History is on Congress’ side in Karnataka, but...

...the BJP will have to read the people’s minds. In the past, voters have not forgiven political party infighting nor have they rewarded a full-term administration

If the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) needs to win in Karnataka, it will not only have to surmount the ruling Congress party but also history. Except for one precedent. The Congress’ state Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has managed to achieve a rare feat – that of surviving five years in office. In the process, Karnataka has seen a period of relative stability and calm – particularly after the tumultuous term of the BJP preceding it.

During the BJP’s first tenure on its own in the state, there were not less than three chief ministers, massive infighting and rampant charges of corruption, with Bellary district gaining notoriety as Karnataka’s wild west under the Reddy brothers. Few were surprised when the BJP lost power to the Congress in 2013. Now that Siddaramaiah has steered the Congress efficiently, will the voters recognise his effort and vote him back to power?

Karnataka’s voters have been particularly unforgiving when a party, any party for that matter, has indulged in infighting, practised opportunistic politics and ignored the people who voted a party to power.

Let’s start with the Janata Party under Ramakrishna Hegde in 1983 – the first non-Congress government in the state. After a coalition of two years and a dream administration, Hegde declared mid-term elections and consolidated his hold in 1985 with the Janata Party coming to power on its own.

But soon, the party fell prey to infighting with Hegde’s colleagues Deve Gowda and SR Bommai falling out with one another. In the 1989 elections, the much-admired Janata Party lost to the Congress, and how. The Congress won 178 seats of the 224 on offer, a record that the party had not touched even at the height of its dominance earlier. The Janata Party was smashed to smithereens. Karnataka’s electorate had clearly expressed itself.

If one expected that the Congress would grab the opportunity, they could not have been more mistaken. Massive dissidence broke out in the party following the replacement of chief minister Veerendra Patil with S Bangarappa on health grounds, done in a rather unceremonious manner by the then Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi. Bangarappa was eventually replaced by M Veerappa Moily. The infighting had a serious fallout. In the 1994 election, the people showed their displeasure by voting out the Congress and voting in the Janata Dal.

As the saying goes, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. The Janata Dal, which had won in 1994 following the reunification of Ramakrishna Hegde and Deve Gowda, was affected by infighting. Gowda in 1996 had left for Delhi to become prime minister. Among his first acts was the expulsion of Hegde from the party, who, unable to digest Gowda’s elevation, spewed personal comments against his rival.

Until elections in 1999, the Janata Dal was wrecked by infighting between the Hegde and Gowda camps. The voters again had their say. The Congress came back to power. The twist in the tale comes at this point. The SM Krishna government, after a long time, brought in stability and his governance was much appreciated. The chief minister had the vision to tap into the emerging Information Technology business and converted Bangalore into India’s Silicon Valley. Elections came along in 2004. This time, contrary to expectation, the Congress was not voted back to power. Instead, the voters ushered in a hung assembly. There was much speculation as to how this had happened. One that stood out was that during a period of drought when the Congress was in power, the government did not do enough to provide succour. Instead, the Krishna government was excessively focussed on Bangalore’s IT infrastructure.

In the 1989 elections, the much-admired Janata Party lost to the Congress, and how. The Congress won 178 seats of the 224 on offer, a record that the party had not touched even at the height of its dominance

Be that as it may, the hung Assembly gave an opportunity to the BJP to count itself as a contender for power after being in the wilderness for 20 years. It soon got the chance when the Janata Dal (Secular) under HD Kumaraswamy ditched the Congress and aligned with the BJP in 2006. Under a mutual agreement, Kumaraswamy was to have stepped down in 2008 to enable the BJP’s BS Yeddyurappa to take over as chief minister. After reluctantly doing so, Kumaraswamy withdrew support to the BJP in a week. Voters sympathised with a teary Yeddyurappa and in the mid-term elections that followed, voted the BJP to power.

Now that the BJP had come to power for the first time on its own in the state, people expected the party to make a difference. Indeed, they made a difference – taking infighting to an all new level compounded by a litany of corruption charges. The party floundered in administration and in intra-party management. Eventually, Yeddyurappa had to step down to be replaced by DV Sadananda Gowda. The infighting continued and he was replaced by Jagadish Shettar. But to no avail. The damage had been done. In the 2013 election, the people simply voted out the party and brought back the Congress.

From this, it is clear that voters in Karnataka have never forgiven a party if it indulged in infighting. Siddaramaiah has managed to avoid any major fracas. If this impresses the voter, the Congress party should return to power. But, Krishna’s experience shows that no one can be sure how the voters view the performance of a particular government. The election in May is bound to clear the confusion one way or the other.

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