Karnataka urban local body elections: As 'allies' Congress, JD(S) run into differences, agenda of defeating BJP lies forgotten

That the Congress nominee received a drubbing in the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman election on Thursday is not even half the story, if we are talking about the chaos in the Opposition ranks. The rest of the story, or part of the rest of the story, is unfolding in Karnataka, where filing of nominations began on Friday for the 29 August elections to urban local bodies.

Despite being part of the alliance that rules the state, Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) are fighting these elections separately and fiercely, charging at each other like jallikattu bulls.

At the same time, Congress leaders are also reacting with horror at the very mention of seat-sharing for the next Lok Sabha election. Mahagathbandhan be damned.

The two parties have been promising to fight the BJP together with the avowed agenda of extricating the country from the evil clutches of communalism. Instead, they have been fighting each other over one issue and another, a spectacle that last month drove Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy to tears.

Distribution of ministerial portfolios, populist schemes, pampering of Kumaraswamy's home district Hassan and transfers of government officials are among the things on which leaders of both parties haven't been seeing eye-to-eye despite their publicly made claims of a hunky-dory alliance.

HD Kumaraswamy with Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi. PTI

File image of JD(S) chief HD Kumaraswamy with Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. PTI

In the urban local body elections, however, the two parties are fighting as if they never struck an alliance to rule the state. Elections are being held on 29 August to 2,574 wards in 105 urban local bodies — 29 city municipalities, 53 town municipalities and 23 town panchayats across Karnataka. The state has a total of 212 urban local bodies. In the second phase in November, elections will be held to the remaining 107 urban bodies, including seven city corporations. In the 2013 elections, Congress performed the best, securing nearly 40 percent of wards.

The alliance partners didn't even pretend to make an attempt to come to any sort of understanding to fight these elections. The logic extended by Congress as well as JD(S) is that grassroots workers enjoy a good fight for control of local bodies, and that if forced into an alliance, they may get frustrated enough to cross over to the BJP. They are also at pains to talk about a convoluted strategy, which if put in place, means this: In places where either Congress or JD(S) — or both — are strong, they will fight separately. But wherever BJP has an upper hand, the two parties will have a "friendly cooperation" — if not an official alliance — to keep the saffron party out.

It's indeed tough to enforce seat tie-ups in local body elections — Congress and JD(S) didn't fight these polls together even when they had a coalition government in the state between 2004 and 2006. But it's hard to ignore the way Congress leaders are increasingly making noises about how tough it would be to share the state's 28 Lok Sabha seats with JD(S) in 2019.

Panic over seat-sharing

Top leaders of both parties have repeatedly been confirming that they will have a pre-poll alliance ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The very fact that they repeat this, of course, tells its own story. The election is still some months away, but Congress leaders are already tying themselves in knots, as if it were only weeks away.

This is how parties fared in the last three elections:

Lok Sabha election BJP Congress JD(S)
2004 18 8 2
2009 19 6 3
2014 17 9 2

What Congress leaders are panicking about is the distinct possibility of their president Rahul Gandhi, whom they see as inexperienced in pulling off seat adjustments, forcing the state unit to concede too many seats to JD(S). They still haven't overcome what they consider an ignominy of giving up the chief minister's post to JD(S), which has only half as many Assembly seats as Congress.

Senior leaders also admit that there is large-scale confusion in the party over this, and have confirmed that lobbying has already begun with central leaders to impress upon them to give JD(S) as few seats as possible or to face the consequences.

All this comes even as BJP has begun work in earnest to win up to 22 seats. Congress leaders are demanding that seat adjustments, if any, with JD(S) must be put in place at the very earliest, but indications from Delhi are that the process will not begin until after the local body elections are over. This, party leaders fear, will help them little in catching up with BJP.

The frustration of Congress broadly arises from Karnataka's north-south political divide. In southern Karnataka, both Congress and JD(S) have strong bases. And in the North, while the BJP is relatively stronger, Congress is not too badly off. What Congress leaders are wary of is that while JD(S) can benefit from their party in the South, it can offer little in return in the North. In 2014, Congress won five of its nine Lok Sabha seats in the South, while JD(S) didn't even get one in the North.

A pre-poll alliance between the two parties could end up as a win-win situation for JD(S), and lose-lose for Congress. Besides, serious doubts over how long the coalition government will last after the Lok Sabha election have only raised the scepticism among Congress leaders in offering more seats to JD(S) than they must.


Updated Date: Aug 11, 2018 15:54 PM

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