Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy (Right) with Congress party leader D K Shivakumar (Left) defeated the BJP in the by-elections. Photo: AFP/ The Times of India/Narasimha Murthy
Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy (Right) with Congress party leader D K Shivakumar (Left) defeated the BJP in the by-elections. Photo: AFP/ The Times of India/Narasimha Murthy

The Karnataka by-election result was predictable – a stunning defeat for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with the ruling Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) and Congress alliance taking four of the five seats contested on November 3.

The defeat for the BJP was heavier than anticipated. The state was always viewed as the party’s main gateway to the southern Indian states. With this defeat, and expected losses in the north, the BJP’s hopes of winning the 2019 general elections continue to decline.

The BJP’s by-election loss in the Ballari Lok Sabha, a seat the party had held for nearly a decade, was seen as a major setback.

Political observers say the turning point came when controversial mining baron Gali Janardhana Reddy made his political rivalry with former chief minister Siddaramaiah of the Congress bitter and personal.

On the campaign trail, Reddy referred to the death of Siddaramaiah’s son Rakesh due to multiple organ failure in 2016 as “a punishment from God.”

A major loss for BJP

Though the BJP distanced itself from Reddy’s remark, asking him to apologize to Siddaramaiah, the damage was done. Many in Ballari were horrified at the level of political discourse sinking to a new low.

As the results came out on November 6, the defeat in Ballari by a margin of close to 200,000 votes will hurt because the constituency was considered a stronghold of former Member of Parliament B Sriramulu.

A close aide to mining baron Janardhana Reddy, he was even spoken of within BJP circles as the likely deputy chief minister if the party came to power in the assembly polls held in May this year. His resignation after he chose to retain his Molakalmuru state assembly seat in May caused the by-elections and he made it clear that he was the candidate by proxy when his sister J Shanta was fielded as the BJP candidate.

This is why Ballari was not only a setback for the BJP or Shanta – it was also one for Sriramulu, who will be licking his wounds.

Siddaramaiah rubbed it in when he tweeted about “a meaningful Deepavali (festival of lights) in Ballari” and about how it had decided to move from darkness to light. When he said “Ballari people have cursed Janardhana Reddy for his inhuman behavior” he revealed that the barb about his son’s demise had hurt him deeply.

For the former chief minister, the Ballari contest was also sweet revenge for his poor showing in the Badami constituency in May this year. Siddaramaiah had decided to contest Badami in north Karnataka in addition to Chamundeshwari.

The BJP fielded Sriramulu against him to make matters difficult. Siddaramaiah scraped through by less than 1,700 votes while losing Chamundeshwari. Siddaramaiah led the Ballari campaign, ensuring every senior Congress leader from Mallikarjun Kharge to others canvassed for VS Ugrappa, the Congress candidate he handpicked.

The BJP would have reconciled with a defeat by a smaller margin, but the magnitude of the loss will demoralize the party. It also proved that the Reddy brothers’ larger-than-life image is a myth and that Ballari voters have minds of their own.

The knives aren’t out yet, but the tweets are. Suresh Kumar, a senior BJP leader and former Law Minister when the BJP’s B S Yeddyurappa was chief minister, tweeted a cryptic “Time for genuine introspection” even before the results were out. Kumar’s tweet was seen as being spot on because the BJP campaign in the Karnataka by-elections was largely a mismanaged affair.

The Ramanagara constituency throws up several insights. On the last day of campaigning, BJP candidate L Chandrashekhar announced he was quitting the contest and returning to Congress. The BJP was left red-faced and tried to lobby the Election Commission to put off the polling. Its request was turned down.

BJP sources told Asia Times that later that evening, BJP president Amit Shah reportedly spoke to a key member of the party leadership in Karnataka and told him that this kind of mismanagement was not acceptable.

The Karnataka unit has been asked to send a report on the fiasco to Shah. It reflected poorly on the talent pool in the Karnataka BJP that it had to poach from Congress to fight H D Kumaraswamy’s wife, Anitha in Ramanagara.

Even in Shivamogga, the Parliament’s Lok Sabha constituency vacated by Yeddyurappa was won by his son B Y Raghavendra after a struggle. In 2014, Yeddyurappa had won Shivamogga by a margin of 360,000 votes. That came down to about 50,000 votes, with JD-S candidate Madhu Bangarappa making each vote count.

Resurgent Congress

So what does it mean for Karnataka politics? After the 4-1 verdict in the five by-elections – three Lok Sabha and two state assembly seats – expect rumblings within the state BJP. Yeddyurappa will have to claim responsibility for losing significant ground in his backyard of Shivamogga and suffer the embarrassment of losing the Ramanagara seat.

Even though the former chief minister is the most popular pan-Karnataka leader of the BJP, he is 75 years old and may not find a place in the party leadership post-2019. “The second-rung leaders of the BJP feel happy at the cutting down to size of Sriramulu,” a senior party functionary said.

With the Congress and JD-S scoring two victories each, it will give fresh impetus to the alliance to survive. This is critical to Congress plans for the 2019 general elections. Only if they agree to strike up strategic alliances in various states, can the party hope to stop prime minister Narendra Modi’s juggernaut.

The results showed that voters in all constituencies moved against the BJP. This will please Congress’s central leadership ahead of 2019 and will be a cause for worry in the BJP.

The Congress performance will once again put the spotlight on Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar, who was the minister in charge of Ballari district. Shivakumar is said to have played a role in the last-minute withdrawal of Chandrasekhar from the Ramanagara contest. This will increase his clout within Congress and make New Delhi depend on the charismatic leader for effective poll management in  2019.

But should these results be taken as an indication of which way the wind is blowing in Karnataka? It is too risky to do so, because in April 2017, more than one year before the Karnataka assembly elections, the ruling Congress won two by-elections in Nanjungud and Gundlupet constituencies. One year later, in May 2018, it lost both seats in the state assembly polls to the BJP.