A battle royale in North K’taka as hardy BJP takes on shaky Congress

AICC president Rahul Gandhi and Andhra CM Chandrababu Naidu, along to state leaders, at Chikkodi in North Karnataka.

The election frenzy in Karnataka is far from over. While the southern half of the state voted on April 18, campaigning gains momentum in the 14 constituencies that go to polls in the third phase on April 23. The Bharatiya Janata Party currently holds 11 seats in the region but the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance wants to wrest power from the saffron party.

JD(S) is not a key player in North Karnataka unlike the South. It’s a straight fight between the Congress and the BJP in most seats. According to the seat sharing agreement, the Congress fields 11 candidates and JD(S) three.

Congress’ Mallikarjuna Kharge and HB Manjappa, and BJP’s Prahlad Joshi, Ananth Kumar Hegde and BY Raghavendra are some of the key leaders contesting from the area. BJP fielded Congress rebel candidate Umesh Jadhav against Kharge in Gulbarga.

Districts that go to polls on April 23.

Two women contestants — Congress’ Veena Kashappanavar and Sunitha Chavan from JD(S) — are in the fray.

Issues in plenty

Various issues are at play in the region, aside from the ever-green lingayat debate. Mahadayi water dispute with Goa, farm crisis, shortage of drinking water in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region and central region, and nationalistic fervour in the coastal constituencies are some of them.

While the BJP is strong in the coastal region (it bagged all three seats in 2014), the party is tightening its grip on the Mumbai-Karnataka region where it holds five of the six seats. In the central parts, it is head-to-head with the Congress. And in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, which has the most backward districts in the state, the Congress is strong.

While the BJP banks on lingayat votes and the backlash the ruling government will face from the North Karnataka region for being neglected in the state budget, the Congress will consolidate its backward classes, dalit and minority votes.

Lingayats may worry parties

According to a leaked census report, lingayats constitute about 14% of the state population, though the community claim they are over 17%. More than Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal, it’s the consolidation of the lingayat vote bank that gave BJP the stronghold in the region under the leadership of former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa. While BJP bagged 17 seats in 2014, it had won 19 seats in 2009 (highest so far) and 18 in 2004.

The lingayat support shifted from the Congress to the BJP post-1990 after then Congress president Rajiv Gandhi dismissed the Veerendra Patil (former chief minister) government in the state. Karnataka had four lingayat chief ministers — S Nijalingappa, BD Jatti, SR Kanthi and Veerendra Patil — between 1956 and 1972.

The lingayat issue became silent after the Assembly elections last year. However, it picked up again as Lok Sabha elections approached. On April 16, Karnataka’s BJP official Twitter account tweeted a fake letter alleging the Congress party’s MB Patil and Sonia Gandhi wanted to divide Hindu communities in Karnataka.

“The entire Lingayat & Veerashaiva community division was planted under direct instruction of Sonia Gandhi…” the tweet said. The fake letter has Patil informing Gandhi about a meeting of party leaders held with representatives of the Global Christian Council and World Islamic Organisation on the strategy for the Karnataka Assembly election.

Patil was at the fore of the issue when the Congress attempted to grant religious minority status to the lingayat community. The party’s attempt to grant religious minority status to the community was seen as a way to bridge the historic divide. The issue, however, led to the fall of the Congress in the state Assembly elections last year.

DK Shivakumar, the vokkaliga Congress party leader, made a public apology on behalf of the party in a rally in Bellary for dividing the lingayat community. It upset a section within the Congress, including MB Patil, who lambasted Shivakumar and asked the high command to instruct him not to meddle in the issue.

Congress pitted lingayats against lingayats to divide the votes in the region this election. For instance, it fielded DR Patil against Shivakumar Udasi of BJP in Haveri, Viupakshi Sadhunnavar against Suresh Angadi in Belagavi, Prakash Hukkeri against Annasaheb Jolle from Chikkodi.

Though Congress party leaders dismissed that the lingayat issue is a major influencing factor, its candidates, including Vinay Kulkarni in Hubli-Dharwad, sought votes by trying to strike an emotional chord based on caste with the people. Kulkarni feared he cannot command religious minorities’ support as they asked him to gain trust from his community before seeking voters from them.

Drought and Mahadayi water dispute

Karnataka witnessed severe and protracted drought for three consecutive years since 2015. And it recorded 12 droughts in 15 years till 2015. Most of North Karnataka, barring a few taluks in Belagavi and Haveri, are severely affected, witnessing over nine droughts in 15 years.

The ruling JD(S)-Congress coalition blames the central government for its poor policies, including the flawed import-export policies, crop insurance schemes, demonetisation, and failure to meet the promise of doubling farmers’ income. But the BJP takes on the state for poor implementation of the central schemes.

However, the central government’s silence on the Mahadayi river water sharing dispute between Goa and Karnataka will hurt the BJP in someway. It going to be an interesting battle between the two national parties.