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Karnataka, Kerala bypolls key tests for 'Modi magic' but BJP will have to crack caste composition in these states

Few by-elections produce as much political heat as the ones in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are currently doing. By-elections are being held to Nanjangud and Gundlupet assembly constituencies in Karnataka on 9 April, and to the RK Nagar Assembly constituency in Chennai and the Malappuram Lok Sabha seat in Kerala on 12 April.

While the Chennai seat will test Sasikala's claim to Jayalalithaa's legacy and is bound to go to one or the other Dravidian parties, the BJP has a lot to prove in the other three polls, especially the two in Karnataka.

For one thing, the by-elections are coming just a month after BJP’s record-shattering win in Uttar Pradesh. If Nanjangud and Gundlupet in Karnataka, won by the Congress in the 2013 assembly elections, have turned into nail-baiters, it’s also because the state is going to assembly polls in a year from now.

And what adds to the frenzy in Malappuram, won by Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), part of Kerala’s Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), is that it’s a communally polarised constituency where Muslims account for a phenomenal 70 percent of the population.

The Nanjangud seat fell vacant after Dalit leader V Srinivasa Prasad, who won it in 2013, resigned from the Congress and the assembly and joined the BJP. Prasad is now seeking re-election as a BJP candidate. Vacancies in Gundlupet and Malappuram were caused by the deaths of sitting members.

BJP chief for Karnataka BS Yeddyurappa . AFP

BJP chief for Karnataka BS Yeddyurappa . AFP

At another time and in other context, the Nanjangud poll would have been seen as a mini referendum on defection politics. Prasad abandoned the Congress after Chief Minister Siddaramaiah dropped him from his cabinet last year. Prasad’s closest rival in 2013, Kalale Keshavamurthy of the Janata Dal (Secular), has defected to the Congress and is now that party’s candidate in the by-election.

But nobody is talking about political chameleons. The question upfront in both Nanjangud and Gundlupet is: Will the 'Modi magic', which recently swept Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, work here as well? Prime Minister Narendra Modi figures more often than Siddaramaiah in all roadside teashop debates.

It’s hardly surprising that both Siddaramaiah and state BJP president BS Yeddyurappa have turned the two by-polls as a personal feud between themselves. Yeddyurappa, who is expected to be the chief minister if his party wins next year’s assembly election, is campaigning hard. So is Siddaramaiah—the Varuna assembly seat he represents adjoins Nanjangud—has deployed nearly a dozen ministers to ensure that the party retains both places.

Besides the Modi factor, what is inevitably talked about is the caste composition of the two constituencies. Both the camps cite it as the basis for their impending victory.

In Nanjangud, a constituency reserved for Scheduled Castes, Dalits account for nearly a quarter of the electorate, and upper-caste Lingayats form another quarter. Prasad is a Dalit and Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat, and that leads to simplistic theories that the constituency is ready to fall into BJP’s lap.

But the BJP leaders know that elections won’t work quite that way. Among the others in Nanjangud, the economically downtrodden Upparas, traditionally engaged in the making of salt (uppu) but now working mostly as agricultural labourers, are the biggest chunk, accounting for 12 to 15 per cent of the population. Kurubas, a backward caste to which Siddaramaiah belongs, are half as many as Upparas. Muslims approximately constitute 4.5 percent. (Chamarajanagar and Mandya districts have the lowest Muslim population in Karnataka.)

Even in Gundlupet, Dalits and Lingayats make up approximately half the electorate and other castes have similar composition. In typical Congress-style, the party has fielded Geetha Prasad, the wife of the sitting member whose death caused the Gundlupet by-election. Sympathy is a word you hear often here. Both Geetha and her main rival of the BJP are Lingayats.

In both the constituencies, most of the Dalits, backward classes, Muslims as well as some Upper Castes plumped for Congress candidates in the past, while some upper castes backed one party or the other of the Janata Parivar.

Clearly, that equation went for a toss in 2013, when Prasad came close to losing Nanjangud as a Congress candidate. So what’s the new caste equation? Nobody really knows. If anybody says he knows, it’s a biased bluff. And following the Uttar Pradesh result, it’s tough to say whether caste alone continues to matter as much as it did in the past.

As things stand, the Karnataka results could go either way. If there is a Modi wave, there is no evidence of it. And if, as Siddaramaiah claims, the Dalits, backward classes and monitories will make a beeline for the Congress, there is no sign of it either except perhaps in his dreams.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah. PTI

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah. PTI

Deve Gowda’s dubious role

The Janata Dal (S) of former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, citing a "resources crunch", is staying away from the two by-elections. Nobody is fooled. Add to this Keshavamurthy’s claim that he had left the JD(S) and joined the Congress with Gowda’s "consent". Only political novices will miss the tacit understanding Gowda has with BJP to defeat the Congress and humiliate Siddaramaiah, his one-time close friend. That’s how Deve Gowda plays his politics.

What the results would mean

Yeddyurappa’s chest will swell a couple of inches if the BJP bags at least Nanjangud, if not Gundlupet as well. That will confirm the continued effectiveness of the ‘Modi magic’. On his part, Yeddyurappa will see it as a result of what he apparently believes to be his own wonderful leadership qualities. And the party will claim it’s a clear fore-runner to a thumping victory in the next year’s poll.

A BJP victory in at least one of the seats could also speed up the process of desertions from the Congress. Besides, it will confirm once again that the Congress is indeed on a downhill path in Karnataka, as in most of India.

If the BJP loses both seats, it will gloat over a bigger vote share, which it may possibly get and blame the defeats on local factors and Siddaramaiah’s budget freebies and sundry caste machinations. Victories in the two seats will supply the Congress a huge propaganda edge but may mean nothing much on the ground across the state in the run-up to the next elections.

As for Kerala’s Malappuram Lok Sabha seat, it’s safe to presume that the IUML will once again walk away with it, even if with a reduced vote share. IUML’s E Ahamed, whose death led to the by-election, won the seat in 2014 by a splendid 1.9-lakh-vote margin. A sharp rise or fall in the BJP’s 2014 tally of 64,705 votes will, however, tell its own story about the relevance of the ‘Modi magic’, IUML’s continued hold over Muslims and about what people think of the Left’s one-year rule.

After these by-polls and a brief respite, it will be time for elections to the assemblies in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Elections seem to go on and on in India.

Updated Date: Apr 02, 2017 14:46 PM

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