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As Karnataka goes for final round of polling, BJP and Congress-JD(S) prepare to deal with ‘north-south’ divide

It’s possible that Karnataka as a whole votes in a Lok Sabha poll differently from the way it does in a previous election or from the way the rest of India does.

It’s also possible that the northern half of the state votes differently from the southern half. In the current Lok Sabha election, this "north-south" divide can be — as it was in the past — a key factor in the final tally in the state that has a total of 28 Lok Sabha seats.

The northern half of Karnataka with 14 Lok Sabha seats will vote on 23 April. With its 14 seats, the south went to polls on 18 April. In 2014, the BJP won 17 of the 28 seats, while Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) won nine and two respectively. The BJP won 11 of its 17 from north Karnataka.

 As Karnataka goes for final round of polling, BJP and Congress-JD(S) prepare to deal with ‘north-south’ divide

File images of Congress president Rahul Gandhi and JD(S) leader HD Kumaraswamy. PTI

The northern half of the state that votes on Tuesday includes Hyderabad-Karnataka of the former Hyderabad Nizam’s kingdom (five seats), Bombay-Karnataka of the erstwhile Bombay Presidency (six), part of central Karnataka (two) and the coast (one). The BJP is contesting all the 14 seats, while the Congress has fielded candidates in 12, leaving two to alliance partner JD(S).

The north-south divide is both political and economic. Economically, north Karnataka is evidently less developed than the south. This even led to the demand for a separate state for the region in 2000. And within the north, the Hyderabad-Karnataka is less prosperous than Bombay-Karnataka.

Political divide

The political division is on account of the upper-caste Lingayats who dominate north Karnataka and who largely back the BJP. The Vokkaligas, the state’s other leading upper caste, are predominant in the south, and most of them support the JD(S) and Congress.

In the absence of a caste census for 88 years, the Lingayats have for long been estimated to be about 17 percent of the state’s population. But, according to the “socio-economic caste census” commissioned in 2015 by the then Congress government, Lingayats account for only 9.8 percent of the population. This census pegs the proportion of Vokkaligas at 8.2 percent instead of 12 percent, as believed earlier.

In other words, the north-versus-south war in Karnataka is also a political tug-of-war between Vokkaligas and Lingayats. What helped the BJP in north Karnataka in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2018 Assembly elections was the influence of its state unit president BS Yeddyurappa on his Lingayat community as well as the personal image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There is no reason to believe that the BJP will do dramatically less well in the current election on either of these counts.

On the other hand, what the BJP must worry about is the fact that the Congress-JD(S) alliance has fewer internal problems between them in the north than in the south. That, of course, is largely because the JD(S) is not much of a force in the north. Of the 37 seats that the JD(S) won in the 2018 Assembly election, only six came from the north.

Yet in at least two northern seats — Raichur and Koppal — transfer of votes from JD(S) to Congress may turn out to be tough. The importance of the JD(S) vote, however small it might be, can be understood from the fact that the Congress won the Raichur seat in 2014 by a margin of just 1,499 votes. But if the JD(S) votes were added to the Congress candidate’s the margin would have crossed 20,000.

Apart from chanting Modi’s name ad nauseam, the BJP also harps on the theme that it is a north Karnataka party and so must get all the votes. It argues that both JD(S) which, it points out, is primarily a southern party, and its alliance partner Congress have the least interest in anything in north Karnataka except its votes.

A common thread in the campaign of the alliance leaders in the region has been that the BJP has not fielded an OBC (other backward classes) candidate in any of the 14 seats. The alliance has eight OBC candidates.

“If you (backward classes) have self-respect, do not vote for the BJP ...” said former chief minister Siddaramaiah at a rally on Sunday. Even considering Siddaramaiah’s penchant for using provocative language designed to hit headlines, it’s clear that Congress wants to extract as many OBC votes as possible.

Of the 117 seats in the 15 states going to polls on Tuesday across India, the BJP must feel most comfortable in Modi’s own state Gujarat followed by half of Karnataka. But even in Karnataka, BJP can underestimate the Congress-JD(S) combination at its own peril. Even a small swing of votes away from the BJP can lead to a loss of a handful of seats and upset its country-wide calculations.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2019 23:34:12 IST