Dalits and Lingayats form 60% of the voting population and their choices are clear, as found out on a visit to Kabballi village.

“Mahadev Prasad won the 2008 and 2013 [Assembly] elections with the support of Dalits and OBCs [Other Backward Classes] by virtue of him being a Congress candidate,” said Chetan Kumar, a Lingayat voter. “But in this election, Dalits, because of Srinivasa Prasad, and OBCs, particularly Nayaks, because of MP Sriramulu, a Nayak strongman in the BJP, are not with the Congress.”

The current BJP candidate, CS Niranjan Kumar, had lost narrowly to Mahadev Prasad in 2008 and 2013. Even so, he had successfully garnered the full support of the Lingayats – who account for 75,000 to 80,000 of the over 2 lakh voters in this constituency bordering Tamil Nadu on one side and Kerala on the other.

Three-man battle

Srinivasa Prasad, too, had just about scraped past his BJP rival in 2008 and 2013, even though his oppponent then had been a political lightweight. The reason, say analysts, is that the Lingayat community identifies very strongly with Yeddyurappa and backs the BJP – a factor that may now work to Prasad’s advantage.

Yeddyurappa has been camping in Mysuru for the past 20 days, getting there even before the election process got underway. Siddaramaiah, on the other hand, only descended on the constituencies last Friday.

The three men are the main players in these bypolls. In fact, the elections have been reduced to a fight between the three individuals rather than one between two national parties. If it is a contest between Prasad and Siddaramaiah in Najangud, with Yeddyurappa taking on a supporting role to Prasad, in Gundlupet, the chief minister is pitted directly against the BJP state chief – never mind who the candidates are.

A lot is at stake for Siddaramaiah, in particular. Some within the state Congress let on that the party high command is unhappy with the chief minister. “The high command is waiting for a reason to remove Siddaramaiah from the [chief minister’s] post,” a top Congress leader, who did not wish to be identified, said. “He has antagonised three major social groups – Dalits, Lingayats and Vokkaligas – by chanting the mantra of Ahinda [acronym for minorities, backwards and Dalits). Any adverse result in these bypolls and he will be sent home. The party high command is worried about the 2018 elections.”

For Yeddyurappa, victory in the bypolls would cement his chances of being the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in 2018. “If Yeddyurappa wins these two seats, obviously the message to the party leaders, especially to his detractors in the party, will be loud and clear that Yeddyurappa is the mass leader and he will repeat the 2008 performance when BJP won the elections to form the first BJP government in South India,” said Lakshman Savadi, a former minister and legislator from Belagavi.