It’s tempting to read too much into the results of the by-elections in two Assembly constituencies in Karnataka. The Indian National Congress, which won the Nanjangud and Gundlupet seats in the 2013 Assembly election, has retained them now with improved victory margins. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had hoped to win both or at least one.
It would be absurd to see these results as a pointer to the outcome of the Assembly election next year. Yet, it would be equally preposterous to dismiss them altogether. Leaders of both the Congress and the BJP agreed before the polling that while the two by-elections would be no referendum, they would indicate the “mood of the people”. The results have indeed indicated that in a good measure. Besides, they also throw enough on the state of the parties and their leaders.
The BJP had based its hopes on caste equations, the Narendra Modi factor, anti-incumbency against the Congress government headed by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and, most importantly, defectors from Congress. It banked heavily on Srinivasa Prasad, a noted Dalit in the region who had defected from the Congress after Siddaramaiah dropped him from the cabinet last year. Prasad’s resignation from Congress and the Assembly caused the Nanjangud by-election.
The BJP took comfort from the hope that state party president BS Yeddyurappa’s upper-caste Lingayat community and the Dalits, who together form approximately half the electorate in both the constituencies, would ensure a smooth sailing for it. They didn’t.
The BJP also attracted former chief minister SM Krishna and a few others from Congress into the party. Its strategy of wooing defectors from other parties, notably from Congress, to win Assembly elections in the last couple of years across India, has failed in Karnataka.
The BJP in Karnataka also failed to learn other more important lessons from the party’s own spectacular victories in the recent Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. While castes don’t vote as singular blocks, getting the caste equations right, though important in elections, is not the only thing that oils the electoral machine.
In the reserved constituency of Nanjangud, it’s safe to presume that a good number of Dalits rejected Prasad, a Dalit, and a majority of Lingayats voted against the BJP whose president is one of their clan. As the UP result established beyond doubt, voters preferred a party with agenda — BJP in this case — while not totally disregarding caste. The Congress lacked an agenda in UP and Uttarakhand besides a caste-based strategy. All it had was a one-point programme of attacking Modi.
Similarly, in Karnataka, all that BJP had in the by-election to the two seats, besides a caste strategy, was a single talking point: ripping Siddaramaiah apart.
In the other constituency of Gundlupet, Congress candidate Geeta Mahadeva Prasad, a Lingayat, won largely on account of the good work of her husband Mahadeva Prasad, whose death caused the by-election, and partly because of voter "sympathy" for her. The BJP did better in Gundlupet than it died in Nanjangud constituency, another fact that proves that engineering defections are no sure-fire magic to win votes.
While all is not lost for the BJP in Karnataka, at least not yet, the results clearly cast a doubt on the invincibility and style of Yeddyurappa’s leadership and his control over the Lingayat community. Always brimming with cocksure confidence about winning the next year’s assembly election, Yeddyurappa tends to be abrasive, nearly arrogant and has made a habit of rubbing some party leaders on the wrong side.
You can’t miss the air of a chief-minister-in-the-making with which Yeddyurappa walks around. It will be no surprise if the by-election defeats give his detractors within the party a new voice.
The BJP in Karnataka, in general, and Yeddyurappa, in particular, must learn that vituperative attacks on an incumbent chief minister do not automatically translate anti-incumbency into votes for it unless it's accompanied by a constructive narrative of what the challenging party will do if elected.
Bogged down by scandals and infighting from the start, Siddaramaiah has not covered himself with glory during the four years of his chief ministership, and the BJP leadership in Bengaluru and Delhi must ask itself whether it is doing enough to exploit anti-incumbency for the benefit of their party. The party in Karnataka has a vibrant cadre on the ground but has no dynamic leadership at the top or in the middle.
On his part, Siddaramaiah should know that winning by-elections in two constituencies by no means could lead to a thumping victory in elections to the 224-seat Assembly a year from now. Caste equations and other local factors vary from place to place. At best, the two victories will send his stock up within the Congress and will shut up his detractors at least for now. And the Congress High Command, which has been on a losing spree across India, will see him as a hero of sorts.
Both Siddaramaiah and Yeddyurappa turned the two by-elections into a battle between themselves. The chief minister spent nearly a fortnight in the two constituencies along with nearly all his cabinet ministers. Yeddyurappa camped there for nearly a month. And even if the results of the two polls mean little for their two parties in next year’s election, they mean a lot to the two leaders personally.
Yeddyurappa has clearly lost the battle. Whether or not he will win the war next year will depend on the lessons he will learn from the by-election in the two Assembly seats.
The author tweets @sprasadindia
Updated Date: Apr 13, 2017 18:21 PM