Karnataka's history of bucking the national trend in elections may derail Amit Shah’s strategies

The C-Fore pre-poll survey that projects a comfortable victory for the Congress in the Karnataka Assembly election — still some eight months away — should present no rude shock to the BJP. The survey projects 120 to 132 seats for the Congress in the 224-strong Assembly, giving the BJP 60 to 72 and the Janata Dal (Secular) 24 to 30.

If Karnataka brings the Congress back to power in the coming Assembly polls, the state will only be sticking to the pattern of going against the national election trend. Pre-poll surveys could go notoriously awry and trends could change between now and the time elections are held, and the BJP can only hope that the C-Fore survey is proved wrong.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. AFP

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. AFP

But if the survey’s projections indeed come true, the BJP can dream of an encore of the 2013 and 2014 elections in the state. In 2013, the Congress won the Assembly poll, while the BJP bagged most of the Lok Sabha seats in 2014. This time round, a 2018 victory for the Congress in the Assembly poll could give the BJP reason to expect to put on a good show in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

While the personal image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is palpably high in Karnataka, public opinion sees both the BJP and the Congress in the state as parties tainted with corruption and holds both of them guilty of indifference to people. It should be no surprise if voters divide their loyalties between the two parties in the elections to the Assembly and the Lok Sabha once again.

But unlike what the survey predicts, a Congress victory in the next Assembly election — if that’s what the election outcome is going to be — may have more to do with the state’s history of breaking from the national trend than with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s sundry populist schemes.

Voters are aware that Siddaramaiah’s pet pre-poll schemes are a result of lost memories returning to him in the nick of time. They know that nothing can jog a politician out of amnesia like the visions of voters queuing up before EVMs on polling day.

So it’s not surprising that Siddaramaiah suddenly remembered what some Hindu upper-caste Lingayats had been demanding for more than a decade: A separate religion. It’s not surprising that Siddaramaiah suddenly remembered that a good soul had designed a Kannada flag some five decades ago, and he now must make it official. It’s not surprising that the chief minister suddenly remembered that the people of Karnataka speak and adore Kannada, and he must oppose any imposition of Hindi by the Centre. It’s not surprising that he remembered that the poor in cities suffer from hunger. So he opened last week Indira Canteens to dish out breakfast at Rs five and lunch and dinner at Rs 10.

It isn't shocking either that it struck Siddaramaiah overnight that Bengaluru’s roads are blighted with potholes, some as big as children’s swimming pools, and the city’s drains are clogged with garbage. So he now gets roads tarred and drains tidied up.

Siddaramaiah-2 gung-ho

Thanks to the approaching elections, Siddaramaiah is not Siddaramaiah now. He is Siddaramaiah-2, pumped up with newfound enthusiasm to salvage Kannadiga pride.

But there is a little catch. If Siddaramaiah imagines he is smart, the voters are smarter. They were not born yesterday. They were born 18 years ago or more, and most of them are familiar with the spectacle of ruling parties clutching at any ploy to win votes.

Take for instance a medical shop owner in South Bengaluru. Pointing at the road being tarred in front of his shop with an amused chuckle, he says: “The last time the road was tarred was 15 years ago. I can remember it because that was when my son, now 15, was born.” A barber speaks of the crowds thronging the new Indira Canteens. Would they vote for the Congress? He laughs. “People who are eating there know why the canteens have come up six months before elections.”

Siddaramaiah’s sops may sweep some voters here or some there off their feet, but are unlikely to translate into an electoral tsunami that will help Congress retain the only big state it rules after Punjab. And yet, the chief minister can see hope for his party, as C-Fore’s survey projects. He knows he stands a chance of victory, even if it’s a gossamer-thin one. What could indeed help him more than anything is Karnataka’s history.

How Karnataka defies national trends

Amit Shah may use every trick in his impressive repertoire of election-management strategies, but his BJP may fall short of victory. What may doom his party to defeat is again Karnataka’s history — of voting for one party at the Centre and another in the state, or backing a party in the state different from the one ruling at the centre. Take a look at some of the elections.

1989: The Congress lost the Lok Sabha elections after a sustained campaign by the Opposition against, among other things, the Bofors scandal, and VP Singh of the Janata Dal became the National Front Prime Minister. In Karnataka, the Congress won 27 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats, leaving only one to the Janata Dal. And in the simultaneously held Assembly elections in the state, the Congress returned to power with a whopping majority by winning 178 of the 224 seats, replacing the previous Janata Dal government.

1994: The Congress government headed by PV Narasimha Rao was in power at the Centre. But the 1994 Assembly elections in Karnataka not only saw the return of the Janata Dal government headed by HD Deve Gowda, but also the fall of the Congress to the number-three position of the BJP.

1999: In the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP-led NDA won a majority in the Lok Sabha. But in Karnataka, the Congress won most of the Lok Sabha seats (18 of the 28) and the assembly seats (132 of the 224 seats). The Congress government of SM Krishna replaced the Janata Dal government and the BJP came a poor second with 44 Assembly seats.

2004: In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the UPA trounced the NDA and formed its first government, but the BJP got the largest number of 18 Parliament seats in Karnataka. In the state Assembly elections too, the BJP emerged as the single largest party with 78 seats, though the Congress formed a government in alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular). Four years later, the state saw elections again to the Assembly, giving the BJP a majority.

Once again in 2013, while Karnataka brought back the Congress to power in the state, the BJP won 17 of the 28 seats in the Lok Sabha elections a year later.

As Shah himself warned his state leaders on his recent visit to Bengaluru, the state BJP unit cannot hope to depend on only the Modi wave to see them through in the Assembly polls.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

Updated Date: Aug 21, 2017 12:36 PM

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