Karnataka’s next tryst with the elections has acquired a national significance, thanks to its timing, one year ahead of the general election due in 2014, and a few months short of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi voting in new Assemblies.
For the Congress, a victory in Karnataka against the Bharatiya Janata Party government could give it the wind it needs beneath its wings to attempt a national comeback at the head of a third consecutive United Progressive Alliance coalition.
For the BJP, these elections will provide it with the opportunity to test the power of its mascot, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, to change the narrative for the party in Karnataka, where it is wracked by corruption and internal strife.
“Every election is important for us, but Karnataka will be particularly important as it comes before other key State elections,” Congress general secretary B.K. Hariprasad said, adding “it will be the semi-finals before the general election. They will provide a good indication of what is to come.”
By contrast, BJP general secretary Dharmendra Pradhan, who is in charge of Karnataka, is somewhat less eager to link the results of the polls in the southern State to the general election. “I don’t think we should co-relate the two elections,” he says, stressing “nationally, the mood is generally anti-Congress. Initially, we were apprehensive, but now we hope to emerge as the single largest party in the State.”
Indeed, the national leaders of the two parties, key adversaries in Karnataka, will campaign in the State. Congress president Sonia Gandhi, vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be the party’s star campaigners, while the BJP will deploy not just its two parliamentary leaders, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, and NDA working chairperson L.K. Advani, but also Mr. Modi, billed as the BJP’s most likely prime ministerial candidate. Initially, it seemed that Mr. Modi did not wish to risk an early outing outside Gujarat, especially as the BJP in Karnataka has been dogged by problems, ranging from allegations of links with the mining mafia, to charges of corruption, to its chief minister — and a key Lingayat leader — B.S. Yeddyurappa breaking away to float his own party, to the emotive Cauvery issue.
Mr. Modi’s absence from a BJP central election committee meeting to finalise the ticket for the Karnataka elections was interpreted as meaning that he did not wish to be associated with a campaign that could end in the ouster of the State government.
His preference for a FICCI meeting in Delhi to the BJP’s launch rally in Bangalore on April 8 was seen as further evidence of his reluctance. But it appears that Mr. Modi will campaign, if in a limited way, in the State.
The BJP emerged as the single largest party in 2004. Five years later, it rode a saffron wave, securing 110 seats in the 224-member Assembly, shedding in the process its tag of being a “cow belt party,” winning its first southern State. If the Congress can push the BJP out of Karnataka again, it will diminish the latter’s credentials as a national party and provide it with the oxygen to enthuse its cadres for 2014.
The Congress could improve its chances in the State elections due later this year. The BJP is in power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress in Rajasthan and Delhi. But unlike Karnataka, where the Congress’s electoral chances are bright, its prospects in these four States provide a contrast: its best case scenario right now is for it to retain Delhi and perhaps wrest Chhattisgarh from the BJP. It is for this reason that the Congress is actively considering holding the general election along with the four-state elections.