Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress pad up for Karnataka Assembly elections

Amit Shah in Guwahati today
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah has created a network of office bearers from Delhi and other states to invigorate the party's Karnataka unit before the Election Commission announces the Assembly polls. 

Central ministers Prakash Javadekar and Piyush Goyal are election ‘in-charge’ and ‘co-in-charge’, respectively, for the party's Karnataka unit. P Muralidhar Rao is the party's general secretary in-charge of the state. Rajeev Pratap Rudy and Smriti Irani are interacting with the people to gauge and sway their mood ahead of the Karnataka polls, which, according to the party, would be a “close” fight.

The presence of Delhi’s big leaguers was a barefaced message to the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, B S Yeddyurappa. 

There were reports the cadre was “unhappy” with the “peremptory” working style of Yeddyurappa and his political associate and MP Shobha Karandlaje. Shah had obliquely warned Yeddyurappa that his autonomous functioning would not be brooked when he recently passed over two of the Karnataka leader's nominees, former MP Vijay Sankeshwar and former legislative council member N Shankarappa, for the only Rajya Sabha seat in the BJP’s quota and picked industrialist Rajeev Chandrasekhar. 

In January, when Yeddyurappa named 20 supporters as worthy of tickets, Shah stopped him in his tracks. 
karnataka chart
The BJP’s opponents are saying sotto voce that the leadership could do a Prem Kumar Dhumal on Yeddyurappa by anointing another CM if the party won the election. Dhumal was the chief ministerial face in Himachal Pradesh but when he lost despite a pro-BJP wave, Jai Ram Thakur, a younger man, was wheeled out.

In contrast, the Congress has ostensibly given Chief Minister Siddharamaiah carte blanche to strategise and micro-manage. A party source, however, said, “The ultimate test will come when the candidates will be selected.”  

Rajya Sabha MP MV Rajeev Gowda, who heads the Congress’s Research Department, indicated the party would project the Assembly election as a Yeddyurappa-Siddharamaiah combat and not a Narendra Modi-versus-Rahul Gandhi battle like it did in Gujarat.

“Siddharamaiah has delivered. More than 90 per cent of the Congress’s manifesto promises stands redeemed. There has been no major scandal or crippling dissidence. Innovations in governance range from agriculture to nutrition to industry and start-ups,” claimed Gowda. 

A BJP source said Yeddyurappa’s “controversial” first stint as the CM, his “loosening” grip over the 17 per cent Lingayat votes, and his age (75) were “drawbacks” that “can only be overcome by intensive campaigning by Modi” and “groundwork by the foot soldiers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh”.    

Siddharamaiah’s latest gambit to grant the Lingayats and Veerashaivas minority status (with differences in the statutory rights that the Muslims, Christians, Jains and Buddhists have) initially foxed the BJP. It became apprehensive, thinking that the Congress will make a play and perhaps poach on the community’s votes, a chunk of which went to the BJP thanks to Yeddyurappa. Rather than grandstand for being the “first” to raise the demand in 2013 that the then UPA government at the Centre rejected, Muralidhar Rao said: “We need not say yes or no to it. We will  say it is an election gimmick.” 

A Congress central functionary from Karnataka said that the stratagem would “counter the notion that we are historically anti-Lingayat because (S) Nijalingappa was thrown out of the Congress (after the epic 1969 split), and it will dilute the BJP’s tactic to consolidate the Hindus”. 

Rather than tangling itself in intra-caste politics, Rao stressed the BJP should grab the other issues that the CM “gifted on a platter”. These, he said, were the “worsening” law and order, exemplified in the assault on a person at a posh Bangalore pub by M N Haris, the son of Congress legislator NA Haris, the “bad” infrastructure, agrarian distress which he contended was best articulated by Yeddyurappa, a farmer, and petty and large corruption. “The image of ‘goonda raj’ has stuck on Siddharamaiah,” alleged Rao.

However, the litmus test for the Congress and the BJP will come in the villages where Siddharamaiah’s “Anna Bhagya” food security scheme has “worked” even by the BJP’s reckoning.

If the BJP is fighting as a single entity — instead of the three outfits it had fragmented into in 2013, when Yeddyurappa and B Sriramulu, a Bellary strongman who revolted and fought solo — the Congress has stability on its side.  Siddharamaiah is only the CM after D Devraj Urs to last a full term in Karnataka without dissidents snapping at his heels. At stake for both is the 2019 Lok Sabha election, for which Karnataka might set the tempo.

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