Six months ago, a change of guard in Karnataka was seen as the BJP’s bid to reboot its government in time for state elections in 2023. Therefore, when Basavaraj Bommai took over as the chief minister in late July, the priorities he outlined were about sprucing up the administration and a pro-people approach.
But if the party was hoping to put some sheen on its two-year stint in power in Karnataka, things have not exactly gone its way so far. While some of the baggage has doggedly pursued it – for instance, the complaint by a contractors’ association that commissions being demanded by officials and ministers ran up to 40 per cent — the party’s score-card in recent local elections have come as a wake-up call. Last week, the BJP won fewer seats than the opposition Congress in urban local body (ULB) elections — that setback coming close on the heels of Legislative Council polls and assembly bypolls in which the ruling party had a chequered result.
This weekend, the party’s state leaders are meeting to take stock of its organisational network at the booth level and to discuss the roadmap ahead.
At the same time, Congress leaders are gearing up for a 100 km padyatra (foot march) through the southern districts to corner the BJP over the Mekedatu project which is pending clearance from the Centre – Karnataka wants to build a balancing reservoir for drinking water supply during the lean months but faces opposition from Tamil Nadu.
“The precedent is always that the ruling party gains in local body polls and by-elections. But in Karnataka, in six months, the scenario has changed,” says Ramesh Babu, a Congress spokesperson and a former Legislative Council member (MLC). While the Congress took the first place in the December polls to 58 ULBs, there was a tie between the Congress and the BJP (11 seats each of a total of 25 seats) in the Legislative Council polls where the electorate largely comprised gram panchayat members, he says. “So it is a clear indication even though BJP is in power in Karnataka, local bodies are with the Congress,” says Babu.
But the BJP points to the overall picture to show that it has been gaining ground while the Congress’ seat count, except in the ULB polls, has been reducing. N Ravikumar, BJP Karnataka general secretary and an MLC, points to the 22 assembly bypolls that have been held over the past couple of years. “Out of 22, we have won 19 seats. All these did not belong to the BJP before,” he says. Similarly, in the Legislative Council elections last month, the ruling party increased its tally by six seats while the Congress’ fell by four, he says.
For the BJP, Karnataka has always presented a paradox of sorts – the party’s record in winning Parliamentary seats in the state has been impressive over the last two decades. But it has never succeeded in winning an outright majority in state elections – on both the occasions that it came to power, it was by engineering defections from rival parties.
However, the party’s footprint in Karnataka has been expanding. “Therefore, we have more number of winnable assembly constituencies,” says Ravikumar. “We are in a better position than ever before.”
Political commentator A. Narayana says that the BJP is more a pan-Karnataka party now, unlike earlier when its influence was largely in the northern Lingayat-dominated districts and coastal parts. But it is still largely dependent on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Lingayat strongman BS Yediyurappa when it comes to winning polls, he points out. Agrees Prof Muzaffar Assadi who teaches political science at the University of Mysore. “The BJP has no strong leaders within Karnataka who can expand the base,” says Assadi.
Basavaraj Bommai was himself a lateral entrant to the party (albeit 13 years ago) which also explains the occasional snipe from fellow-partymen. Even last month, following an assembly bypoll defeat in the chief minister’s home district of Haveri, there were cryptic comments from a couple of senior leaders hinting at a leadership change.
Ravikumar says those issues were cleared at the state executive committee meeting a week ago.
Political observers reckon that the Karnataka BJP unit is now firmly in the grasp of the party headquarters, unlike earlier. “After Bommai took over, what is very clear is that the Karnataka unit is strictly under the control of the BJP high command,” says Narayana.
Currently, the BJP’s weak spot remains the Old Mysore region – this comprises the southern districts of Karnataka where the Vokkaliga community is dominant and the traditional rivals are the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular). But of late, the scenario looks increasingly challenging for the JD(S) as the two bigger parties try to muscle in.
A glimpse of that tussle for the Vokkaliga-heartland came on Monday when Congress parliamentarian DK Suresh and Karnataka minister CN Ashwathnarayan – both Vokkaligas – nearly came to blows at a public event in Ramanagara, a district adjacent to Bangalore. Suresh is the brother of Congress state president DK Shivakumar who hails from Ramanagara district.
Ramanagara is also the home turf of JD(S) leader HD Kumaraswamy who later told reporters: “I was the one who made Ramanagara a district and planned several programmes but they are fighting over it.”
With a year to go before state elections, it’s also a sign that Karnataka’s political scenario is warming up – with the BJP looking to script a return to power and the Congress eyeing an opportunity to recover its support base.