The BJP will have to beat Karnataka’s 38-year-old electoral history

Amidst the absence of a strong leadership face within the State, and rebellion in its local unit, the BJP in Karnataka relies heavily on its national leaders

Updated - April 17, 2023 06:14 pm IST

Published - April 16, 2023 06:54 pm IST - Bengaluru

BJP leader B.S. Yediyurappa during a press conference in Bengaluru on April 16, 2023.

BJP leader B.S. Yediyurappa during a press conference in Bengaluru on April 16, 2023. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka has to face not only anti-incumbency in the ensuing Assembly elections scheduled on May 10, but also the State’s poll history, which shows that none of the ruling parties have retained power in the last 38 years.

Though the BJP’s central leadership is leaving no stone unturned to reverse this, it is well aware of the gravity of the situation. For the first time, the BJP is also facing a serious threat from disappointed ticket aspirants turning rebels, and it has had to reckon with a former Deputy Chief Minister (Laxman Savadi) and a former Chief Minister (Jagadeesh Shettar) leaving the party.

The BJP, which formed a government with its veteran leader B.S. Yediyurappa as Chief Minister in July 2019 by dethroning the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S)-Congress coalition government through a series of defections, faces allegations of misgovernance, groupism and corruption. The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on finances and administration, too.

Though the incumbent Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai succeeded Mr. Yediyurappa in July 2021, he took time to get a grip on the administration as he struggled with the transition of power. His dispensation faced allegations of demands for “40% commission” from contractors, though nobody filed a complaint before the relevant authorities. Mr. Bommai’s leadership of the State has also been marked by communal controversies, with Hindutva activists picking one issue after another. The party’s image took a beating with floods in several areas, including in Bengaluru, hitting infrastructure hard.

However, Mr. Bommai seemed to be able find his bearings about a year after taking over and has since been taking efforts to retain power.

Beyond Yediyurappa

The party, whose core strength was its support base of Lingayats, a dominant community in the State, began realising that its political influence over the community diminished after the Lingayat strongman was made to step down as Chief Minister. To make amends, the central leadership appointed Mr. Yediyurappa as a Parliamentary Board member of the party. It also increased reservation for the Lingayat community. 

But the BJP’s strategists know that the party is yet to get full majority in the State Assembly on its own. Even when the Lingayat community rallied behind Mr. Yediyurappa in 2008, it was short of majority. In fact, it has been able to form the government only by engineering defections. 

As this underscores the need for expanding its support base, the party has taken to social engineering by increasing reservation for Scheduled Castes (SC)/Scheduled Tribes (ST), and also providing internal reservation to them. 

The party wants to make make inroads into the areas of Vokkaligas, another dominant community, by increasing reservation for them and wooing them through other means. For instance, a 108-feet statue of community icon and the architect of Bengaluru city Kempe Gowda has been erected at the international airport in Devanahalli. The party has also started wooing a few Vokkaliga leaders, including Independent MP Sumalatha, from the Vokkaliga heartland of Mandya, in a bid to reach out to the community over which the Opposition JD(S) has a strong influence. 

Expanding base

The BJP believes that winning about 10 additional seats from the Old Mysore region could tilt the political balance as it has been able to win only eight of the total 48 seats in the districts of Ramanagaram, Bengaluru Rural, Mandya, Mysuru, undivided Kolar, and Chamarajanagar. But the party does not seem to have strong leaders from this region, who could lead its campaign. 

The party has also started efforts to woo microscopic communities among Other Backward Classes (OBC). It has organised State conventions of OBCs, SCs and STs to woo them, besides holding district-level conventions of beneficiaries of specific Central and State government schemes. 

Clusterwise, the BJP is focusing heavily on Bengaluru, which accounts for 28 of the total 224 Assembly seats in the State, and Belagavi, which has 18 Assembly seats. In Bengaluru, the party has won 15 seats, while in Belagavi, it has 13 seats. 

However, the main problem for the BJP is that it does not have a strong leadership face to project from Karnataka despite having 121 MLAs (before the recent death of two sitting MLAs and resignation by rebels) in the 224-member Karnataka Assembly. While its 80-year-old leader Mr. Yediyurappa has announced retirement from electoral politics, the party is yet to formally project its next chief ministerial candidate though incumbent CM Mr. Bommai is at the helm. 

Central leaders in charge

In this situation, the BJP’s central leadership has taken over the entire campaign as well as poll management and is projecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi as its face for the Assembly polls. 

The party that has a strong organisational network in several areas has also adopted both macro and micro management strategies with the support of its booth-level members. While the BJP claims that it is seeking votes on the basis of its achievements, the party is also banking on a polarised political environment to tackle anti-incumbency. 

Expanding vote share

The BJP’s vote share as well as its tally have been steadily increasing in the State since 1989, which is an indication that the party has been increasing its reach in the State. While its vote share increased from 4.14% in 1989 to 36.22% in 2018, the tally too increased from four to 104 seats during this period. The actual vote share would be even higher as 17 MLAs from rival camps quit their seats and joined the BJP, and also managed to win their seats in the by-polls. 

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