SM Krishna's defection to BJP may mark beginning of exodus for Congress in poll-bound Karnataka

It's almost as if India is in a perennial state of elections.

Even as excitement over the recent Assembly elections in five states continues, Delhi is in a flutter over the 22 April civic polls. Then it will be time for the presidential election: Pranab Mukherji's term ends on 25 July. Then there will be by-elections to a couple of Lok Sabha seats and some Assembly bypolls in various states. And, after a brief respite, the nation will once again plunge headlong into election mode towards the end of 2017, since the terms of Assemblies in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh end in January 2018. Elections will then be held in Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya before March 2018.

Then the Karnataka Assembly term ends in May 2018. That is over one year away, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has already begun its preparations to win back the state it ruled for five tumultuous years with three chief ministers, between 2008 and 2013.

BJP president Amit Shah (right) with SM Krishna. PTI

BJP president Amit Shah (right) with SM Krishna. PTI

If the ruling Congress appears like a lazy student who mugs up on the eve of the exam, BJP is already like the diligent pupil who has started preparations well in advance.

BJP's election managers in Karnataka, having identified the party's strengths and weaknesses, are in the advanced stages of preparing a blueprint to ensure victory. Their job has been made easier by the mess that the Congress has created for itself, with myriad scams and non-performance.

In the 2013 polls, BJP had won 44 seats in the 224-seat Assembly, and is hoping to increase its tally to at least 150 in the 2019 election. Its main concern will be the 50-odd constituencies in eight districts of southern Karnataka surrounding chief minister Siddaramaiah's home turf Mysuru. To its dismay, the BJP is now discovering it will have a problem even identifying the right candidates in the region.

Congress and former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda's JD(S) had done well in the last elections in these parts. So what is the BJP doing about it? It's doing exactly what it did in the other states that had elections in 2016 and 2017. Starting with the key acquisition of Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam in 2015, it has recruited a number of senior leaders from rival parties, especially the Congress.

Not every single defector brought electoral windfall like Sarma did, but every leader who joined the party added to the demoralisation of the Congress in significant measure.

The pattern has continued in Karnataka. Former chief minister SM Krishna, a key figure for Congress in the poll-bound state, has defected to BJP. Krishna is an 84-year-old Vokkaliga from Mandya district bordering Mysuru. Another prominent entrant is V Srinivasa Prasad, a Dalit leader from Mysuru, who was dumped by Siddaramaiah from his ministry last year. Prasad quit his Nanjangud Assembly seat, and is the BJP's candidate for the bypoll scheduled on 9 April.

On Saturday, former MP M Shivanna, a Dalit from Chamarajanagar in southern Karnataka, also announced his decision of switching loyalties to the BJP. He was elected to the Lok Sabha on a JD(S) ticket in 2004, but he switched loyalty to the Congress later. The names of a dozen other Congress leaders, who already have one tentative foot in the BJP, are doing the rounds in Bengaluru.

By all indications, this is just the beginning of what may turn into an exodus in the coming weeks and months. But like in other states that went to polls, it happens both ways in Karnataka.

Those disgruntled with other parties make a beeline for the BJP, which they believe is the party of the future. On its part, the BJP also woos leaders, handpicked to fortify the party where its weak.

Himanta Biswa Sarma turned the tables for BJP in Assam last year. Not just that, he is also the face of the party in the North East today, and the party's chief Machiavelli there.

So will Krishna be Karnataka's Sarma for BJP? Unlikely. After successfully leading a faction-torn Congress to victory in Karnataka as the state president in 1999, when he was 67 years old, Krishna took over as chief minister. The party high command had no choice other than to give him the top job.

Krishna was not a game-changer but a good manager of things, who excelled in maintaining status quo and peace in the Congress. However, it is to his credit that of the 13 chief ministers Karnataka has seen after Ramakrishna Hegde, he is the only one who successfully completed his full five-year term. He could do that because, as a gentleman-politician — if that sounds like an oxymoron, it is — he had an equidistant position towards warring party leaders who were constantly at each other's throats.

After the 2004 general election, he was made governor of Maharashtra, and in 2009, External Affairs Minister in the Manmohan Singh government, a post he held till 2012.

"I worked for the Congress for 46 years," Krishna said after joining the BJP last week. "They (high command) didn't even ask me before removing me from the post of foreign minister." He was completely sidelined and ignored later.

During my numerous meetings with him when he was the Chief Minister of Karnataka, Krishna struck me as a man uncomfortable with politics itself, let alone the Congress. (When I once asked him if the Congress would take credit for Bangalore becoming India's IT capital, he said, only half in jest, that the city saw the IT boom despite the Congress, not because of it). Suave, amiable and pleasant mannered, though sometimes aloof, he wore impeccable suits, liked his tennis, and he left nobody in doubt that he detested the rough and tumble of politics. He is a politician of a different mould, and the BJP knows that.

The BJP also knows that the fact that he is a Vokkaliga from Mandya in southern Karnataka does not automatically switch votes of his community to the saffron party from the Congress. Having never indulged in the mean, feudal, cut-throat Vokkaliga politics of his district, he is not known to be a caste lord. Instead, he enjoys a fairly good image across Karnataka as a relatively scam-free, elderly statesman.

The departure of a leader as experienced as Krishna will wreak damage on the Congress, but in a subtle psychological way rather than in direct electoral terms.

His entry into the BJP is expected to prod many others to defect. When the captain abandons a sinking ship, only the diehard crew members stay behind. Besides, this will also lead to the perception that BJP is not dominated by the other leading caste of Lingayats, to which state BJP president and chief minister aspirant BS Yeddyurappa belongs to.

The process of "political polarisation", a euphemism for defections, has only just begun.

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Updated Date: Mar 27, 2017 20:23:51 IST

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