Saturday, 7 June, 2008

How The Lotus Bloomed

It has been a decisive victory for the BJP in Karnataka. It has become the single largest party with 110 seats and has also cornered a vote share of 33.8 per cent, up 5.3 per cent from 2004. But even as a toast is being raised for the BJP, the revelers need to be reminded that the party is three seats short of a simple majority.
It is largely being suggested that out of the six independent candidates who have won, getting three to support the BJP is not going to be a problem, but, for the record, out of the six independents who have won, four are Congress rebels (Kolar, Malavalli, Pavagada, Hiriyur), one JD(S) rebel (Hosadurga) and one BJP rebel (Kalghatgi). What means and method the BJP will employ to woo any of the three will be a curious thing to watch in the run up to government-formation. In recent electoral history wafer thin margins of one or two seats has played havoc in the Goa, Jharkand, and Meghalagya. So, the major question is: how stable will the BJP government be? Stability was one of the important planks on which this election was fought.
Let's keep aside the issue of government-formation and ask why and how the BJP managed to increase its numbers from 79 in 2004 to 110. This has become possible for the simple reason that the BJP has borrowed the traditional Congress formula and has become 'mainstream' in a number of ways. That is, it has found appeal not just among voters of one community, one section or one region, but has penetrated across the state. Besides the urban voters of Bangalore giving them 17 out of the 28 seats, the rural voters too have preferred them across the state. The Dalit and tribal votes too have majorly swung their way. In the earlier elections the BJP had struggled to put up winnable candidates across the state, but this time around the party's depth has relatively improved, but still falls short of the Congress, which too, by the way, has improved its performance over the last elections in terms of seats, but its vote share has shrunk by 0.8 per cent, although higher than BJP at 34.5 per cent.
The BJP's 'relative' improvement in demographic and social depth has to be stressed because South Karnataka or the Old Mysore region, where the polls were held during the first phase, still continues to be a Congress and JD(S) stronghold. In districts like Mandya, Ramanagara, Hassan, Chikkaballapur, and Chamarajanagar the BJP has failed to open its account. In an important district like Mysore, it has barely managed two of the eleven seats. But in Central Karnataka and Malnad districts, like Davangere, Chitradurga, Shimoga and Chikmagalur they have either held on to what they gained last time or have improved their fortunes.
But the most interesting piece of news for all the 'secularists' is that the BJP has slipped in the coastal belt, which was considered to be a Hindutva bastion. It was this region that had witnessed communal riots in 2006 and was feared to become the 'Gujarat of the South.' It was also seen as a virtual gateway for the BJP to enter the South. In Dakshin Kannada, BJP and Congress are neck-to-neck with four seats each. In Uttara Kannada the BJP, Congress and JD(S) have shared two seats each and in Udupi, the Karkala seat has gone to the Congress. A Hindutva mascot in the region, Nagaraj Shetty, has lost his seat (Bantwal) to veteran Congressman Ramanath Rai. Given the fact that most central leaders of the Congress come from this region (Margaret Alva, Janardhan Poojary, B K Hariprasad, Veerappa Moily, Oscar Fernandes), this development should offer them some relief. To the BJP's credit it did not run a virulent Hindutva campaign. They neither raked up the Bababudangiri issue nor the Hubli Idgah Maidan issue, but at the same time did not give even a single ticket to a person from any minority community.
And surprise of surprises was that Narendra Modi made most visits to this region and drew only moderate crowds. Besides, the BJP's expansion of its appeal and social base, their synchronised campaign, superior strategy and a well-crafted manifesto is to also be counted for their performance. Their talk of free-power and expanding the BPL card base appears to have touched the rural voter in inflationary times. Congress too proposed a number of popular schemes, but its communication apparatus failed pathetically. If one senior leader spoke of lifting the arrack ban, another countered it by saying that it was not the party's official view. The perception in the state is that the BJP's victory is well-earned and well-deserved, while Congress' 80 seats are seen as achieved more by default than by design.
What also complimented the BJP's victory was the unabashed support of the two richest lobbies of the state -- the real estate and mining lobby. The financial muscle of the mining lords of Bellary, the Reddy brothers, has clearly played a crucial role in not just Bellary, but also Davangere and Gadag districts. In Bellary -- a distinct where of the nine seats seven are reserved for the SC and ST -- BJP has won in eight. In Davangere, for the first time they have scored six of the eight seats and in Gadag they have got all four seats. Two among the many upsets for the Congress came from Davangere and Gadag, where former deputy chief minister M P Prakash lost to Karunakar Reddy in Harapanahalli and CM-aspirant H K Patil lost to Srishailappa Biradur of BJP in the Congress safe haven of Gadag town. From the real estate lobby, people like Ashok Kheny, the NRI businessman building the Bangalore-Mysore expressway by acquiring 20,000 acres of land, is said to have funded the BJP simply to ensure that the JD(S) does not play a decisive role in government-formation. The JD(S) had earlier made plans to take over the infrastructure project by bringing in a legislation after the Supreme Court had ruled in Kheny's favour.The delimitation too had its role to play. The division of constituencies and the rejigging of the number of seats is understood to have largely gone in the BJP's favour. For instance a constituency like Uttarahalli in Bangalore, held by the BJP was split and distributed into nearly ten constituencies. Also the ST seats that went up from 2 to 15, all happened in the stronghold districts (Raichur and Bellary) of the BJP. To the factors that complimented the BJP's victory one should also add the situation within the Congress. At the beginning of the poll process, Congress appeared to be the only party that had a presence in all the 224 constituencies. In 2004, BJP had contested 192 seats and had forfeited deposit in 42 seats. This meant that they effectively had a presence in only 146 seats. Out of this they had won 79 seats. Comparatively, the Congress contested 224 seats and lost deposit in only 7 seats. Besides this, last time around the BJP was aided by an alliance with JD(U) and S Bangarappa was a BJP-member who made a difference in about 24 seats. This time, there was no truck with the JD(U) and Bangarappa was with the SP. With all these odds, for BJP to still make it to 110 seats clearly speaks of its expanding appeal. Why did the Congress not put up a decent fight? It may sound a little too simplistic to state that the Congress did not dream big, but that is the heart of the matter. Right from the beginning they seemed to be working their numbers around 90 and were mentally prepared for a coalition set up. As a result most senior leaders did not take on the JD(S) or the Gowda family fearing that they may hold the key for government-formation.
It was very important for the Congress to explain why and how it is different from the JD(S) for the simple reason that they share the same social base. But nothing of the sort happened and it has proved costly for the Congress. S M Krishna's entry was also a major distraction for the state Congress. It was more a bane than a boon. Most senior leaders, including the KPCC president Mallikarjuna Kharge, thought that he had come to steal their moment and hence a cold war-like situation was established inside the Congress. To add to this was the tantrums thrown by leaders like Jaffer Sharief, who almost walked out of the party because his grandson was denied a ticket to contest. It is now common understanding that had Krishna not forced his way back to state politics there would have been more cohesion in the state unit of the party.The results have also shown Krishna's waning clout among voters. He was primarily brought in to stand tall among the Vokkaliga voters, one of the two largest communities in the state, and was expected to use his charm on the urban voters. But he managed to achieve neither. His home district Mandya has been convincingly won by the JD(S) and his own Maddur seat has been taken by a JD(S) novice called Siddaraju. Some people in the Congress believe that if Krishna had contested the Maddur seat perhaps there would have been a positive ripple effect for the party in and around Mandya district and perhaps the Congress would have secured a few more seats in the region. But Krishna was not willing to take the risk. Even in 2004 he had, in the last minute, shifted out of the Maddur seat to contest a safe Bangalore seat. But there are also some in the Congress who believe that Krishna would have lost had he contested.In this election the Congress would have improved its tally by at least six seats had it not witnessed some major upsets. Unexpectedly, some of its big leaders like Dharam Singh, Ambarish, R V Deshpande, M P Prakash, Ramesh Kumar and Basavaraj Rayareddy lost by small margins. If these six seats had been taken, the BJP would have still crossed the 100-mark, but its chances of forming a government would have been reduced. The Congress also miscalculated the transfer of secular votes. It assumed what would not go to the JD(S) would return to its fold. That clearly has not been the case. The plummeting of the JD(S) stock to 28 has also come as a shock to the Congress. Although the pollsters were squabbling about the numbers the Congress and BJP would get, they were pretty unanimous about the JD(S) show. They put their numbers anywhere between 35 and 40. But the bluff of their rare unanimity has been called by the voter.
B S Yediyurappa is all poised to become CM. He was the preferred choice right since day one. One has to see whom the Congress will pick to counter him in the Assembly. Since the Congress has lost and the Dalit vote base has been conceded, KPCC president and also Dalit leader Kharge may take moral responsibility and make way for a new face. In all likelihood the new face may be Siddaramaiah, who has delivered a landslide victory for the Congress in Mysore and Chamarajanagar districts. He also hails from the third largest Kuruba community and is a veteran parliamentarian. There is also a choice in Dr. G Parameshwar, a Dalit leader and CWC member. If any of these two competent leaders get picked Congress would have seen a generation change in the state.
Even as the BJP savours its victory, the big question already being asked in Bangalore is will the Congress and the JD(S) stick together to fight the parliament polls or will the Congress quietly hope for the disintegration of the JD(S) hoping to consolidate the secular vote in the future?

Outlook, May 25, 2008

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