Perhaps never in its past has the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had so much at stake in panchayat elections as in the upcoming one in Karnataka where it is in power for the first time.
A poor show in the Dec 26-31 elections to 176 taluq panchayats and 30 zilla panchayats might not result in the end of its first government in south India but it may well ring the bell for the downfall of Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa in view of the land scandals he is allegedly involved in.
Voting will take place in two phases for 1,013 seats in zilla panchayats and 3,659 seats in taluq panchayats. Counting will be on Jan 4.
Yeddyurappa had got a breather from the party's central leadership in November, when the demand for his ouster grew loud, as the panchayat elections were near.
Party president Nitin Gadkari had asserted that the outcome of the polls would be a fitting reply to the Congress and Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) campaign against the BJP and Yeddyurappa.
If the party fails to win a majority in the year-end polls, Gadkari will find it difficult to continue to bat for Yeddyurappa's leadership in the state, particularly with senior leader L.K. Advani repeatedly stating that the party is seized of the Karnataka issue and will definitely act to clean up its stables.
Also, retaining Yeddyurappa in such circumstances will weaken the BJP's campaign against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) central government over the 2G spectrum allocation scandal.
Realising the costs involved for himself and the party, Yeddyurappa has launched a vigorous campaign to woo the voters offering sops while being silent on land scandals.
In contrast, the Congress and JD-S are highlighting the land issue while promising several welfare measures.
The BJP manifesto includes promise of Special Agricultural Zones to develop agriculture-based industries, loans to farmers at one percent interest, free education till degree level to all girls in villages and subsidy for diesel for irrigation pump sets.
The Congress has promised an end to the acquisition of fertile cultivable agricultural lands while the JD-S plans to make approval of gram (village), taluk and zilla panchayats mandatory for land acquisition.
The Congress and JD-S are focusing on the land issue as Yeddyurappa is charged with favouring his kin with allotment in and around Bangalore and freeing land from government control which were bought at throwaway prices by people who invested in his sons and son-in-law's business ventures.
The BJP's performance in the last taluk and zilla panchayats polls in 2005 was dismal, though it had emerged as the single largest party with 79 seats in the 225-member assembly, including one nominated, in the 2004 assembly polls.
Of 1,005 zilla panchayat seats then, the BJP had secured less than 160 seats with the Congress emerging the biggest winner with about 490 seats. The JD-S stood second with around 270 seats and smaller parties and Independents shared the remaining ones.
The BJP did no better in the taluq panchayat polls too. Out of the 3,659 seats, it had got 540 with the Congress bagging over 1,700 and the JD-S 945. Smaller parties and Independents made up the rest.
The party is in power now. But, unlike the 2008 assembly polls when it had an 'emotive issue' of 'betrayal' by the JD-S to romp home, the party is facing the people with slew of charges against its best known mascot in the state - chief minister Yeddyurappa.
His, and apparently also the party's, belief is that only the urban voters are concerned over the land scams and it is not an issue at all at district and village level.