With less than a month left for the May 12-election to the Karnataka Assembly, the stage now resembles the half-way point in a T20 cricket match. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in a defensive mode. There have been no fours, let alone sixes. The key question is whether the party will reach the magic figure of 113, to lift the Assembly trophy.
Ever since campaigning began in March, the BJP in Karnataka has desperately tried to hook the ruling Congress out of the ground. So far either there have been swings and misses or shots that have been well fielded by chief minister Siddaramaiah’s team.
The BJP’s coach in the form of party chief Amit Shah, camping in Bangalore trying to enthuse captain BS Yeddyurappa, does not seem to have made much headway in manoeuvring his team to a position of strength. The party is hoping that the hard-hitting Modi will arrive in the last few days and swing the mood in the BJP’s favour.
For those following the state’s politics closely, it is not a great surprise to see the BJP floundering in its campaign. To begin with, when elections were around the corner, the party was a divided house with several aspirants for the chief minister’s chair. Old fault lines within the party opened up when Yeddyurappa was chosen for the top job, in the event of a BJP victory.
KS Eshwarappa, another senior BJP politician was particularly disgruntled and all but revolted against his associate and former chief minister Yeddyurappa. The bad blood between them does not seem to have dissipated. It has only been shoved under the carpet.
Siddaramaiah has managed to set the agenda for the electoral battle. The BJP has been forced to react to the Congress’ moves – a situation, unlike others, where the BJP had the opposition on the mat and scored runaway victories like in Uttar Pradesh and Tripura
Siddaramaiah, before the BJP could wake up to the campaign, delivered a few googlies. First, he articulated Kannada nationalism in a way that took his opponents by surprise. The decision to have a state flag was clearly meant to attract the support of Kannada groups that traditionally sided with the conservative sections, including the BJP, in state politics. This scheme included support to fringe groups that wanted Hindi signage erased from Metro stations.
And the biggest of them, a veritable carrom ball of the Ashwin kind, that stumped the BJP. This was the move to recommend a minority religious status to Lingayats. While no one can be sure whether it will pay dividends for the Congress at the hustings, it has managed to hog media limelight and emerge as a top electoral issue. The BJP has yet to figure how to respond to this effectively.
In other words, Siddaramaiah has managed to set the agenda for the electoral battle. And the BJP has been forced to react to the Congress’ moves – a situation, unlike many others, where the BJP had the opposition on the mat and scored runaway victories, like in Uttar Pradesh and Tripura.
More recently, Siddaramaiah bowled one more sharp delivery that forced the BJP on the defensive – the issue of India’s federalism and the accusation that the Centre has been unfair to the Southern states including Karnataka on the issue of funds disbursal.
As if this was not enough, unfortunately for the BJP, the Cauvery issue came up on the scene. And, the party has been caught in an unenviable situation trying to keep Karnataka happy by not implementing the Supreme Court’s directive to draw up a scheme for distribution of the river water. In the process, the BJP has had to fend off the ire of Tamil Nadu and the Apex court, with its own adverse consequences for the party.
In a sense, the BJP during the campaign has already lost a wicket in the form of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Having promoted him as a veritable opening batsman, the BJP, to its dismay, saw him getting out after a humiliating loss in the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha by-election. Adityanath has retired to Uttar Pradesh and not been seen in Karnataka since.
The BJP could have used the anti-incumbency in Karnataka to turn the tables on Siddaramaiah but they have not had the opportunity or the moral strength to leverage this. One key reason being that the BJP’s government under Yeddyurappa, preceding the current one, was a disaster in terms of misadministration, instability and innumerable charges of corruption.
With the BJP in Karnataka largely on the back foot, its only hope now rests in the prime minister. But the signs don’t look good since Modi is busy fighting his own battles in Delhi and that of the party, including the latest ones in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao and Kathua in Jammu where the rape of minor girls and the involvement of the BJP appears to have severely dented his image and that of the party’s.
As they say in cricket, the outcome cannot be predicted until the last ball is bowled. Still, one thing is clear. If the BJP has to gain electoral momentum and score a surprise win, the party’s pinch hitter needs to click.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Bangalore)