Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah gestures while addressing a gathering during the inauguration of a 2000-megawatt solar power park. Photo: AFP/ Manjunath Kiran
Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah gestures while addressing a gathering during the inauguration of a 2000-megawatt solar power park. Photo: AFP/ Manjunath Kiran

As the battle for the state of Karnataka reaches its peak, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and BJP’s candidate to be chief minister BS Yeddyurappa seem to have been relegated to the background.

Saturday’s election seems poised to become a fight between state Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Siddaramaiah’s confidence is high after his Congress party reshaped itself as a “regional” outfit under him, prodding regional nationalism and forming a rainbow coalition with the disadvantaged, Muslims, Dalits and even a section of Lingayats.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, on the other hand, seems to be struggling to find a definitive narrative to take on Siddaramaiah’s regional sub-nationalist and populist image.

Riding on welfare

The Congress is heavily banking on a series of social outreach programs the Chief Minister has rolled out for the AHINDA group (a Kannada language acronym for minorities, “backward” classes and Dalits).

According to an estimate, the Siddaramaiah government spent 55% of its budget on various welfare schemes over the last five years. A recent survey by the Association of Democratic Reforms said more than half of people were happy with the Anna Bhagya scheme – a welfare scheme to provide subsidized grain to the financially disadvantaged.

The Congress has also been vowing to enact the Karnataka Scheduled Castes Sub-Plan and Tribal Sub-Plan Act, which envisages allocating funds in proportion to the minority population. After enactment, the state government’s spending on these communities went up nearly four times.

Banking on these achievements, the Congress is hoping to win all 51 reserved constituencies this time.

Hoping to yield a rich electoral dividend, the party has asked its cadre to highlight these schemes extensively during the campaign.

Speaking to Asia Times, Siddaramaiah said: “My government has touched every single household in the state with one or other program. We have practiced sabka saath, sabka vikas (together with all, development of all). We have made Karnataka a hunger-free state. We will win again.”

“There is no anti-incumbency factor and this is also our achievement,” he added.

BJP’s corrupt candidates

The BJP suffered a crushing defeat in Karnataka in the 2013 elections, after then chief minister BS Yeddyurappa left the party due to alleged “ill-treatment” and floated his own party the Karnataka Janata Paksh.

Friends again with BJP, Yeddyurappa has re-entered the fray with renewed vigor. But the absence of a strong sense of anti-incumbency against the Siddaramaiah government has made the ballot a tough one for the BJP.

Yeddyurappa’s projection as BJP candidate to be chief minister has also weakened Modi’s image of an anti-corruption crusader. The selection of Yeddyurappa, who has been accused in several corruption cases, has given a handle to the Congress to question Modi’s moral right to use graft as a poll issue against Siddaramaiah’s government.

Similarly, BJP selected Somesakhar Reddy — one of the controversial brothers accused of illegal mining and corruption — as its candidate from Bellary. These choices have undermined Modi’s stand against corruption.

Politics of pride – Modi style

Siddaramaiah, it seems, will not only manage to cut Yeddyurappa’s chances short, but he could also succeed in projecting himself as the tallest leader in Karnataka state.

While the BJP and RSS remain focused on nationalism and the Hindu-Muslim divide, Siddaramaiah has focused on the Kannadiga (people who speak Kannada) regional identity to blunt the Hindutva card.

For the last four years, Siddaramaiah has fashioned himself as a regional leader. He has countered every move of the BJP with his own “Kannadiga pride” — like Modi did in Gujarat during his tenure as chief minister. Demand for a state flag and use of Kannada language in metro trains and in malls, instead of Hindi, is being seen as an assertion of local pride.

Siddaramaiah has projected himself as the sole protector of Kannadiga interests and should ensure that even voters wear his Kannadiga identity on their sleeve.

Siddharamaiah has even turned social media into a potent weapon, beating the BJP at a game it mastered in 2014.

To counter Siddaramaiah, Modi has described former prime minister and chief of the Janata Dal (Secular) party HD Deve Gowda as the greatest Kannadiga leader. Modi’s praise for Gowda is a virtual admission of the BJP’s fear it could lose the election.

Modi magic?

Like every election after 2014, the BJP is betting on Modi magic yet again to claim victory.

But as local factors become relevant in the Karnataka election, ‘Modi magic’ no longer enjoys the same spell that could make everything else irrelevant.

The PM also recognizes the challenges the BJP faces in Karnataka, which has led him to increase the number of rallies he leads in the state. His campaign comprises talking points of his own development agenda and a sharp attack on CM Siddaramaiah.

Karnataka is the only southern Indian state where the BJP has won assembly elections. In 2004 it was the single largest party in the state, and in 2008 it finally formed a government on its own. Karnataka is wishfully seen by the BJP as its gateway to the south.

If the BJP wins Karnataka — either through an alliance with the JD(S) or by itself — Narendra Modi and Amit Shah will become more powerful in the party. A win would also pave the way for the party to expand into the south.

As for Congress, Karnataka is one of the last few states it holds. If the party loses, the BJP will breakthrough a major bastion that would help them a lot in the 2019 general elections.

Congress must win here if it wants to stay politically relevant. A win in Karnataka would also make the party a natural claimant to lead anti-BJP forces in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

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