The ruling BJP has set a target of winning at least 150 of the 224 seats in the state and Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai has claimed he will return to his office after the election results are announced. Currently, the BJP has 119 MLAs, while the Congress has 75 and its ally JD(S) has 28 seats.
Karnataka’s will be the first election to take place after Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from the Lok Sabha following his sentencing in a criminal defamation case, triggering protests by the grand old party from Sansad to Sadak. In a defiant message to the BJP, Rahul Gandhi would kick off his Karnataka campaign from the same site in the Kolar district where he had in 2019 made the Modi surname remark for which he was sentenced by a Surat court a week ago.
Overall, the election will also be a test for PM Modi’s and his party’s popularity and for the Congress’s ability to pull itself out of its worst times brought about by a series of poll defeats and exits of some top leaders. After Karnataka, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Telangana will also go to the polls this year, setting the tone for 2014 when PM Modi will seek his third straight term. Elections could also take place in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir in 2023.
The Congress couldn’t do well when three northeastern states – Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland — went to the polls in February this year, but the party is optimistic about Karnataka, a state where Rahul Gandhi spent large amounts of time during his Kanyakumari-to-Kashmir Bharat Jodo Yatra. The Congress president, Mallikarjun Kharge, comes from Karnataka and the party is going to give it all to return to power.
PM Modi himself is leading the BJP’s campaign in Karnataka with his frequent trips to the state. The election is also crucial, given the talk for a possible third front (of anti-BJP and non-Congress parties) ahead of 2024, when India votes to elect its next government.
On the other hand, both the BJP and Congress have had to battle infighting, which is not too unusual when polls approach and power stakes become higher. The BJP has denied there’s any rift between CM Bommai and former CM BS Yediyurappa, whose importance in Karnataka’s politics was recently acknowledged by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Congress has also been hit by reports of differences between two of its tallest leaders in the state: Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar.
While the BJP believes the voters will back its idea of a double-engine government (the same party in power in the state and at the Centre), the Opposition Congress and the JDS have been targeting the saffron party over charges of corruption facing the state government. The Congress has been campaigning against the ruling BJP alleging massive corruption, while the saffron party recently took out ‘Vijay Sankalp Yatra’ across the state.
In what could be a key poll issue, the Karnataka government last week announced two new categories for reservations in jobs and education. CM Bommai also scrapped the 4 per cent quota reserved for Other Backward Classes (OBC) Muslims. The 4 per cent reservation will now be distributed among the Vokkaligas and Lingayats, the two electorally crucial voting blocs in the state.
The Lingayats comprise about 17 per cent of Karnataka’s population and are the single-largest community in the state, mostly in the northern region. They have been traditional BJP voters but have recently been on the warpath, seeking a greater share of reservations. Yediyurappa belongs to this community.
More than anything else, Karnataka is the only southern state where the BJP has broken through and, along with Pondicherry, remains a crucial window to the party’s plan to expand in the rest of the virgin region.