Battleground Karnataka: Is the Congress' Southern redoubt in danger of being overrun?

Shubham Ghosh

After winning just 18 out of 472 seats in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the just-concluded Assembly elections, the Congress is facing a serious question: Will it be able to retain the only big state it has under its rule...Karnataka?

Karnataka, which will go to elections in 2018, is not important for the Congress just because of geographic reasons, but also economic ones.

The party, which has been virtually wiped out of all big states, has to largely depend on the southern state for its financial fortunes, and if it also falls, the Grand Old Party will be in serious trouble.

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Local Congress leadership has tried to sound confident

The local Congress leadership has tried to sound confident amid the decline, saying the politics of the state is different from, say, UP.

Speaking to International Business Times, India, NS Boseraj, the general secretary of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee said: "We are surely winning in 2013. There is a lot of difference between the politics of UP and Karnataka and in the last four years, our government has done enough work. We have worked on development; infrastructure and we are more united than our rivals."

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When asked whether the return of BS Yeddyurappa would make the BJP stronger in the next election, Boseraj said: "People have seen in the past what they are capable of. They were fighting amongst themselves and brought about their own downfall. We, on the other hand, are united under one man [Chief Minister Siddaramaiah] who has done real work for the people through several schemes."

One can mention here that the first-ever BJP government that came to power in Karnataka in 2008 saw three chief ministers in a period of five years – Yeddyurappa, DV Sadananda Gowda and Jagadish Shettar.

Yeddyurappa's departure from the party in the wake of corruption controversies and his floating a new party – Karnataka Jantha Paksha – seriously dented the BJP's prospects.

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But today, all that is history. No matter how much Boseraj tries to play down the saffron opponent, calling it is disunited and try a rerun of 2013, one feels the Congress is either unaware of ground realities, or choosing to act like an ostrich.

Unlikely for Congress to return in 2018, says expert

Dr Veena Devi, a professor at Bangalore University, said: "It is very unlikely that the Congress will repeat its 2013 feat this time. The party has too many problems, including corruption, factionalism and it hasn't done anything to solve them."

But the BJP, too, had such problems last time around, didn't they? To this, Dr Veena Devi told IBT, India: "True, it had. But the situation has changed so fast this time around that one can't really expect the same result."

She, however, believes that the Congress could do well in pockets in North Karnataka and also didn't discount the JD(S) — the third force in the state's politics.

"The JD(S) can be a force to be reckoned with since it has now adopted the style of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to campaign, i.e., putting mass media to use," she said.

She also added that the voting behaviour of different class and sections of the state differ and those, besides the river water-sharing issues, could play decisive roles in the next year's election.

SM Krishna

We are returning, there is no doubt, says BJP MLA from Bengaluru

The BJP, on the other hand, also gave the Congress little chance of success.

Mahadevpura MLA and BJP general secreary Aravind Limbavali told IBT, India: "We have a united force this time and there is little doubt that we are returning to power. The Congress's rule has only been a period of misrule. People will give them a befitting reply."

Limbavali accused the state government of failing to manage drought conditions and utilise central funds; tampering with ownership rules; overlooking law and order problems; and not ensuring the safety of women and children.

"No work has been done since we lost power. The ministers of the current government disrupt the work that falls under the purview of the MLA," he said.

The SM Krishna episode exposes the Congress and strengthens the BJP's prospects

The countering of arguments is not something new in electoral democracy. But one feels the BJP has played its game more smartly than its rival.

For example, it is speculated that SM Krishna, a former chief minister and also central minister, who recently quit the Congress, could join the BJP soon, and be given the defence ministry after Manohar Parrikar returned to his home state Goa.

If this proves to be true, then it would be a massive gain for the BJP and an equivalent loss for the Congress.

Although the current BJP leadership has expressed reservations over promoting aged leaders, the party has not been averse to 85-year-old Krishna's joining its fold.

The veteran leader would not only strengthen the party's Vokkaliga base and the leadership in South Karnataka, but also give the party traction in next year's Assembly elections.

Narendra Modi, Modi, Indian PM, PM Modi

Though one state Congress leader said Krishna enjoyed all the benefits of his stay in the Congress and then left the party for his own benefit, many observers feel the leader chose to shift his base after he was sidelined in the Congress party, in which he last served as the external affairs minister.

It will also mean that while Yeddyurappa's return will strengthen the BJP at the polls, the entry of Krishna, will give it another presentable face in the top echelons.

The results of the elections to be held in Karnataka are more than a year away, but going by current trends on the ground, there is little doubt that it is the Congress that will have to work overtime to save its last fortress from collapsing before the Modi blitzkrieg.

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