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Analysis: Karnataka polls put BJP’s game plan and Congress’ future in stark relief

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Dates for the Assembly polls in Karnataka were announced by the Election Commission of India on Tuesday morning, imparting a sense of urgency to the campaign already underway in the State. The set pieces of caste equations, Hindutva plank, and alliances are being rearranged everyday in one of the most electorally contrarian States in India.

Karnataka’s record of voting against the national trend has always made elections here special. But this time around, with an aggressive Chief Minister in Siddaramaiah, a strong challenger in BJP, and an X-factor in the Deve Gowda-led Janata Dal (S), it is even more of a contest to watch.

Siddaramaiah, AHINDA and the Lingayat card

Going into the polls a couple of months ago, the Congress was seen to depend on AHINDA — the coalition of minorities, Dalits and backward classes — along with the party’s core Vokkaliga support base; and the BJP on its Lingayat vote base and the Hindutva plank, along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal.

The Janata Dal (S) alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and in some seats with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), was expected to hurt the Congress. Mr. Siddaramaiah, reprising what Captain Amarinder Singh did in Punjab, declared that a long-standing demand of a section of the Lingayat community for minority religion status should be conceded, and did so.

This has further complicated an election that was already difficult to read. “The demand of the Lingayat community is long-standing, and the movement for minority status shows a clear divide between the upper-class Lingayats who are well integrated into Veerashaivism, and the others. How the minority tag will affect voting is still to be seen. If community members remember this at the time of voting well and good, otherwise, we have heard that the pancha peethas [major Veera Shaiva mutts] are planning to close ranks against the Congress,” said Dr. Narendra Pani, professor at the National Institute of Advanced studies in Bengaluru.

Deve Gowda and the X-factor

The presence of a viable third party in the mix always makes prediction of an electoral outcome difficult. So it is in Karnataka. “Rahul Gandhi’s statement that the Janata Dal (S) is the ‘B’ team of the Sangh Parivar however, makes it clear that in southern Karnataka [Old Mysore] area, the contest is solely between the Congress and the JD(S),” says Dr Pani.

In coastal areas and in northern Karnataka (which has a significant Lingayat population) the contest is between the Congress and the BJP, he adds.

Mr. Gowda’s alliance with the BSP and the NCP is worrying for the Congress in the context of what happened in the Gujarat elections — the party lost nearly 12 seats due to the BSP and the NCP cutting into Congress votes.

The future of the Congress

Karnataka’s electorate is known to follow its own beats when it comes to voting. It is known for going against the national trend — the State was deemed safe for Indira Gandhi to contest a bypoll after being routed in the north in 1977. What it will reveal, is the possible future pattern of the Congress.

Mr. Siddaramaiah, unlike other Congress members, is following his own playbook with little reference to the high command in Delhi. If he succeeds, he may pave the way for a more localised Congress, if he doesn’t, Delhi may have the last say again.

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