Congress so near yet so far in battle for Karnataka assembly

Strategic blunders may cut short Congress's cruise to power even as BJP tries to recoup after losing Yeddyurappa

qureshi.imran@gmail.com

imran qureshi | May 3, 2013


The heat is on in the fight to control Vidhana Souda, or the Karnataka assembly. But, for now, there are at least 30 constituencies where Congress has gone desperately into damage-control mode.
The heat is on in the fight to control Vidhana Souda, or the Karnataka assembly. But, for now, there are at least 30 constituencies where Congress has gone desperately into damage-control mode.

When Rahul Gandhi said, "Congress can get defeated only by the Congress", his partymen had seemed surprised.

Today, senior Congress leaders are ruing that their colleagues and party workers are on the verge of proving their leader right.

Nothing can better explain the situation that the Congress is facing as campaigning wound up for the election to the 224-member Karnataka assembly on Friday. The election should have been a walkover for the party. Instead, internal squabbles threaten to keep it away from a simple majority. This, despite 30 party observers working overtime to sort out problems.

Also read: BJP faces anti-incumbency, but can a divided Congress capitalise on it?

For all practical purposes, the lack of governance, infighting, creation of social discord and the procession, literally, of a large number of legislators, including a chief minister and ministers, to the lokayukta court on part of the BJP, should have helped the Congress comfortably stroll down to the treasury benches of the assembly. BS Yeddyurappa, the former chief minister, made it easier for the Congress by launching his own Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP).

Rahul Gandhi had made his comment at an in-camera meeting in Davanagere almost 11 months ago, and it was seen as the first step in preparations for the May 5 elections. Every faction of the Congress had then seen this as a message to the other faction. But, characteristic of the Congress party, it did little to capitalise, even in the wake of clear signs of anti-incumbency against the BJP.

Worse, differences over ticket allocation have turned "utterly bitterly" (to turn a phrase from a famous advertisement) unpalatable.

Take the case of A. Krishnappa, who has represented Varthur constituency on the outskirts of Bangalore in the past. The party veteran, after being denied a ticket for KR Puram in Bangalore, promptly got himself a nomination from the Janata Dal (S) for Hiriyur seat in Chitradurga district. The impact of this change is making Congressmen nervous in about a dozen constituencies in Tumkur, Chitradurga, Davanagere and other districts. The reason is not far to seek: Krishnappa belongs to the Golla, or the Yadava, community that has substantial votes spread across several districts.

"The message has gone across and the community is making a clever move. In each of the constituencies it will be deciding in favour of the closest rival to the Congress. Mind you, they are not inclined in favour of any particular party. This is what we have done," rues a senior Congress leader.

It means the edge Congress had (or could have had as the campaign progressed) in parts of central Karnataka and south Karnataka has now been lost.

Congress in damage control mode

There are at least 30 constituencies where the Congress has gone desperately into damage-control mode. The reasons are not far to seek. Yeddyurappa is clearly showing BJP that its existence in power was because of "me and me only".

His strategic focus in selection of candidates has left BJP candidates go the extra mile in fighting the Congress in the Lingayat-dominated districts of north Karnataka. 

From the time the campaign began a fortnight ago, the Congress has pushed its way forward in a large number of constituencies in Hyderabad-Karnataka and Mumbai-Karnataka regions of north Karnataka. The Lingayats, over whom Yeddyurappa had a stranglehold, appear to have split three ways: Congress, KJP and BJP. The Congress is fighting either the BJP or the KJP in almost straight contests across north Karnataka. 

Previous election results have shown that the party that wins a majority of seats (105 seats) in north Karnataka invariably forms the government. This time, the Congress appears to have gained an edge in coastal Karnataka, which had become the pocket borough of the BJP in recent decades. The moderate Hindu vote appears to have clearly moved away from the BJP after the infamous pub attack, birthday party attack and crude efforts to create social disharmony and, thereby, a Hindutva laboratory.

Yeddyurappa has practically no influence in the coastal belt as his community hardly has any presence there.

But not only has the Congress failed to capitalise on the BJP’s failure, the party has lacked a strategy in everything it has done so far — from selection of candidates to the campaign. It has just not been able to match, or even come close to, what the two master-strategists in the state — Yeddyurappa and HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) — have done.

“We honestly believed the Congress strategy will be to practically take over Bangalore or, at least, reduce us to single digit. But they have gifted us nearly nine seats," a senior BJP leader says with a broad grin. Top Congress leaders, including state party chief G Parameshwara and leader of opposition in the assembly Siddaramaiah, can share the blame if the party does not upstage BJP in the state capital, which has 28 seats besides four in Bangalore Rural.   

JD(S) sitting pretty

But it is in the Old Mysore region that the Congress is facing the toughest of battles, fighting the JD (S). Infighting in the party has not spared even the home district of the former chief minister and external affairs minister SM Krishna. All this has only brought a smile on the faces of the father-son duo of HD Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy as they campaign vigorously in the Vokkaliga-dominated region. (The Vokkaligas are the other major caste group in Karnataka apart from the Lingayats).

Their hold over their community votes and some strategic planning in some pockets of Hyderabad-Karnataka and other parts of the state has made Kumaraswamy make a significant remark. He has made it plain that he would like to be the chief minister in the event of a hung assembly.

What this means is that even if JD(S) doubles its tally from the 2008 figure of 28, he would be the senior partner in a coalition. It is obvious that the Congress would treat him as a junior partner in such an event as it is sure to gain more than the 80 seats it had secured in the last election. There is not much love lost between the two after Kumaraswamy engineered the collapse of the Congress-JD(S) coalition in 2006 and made way for the BJP to gain ground. Given this background, Kumaraswamy could, possibly, be looking at a coalition with the BJP which, in any case, is without his friend-turned-foe, Yeddyurappa.

It is under these circumstances that the Congress focus has shifted to constituencies where it is fighting its very own partymen. How it fares in these troublesome constituencies will determine its final push to reach the magic figure of 112, the half-way mark in the Assembly. Until, of course, the heavy anti-incumbency against the BJP is an invisible wave that will get the Congress a comfortable majority.

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