Throughout the last few months of the election campaign in Karnataka, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have been competing to portray the other as hopelessly corrupt. Hardly a day has gone by without Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and the BJP’s national president Amit Shah trading charges of corruption on social media.

All this grand talk of clean politics has gone out of the window, however, as the two parties have selected their candidates. As if reading from a common script, both Congress and BJP leaders have invoked “winnability” to justify giving tickets to candidates with questionable credentials. Yet, the competition of calling each other corrupt continues on Twitter, only it seems comical now.

The BJP went into overdrive the moment Congress announced its first list of candidates, to 218 of the 224 constituencies, on Sunday. On Twitter, the party posted memes of the Congress nominees facing criminal cases holding slates, as if in a police station.

The Congress responded in kind.

Not unexpectedly, the selection of candidates has triggered infighting in both parties. More so in the Congress, with supporters of the senior leaders left out taking to the streets and vandalising the party’s offices. So much so the party was forced to form a special cell under its state president G Parameshwara to deal with the dissent. Some of the senior leaders kept out of the fray have now been promised seats in the Legislative Council, the indirectly elected upper chamber of the Assembly.

Karnataka will vote on May 12 and the results will be announced on May 15.

Contested choices

With the announcement of candidates, electioneering has peaked. It is a high stakes campaign: while the Congress is battling to retain power, the BJP is out to recapture what the party sees as its gateway to South India, where it is not in power in any of the five states and the Union Territory of Puducherry. The past few months have witnessed the BJP’s hold slipping further in these states, with the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh walking out of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in March.

As always, the selection of candidates has been fraught with intense lobbying and threats of dissension. In the Congress’s case, Siddaramaiah had to camp in Delhi for two days last week to discuss the nominees with the party’s central leadership. The party was supposed to release its first list of candidates on April 13, but Congress officials said differences between the high command and Siddaramaiah over nominees “for 12 seats” delayed the announcement. The contested seats included Shantinagar in Bengaluru, currently represented by NA Haris. His son Mohammed Haris Nalapad was arrested for assaulting a man at a cafe in the city in March. The incident turned into an embarrassment for the Congress ahead of the polls, with the BJP portraying it as an example of the breakdown of law and order in the state. The ruling party did not name the candidate for Shantinagar in Sunday’s list, but officials said Siddaramaiah was trying to get Haris the ticket. His candidature is mainly being opposed by the Congress’s social media handlers in New Delhi, who have pointed to the wide condemnation of the MLA for the actions of his son. The party’s state leaders, however, are convinced that Haris is a winning bet and that he should not be punished for his son’s actions. Until at least February, Haris had been trying to get the ticket allotted to his son but decided to contest himself after the arrest.

The party has drawn flak for fielding HS Chandramauli, lawyer for the Punjab National Bank fraud accused Mehul Choski, from Madikeri town. But a general secretary of the party who asked not to be identified said the nomination could be revisited as fielding Chandramauli is likely to have “national repercussions”. “PNB scam will be an election issue in many states,” the leader said. “We have to see what the impact would be.”

The strongest protests, though, took place in Mandya, where actor Ambareesh has been renominated. Local Congress workers demanded a change, accusing the actor of taking party affairs too lightly. Party officials said Ambareesh himself was reluctant to contest and it was left to the minister KJ George to convince him.

Other controversial candidates in the Congress’s list include Santosh Lad, Anand Singh, DK Shivakumar and Anil Lad.

The party’s officials claimed a few of its leaders denied tickets were trying to join the Janata Dal (Secular), meeting its leader HD Deve Gowda in Bengaluru on Tuesday. They reportedly include P Ramesh, GH Ramachandra, Hanumantharayappa and the youth Congress leader Mithun Rai.

The Congress has so far denied tickets to 12 of its 122 sitting legislators. Of the rest of its candidates, at least 30 face serious criminal charges.

Tainted by scandal

On the other side, the BJP dealt its campaign against the Siddaramaiah government’s alleged corruption a severe blow by fielding Somashekara Reddy from Bellary. He is the brother of mining don and former minister Janardhana Reddy and was caught in a cash for bail scandal a few years ago. Janardhan Reddy faces multiple criminal cases for illegal mining in Bellary. Other BJP leaders such as Katta Subramanya Naidu face corruption charges as well.

The BJP has renominated most of its 44 sitting MLAs, presumably to avoid dissension. Like in case of the Congress, however, some BJP heavyweights denied tickets are seeking to join the Janata Dal (Secular), notably former minister Hemachandra Sagar, who was denied the ticket from Chickpet.

In Kalaburagi, BJP’s Shashil G Namoshi broke down while speaking to the media about his disappointment after being denied a ticket. He accused the party’s central leadership of ignoring hard work in the selection of candidates.

The BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, BS Yeddyurappa, is contesting from his stronghold of Shikaripura and is expected to sail through given the Congress has fielded a relatively inexperienced GB Mahatesh. That their party overlooked heavyweight Lingayat leaders such as Mahalingappa and Nagarada Mahadevappa in favour of Mahatesh, a block level leader, has left the Congress cadre confused.

Siddaramaiah’s gamble

In contrast to Yeddyruppa, Siddaramaiah has left his safe seat of Varuna for Chamundeshwari in Mysuru. There was talk of the chief minister contesting from two seats, but Congress officials said he turned down this offer from the central leadership.

A senior party official explained that by contesting from Chamundeshwari, Siddaramaiah is seeking to challenge the Janata Dal (Secular) party’s hold in the Mysuru region. With the Janata Dal (Secular) forming an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party, the official said, the Congress needed a plan to shore up its share of non-Vokkaliga votes in the region. “We believe Siddaramaiah contesting from Chamundeshwari will mobilise non-Vokkaliga votes in our favour,” said the leader.

The Vokkaligas see Siddaramaiah, who belongs to the Kuruba community, as a rival to their leaders, the Gowdas. Siddaramaiah is banking on the support of Muslims and Other Backward Classes, apart from his own Kuruba community, to win.

In Varuna, the Congress has fielded the chief minister’s son Yathindra Siddaramaiah. The BJP is expected to field Yeddyurappa’s son BY Vijayendra from the constituency, making it a battle of the next generation.

In all, the BJP has announced candidates for 154 of the 224 constituencies so far.