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April 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.         April 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:Apr' 2018


A hung Assembly likely

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah Rahul Gandhi and Siddaramiah

Mamtha Sharma

With barely a few weeks to go for K a r n a t a k a ' s Assembly elections, both the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP and JDS are girding their loins for what promises to be an intense battle which will leave many scars.
This is not surprising considering that the BJP, the main opposition party, is making a determined bid to regain power in the state having frittered away , through maladministration and corruption, the chance it had got in 2008-13 to govern. While the ruling Congress is not leaving anything to chance determined as it is to retain power, the JDS, as the smaller but influential opposition, however, considers itself a potent force . In the event of a hung assembly it could end up playing an influential role of the king maker .
This explains why the polls have become more crucial to the three parties. It is not surprising, therefore, to see at least the Congress and the BJP, in particular, hurling everything at each other during the campaigns , even touching a new low in the process. While the BJP brought in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and national party president , Amit Shah, to provide its campaign the much needed teeth and strength, the Congress has been banking on its president, Rahul Gandhi alongside chief minister Siddaramiah. Predictably, the BJP has not minced words in going to town with its avowed objective of bagging 150 of the 224 seats in the assembly. In virtually a no holds barred electioneering, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have sought to drive home the party's development agenda on the basis of which the BJP even won the elections in Tripura, its biggest win in recent years. That confidence was undermined subsequently, albeit for a short while, following the party's massive defeat in the Lok Sabha bypolls in March in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, the constituencies of UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath and his deputy, respectively. That gave enough ammunition to Siddaramiah to ridicule the party.

Siddaramiah or "Seedha Rupiah"

That may have led the BJP to mellow its attack initially on the Siddaramiah government, forced as it was to redraw its campaign plans ; even to pep up a demoralised state unit which till then was riding high on the successful public rallies of its two most important leaders. It was in these rallies that the BJP attacked the Siddaramiah government for its alleged corruption . Modi first called it a ten per cent commission government before lacing it with a direct attack on Siddaramiah when he said the apt definition of the Congress under its chief minister

would be "Seedha Rupiah" government. That attack appeared to unnerve the ruling party here which recoiled, putting up an air of injured innocence in the process. More so , as "the ten per cent commission government" allegation symbolised corruption of a high order. Incidentally, the late Jayalalitha as chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 1991-1996 , had faced similar allegations. She was even sent to jail later for possessing assets disproportionate to her income.

H D Kumaraswamy In Karnataka , the fact is that the Siddaramiah government has often come under sharp criticism for corruption in general . Two young IAS officers, in particular, lost their lives, allegedly in their attempt to resist political influence and corruption, to mention just one example .
D Ravi, the young excise officer, for example, allegedly committed suicide while another, Anurag Tiwari, was found dead under m y s t e r i o u s circumstances in Lucknow. The latter was probing a major scam in the food d i s t r i b u t i o n scheme of the K a r n a t a k a government as the official in-charge of the department concerned. Till the time of writing , the CBI probe into his death has not made any headway.
This is not all. Two senior women IAS officers were also attacked by goons with the government merely twiddling its thumbs by way of an official response. This apart , every second day one hears of some or the other minister running into tough bureaucrats as the latter seek to question or stall attempts by the superiors to cheat the government.
The arrogance of the government and its leaders in question also came under the scanner after the son of a local Congress MLA brutally beat up a pub goer with the police refusing to take note of the complaint initially. The second incident related to a party corporator nearly burning a civic agency's office merely because the officials concerned refused to give him a fake land certificate.
Notwithstanding these sores , the Congress under Siddaramiah is exuding confidence in the belief that its social welfare measures would help it romp home. Its schemes like the Indira Canteen where the poor get meals for under Rs 10, loan waiver for farmers, anna bhagya ( free rice) and ksheera bhagya (free milk) not to mention free laptops for the underprivileged students, are expected to help in breasting the tape, as it were, to quote a senior Congress leader. This is the confidence that the Congress camp is exhibiting even as the party finds it hard to explain why Karnataka's prime city and IT capital , remains a black mark on the state in terms of its abysmally poor infrastructure, brazen encroachment of lakes by builders and its pot holed roads . The civic agencies under the Congress have done little or nothing with the Chief minister too promising much but delivering little. In addition, there is the growing lawlessness where rowdies have got away by beating up policemen even as retired policemen look askance.

To the urban voters, this is something that hits them directly. If they were to come out and vote on the crucial day in large numbers, something that never happens, it could cost the Congress dearly, at least in the 28 assembly seats which the IT capital accounts for.

Importantly, though, the biggest plank of the Congress is the stable government that it provided in the last five years under Siddaramiah, the first chief minister to complete his full term in over 40 years. In the past the Congress party has seen its chief ministers like Deveraj Urs and Veerendra Patil, being shown the door mid way , even insulted by an arrogant Central leadership.

But then that era now remains a mere memory, at least for majority of the young Congressmen. In Siddaramiah' case, it does not even matter considering that he joined the party in July 2006 ,after deserting the JDS. Importantly ,the Congress' central leadership has been too weak and inexperienced under Rahul Gandhi to interfere with the state government, considering that Karnataka is only one of the few states under its flag.

BS Yeddyurappa That appears to have helped Siddaramiah in safely completing his term though another Congress chief minister, S M Krishna, had voluntarily called for simultaneous elections in 2004, much before his term was to end. Its another matter that the move proved a folly as neither the Congress and nor the BJP could get enough numbers. Consequently, the state witnessed two coalition governments during 2004 –2008 , one under the Congress—JDS combine and the other with the latter 's H D Kumaraswamy as the chief minister with BJP as partner.

Yeddyurappa is back with the BJP and remains its chief ministerial candidate. But there is no sympathy vote to bank on. In addition, there is always the stigma of massive corruption for which his government had become notorious.

M B Patil As part of the coalition agreement between the JDS and the BJP, the two partners were to share power with Kumaraswamy giving up the chief minister's post for BS Yeddyurappa of the BJP, after the first 20 months . That he did not do so , helped create history for the BJP which used the sympathy vote to romp home in the 2008 elections.
But subsequently in the 2013 elections, the party failed to retain power following its corrupt rule earlier. In addition, Yeddyurappa had also split the BJP by forming the Karnataka Janata Paksh. This divided the Lingayat votes in the state, something that the BJP depends on heavily as Yeddyurappa is the acknowledged leader of the Lingayats.
As a result , the party merely managed to get 40 seats in the 2013 assembly polls while the Congress romped home to rule the roost till 2018. Ironically, Yeddyurappa's party managed only six assembly seats even though it caused irreparable damage to the parent party by dividing the Lingayat votes.

This time even though Yeddyurappa is back with the BJP and remains its chief ministerial candidate, there is no sympathy vote to bank on. In addition, there is always the stigma of massive corruption for which his government had become notorious apart from its unimpressive rule. So much so that Yeddy himself had to spend some time in the cooler for his alleged involvement in the mining scam and the denotification of government lands. To that extent, when the two parties accuse each other of corruption, its like the pot calling the kettle black.

Splitting Lingayat vote

More significicantly, under the BJP rule in 2008-13 , the party saw three chief ministers, something that the Congress has been able to avoid by allowing Siddaramiah to complete his term undisturbed .
A wily Siddaramiah, meanwhile, also saw the advantage of splitting the dominant Lingayat vote this time again, having witnessed the BJP's fate without Yeddyurappa in 2013. Therefore, he has attempted to drive a wedge between the dominant community by creating a controversy over the grant of minority religion status to a part of the sect. For the record, the Lingayats constitute 17 per cent of the population in the state.
He carefully encouraged M B Patil, his irrigation minister and a Lingayat to boot, to promote the idea of a separate religion tag for the community even as the Veerashaivas within the sect saw red. They believe that both the Lingayats and Veerashaivas are one and there is no difference between them. The Patil promoted group , however, has been rigid in trying to realise its objective of splitting the Lingayat vote bank, something that could prove damaging to the BJP.

Das panel

This also explains why the Siddaramiah government set up a seven member panel under retired judge, N Das , to examine the demand for a separate religion tag for the ever demanding Lingayat sect. This section of the community follows the teachings of 12th century social reformer,Basavanna, and does not believe in any idol worship while promoting women's empowerment.
In contrast, the Veerashaivas within the Lingayat sect are closer to the Hindus in their religious practices. This explains why the Lingayat followers of Basavanna want to be treated differently . This split is what the Congress is banking on to break the BJP vote.
Incidentally, the Das panel itself has created a controversy by favouring the Patil group's demand for a separate religion tag. Till the time of writing the government had not taken a final call on the controversial issue.

Nevertheless, this makes the 2018 election all the more crucial for the BJP . The party also has to take note of the pro-Kannada tilt provided by the Siddaramiah government when it objected to the use of Hindi in the IT capital's Metro rail services. Similarly by encouraging the use of a state flag, the chief minister has made matters more difficult for the opposition.

Having said that, the truth is that the Congress is not blind to the fact that its move to split the Lingayat vote could prove counter-productive too, considering the opposition from a large number of Veerashaiva swamis and mutth leaders. Besides, even within the party senior Congressmen belonging to the Veerashaiva sect have frowned on MB Patil's move. Irrespective of the final decision, the move itself has caused a rift within the Lingayats already , evident from the protests one sees from the seers of the two sects .
For the BJP , meanwhile, it has two major positives going for it. One relates to Prime Minister Modi who still holds sway in major parts of the state and can swing votes in the party's favour with his development agenda. Secondly, if past record is anything to go by, the ruling party in the state always suffers from the incumbency factor during elections.

As of now though with all the accompanying issues plaguing the BJP and the Congress, along side their advantages, the prospects of a clear winner appear unlikely.

It is here that the JDS can become important even if it gets 20 to 30 seats, something that cannot be ruled out, more so as its influence among the dominant Vokkaliga community in the Hassan- Ramnagar-- Mysuru- Chamrajnagar belt and rural Bengaluru, in particular, cannot be undermined.