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Karnataka elections: Can Siddaramaiah repeat his bypoll success?

As the dates for the crucial Karnataka elections are announced by the Election Commission, a look at how the Congress led by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah turned around the party’s prospects in the state.

india Updated: Mar 27, 2018 20:20 IST
Niha Masih
The 2017 Karnataka bypolls, which Congress won against odds,  signalled a shift towards a more professional style of political management, unusual for the Congress and even more so for chief minister Siddaramaiah, considered an old-school political strategist.
The 2017 Karnataka bypolls, which Congress won against odds, signalled a shift towards a more professional style of political management, unusual for the Congress and even more so for chief minister Siddaramaiah, considered an old-school political strategist.(PTI file photo)

On April 12, 2017, a day before the crucial bypoll results for two assembly seats in Karnataka, chief minister Siddaramaiah received an adverse intelligence report. It predicted the Congress party would lose both the seats to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Congress had won Nanjangud and Gundlupet in 2013. While the Gundlupet legislator had passed away, Nanjangud’s MLA V Srinivas Prasad had an acrimonious exit from the party after Siddaramaiah dropped him from the state cabinet. Prasad had got the BJP ticket to contest again from the Scheduled Caste seat.

Both seats came under the chief minister’s home region of Mysore, making it a prestige battle. An aggressive BJP, seeing a chance, called it a semi-final to the state polls with BS Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s state party president, camping there for close to a month. Veteran Congress leader SM Krishna had also switched sides barely two weeks before the poll and campaigned for the BJP.

The odds seemed to be stacked against the Congress, but the party won both seats comfortably in the end.

Describing how they turned things around, a close aide of Siddaramaiah’s strategy team says, “In Nanjangud, we ensured our candidate visited every Dalit house because his rival was unwell and unable to campaign door-to-door. We also prepared a booklet highlighting the BJP’s anti-Dalit policies and action which were handed out to voters by our cadre.”

In Gundlupet, the party played on garnering sympathy vote for its candidate Geetha Mahadev Prasad, wife of the sitting MLA who had died. The BJP’s negative campaign portraying her as power-hungry did not work, strategists said.

In addition, WhatsApp messages in the CM’s voice were aggressively circulated highlighting the government’s achievements. Finally, besides the CM, almost the entire cabinet was deputed for campaigning in the last leg even missing out on the ongoing assembly session.

This victory proved to be the turning point for the party’s prospects in 2018, according to people in the CM’s war room who believe the party has done enough to retain power in the state.

The by-election results also signalled a shift towards a more professional style of political management, unusual for the Congress and even more so for Siddaramaiah, considered an old-school political strategist.

READ: Karnataka assembly elections on May 12: What’s at stake for Congress, BJP

The CM has hired polling agency C-Fore . Led by Premchand Palety, their role is to conduct surveys to assess the people’s mood, provide feedback on each sitting MLA’s prospects and design campaign advertisements.

Key political decisions, however, remain in political hands. The core team handling CM’s strategy (separate from the AICC team led by General Secretary K.C Venugopal) is a closed group of five people, including KJ George (Bengaluru planning and development minister), HC Mahadevappa (public works department minister) and M. Kempaiah, retired IPS officer and advisor to home minister.

“Unlike the usual Congress practice of last-minute ticket distribution, the CM’s team had by July last year completed a detailed evaluation of each of the sitting 121 MLAs. Thirty-five legislators were reported to be weak and were warned to focus on development works in their seats,” says a member of the team.

A recent re-assessment of the group was done and about 20-21 MLAs are expected to be dropped for the 2018 assembly elections.

CAMPAIGN PLANKS

Good governance : Often taunted as Nidde Ramaiah (Sleepy), the CM has slowly tried to change his image over the last year. In March, he launched a website detailing every scheme of every department with district-wise progress to sell his image as a leader of the poor. In June, he made an appearance on a popular chat show, Weekend with Ramesh, which highlighted his personal and political journey. A flurry of social security schemes were launched -- Indira Canteens (focused on urban poor); Laptop Bhagya (provided free laptops to Dalit and tribal students) — to target the party’s core voter base. A day after the Centre’s announcement of National Health Protection Scheme, the state announced its own universal coverage plan.

Kannadiga pride: People in the core team say this plank was devised to counter the BJP’s Hindutva card. From supporting the protest against Hindi signs at Bangalore metro last year to making Kannada compulsory in schools, the state government, this month, launched its own state flag – Nada Dwaja. Forcing the BJP into a corner, the state has forwarded the cabinet proposal to the home ministry for clearance. This has caught the BJP in a bind as the state leaders cannot vocally oppose it but it does not tie into the pan-Indian nationalism that the BJP at the Centre wants to espouse.

Corruption : Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first election rally in Bengaluru called the Congress state government a “10% sarkar”, alleging rampant corruption. But the Congress has not shied from using the BJP’s corruption allegation back at them. At the state-level, it has repeatedly attacked the BJP’s CM face Yeddyurappa over the mining scam following which he had to resign from the last government and even go to jail. The party has targeted the Centre over Nirav Modi and Rafale deal. On social media, the CM tweeted to the PM why he had failed to appoint a Lokayukta.

CHALLENGES

Polarisation: Sources say the BJP’s hard line on Hindutva, particularly in the coastal districts of Udupi, Uttar and Dakshina Kannada, will be a challenge for the party.

This month, during BJP’s Jan Suraksha Yatra in Mangalore, a provocative tableau depicting cow killings had to be seized by the state administration. Over the granting of separate religion status to Lingayats, the BJP has accused the state government of trying to divide Hindus. Earlier in the campaign, the CM had received flak for calling BJP and RSS members -‘terrorists.’ Rahul Gandhi’s temple run also sits awkwardly with the CM’s own agnostic stand on religion.

Urban vote: After losing in urban centres across Gujarat, a big test for the Congress will be to win over this demographic in Karnataka. In the last election in 2013, despite a clear majority, the Congress party only won 13 of the 28 seats in Bengaluru. A fractured BJP, which performed poorly overall, won 12 seats in the city and the remaining three went to the Janata Dal (Secular). The BJP also holds three of the four Lok Sabha seats in the city. Recurring water shortages, potholed roads and burning lakes have marred the image of Bengaluru. While road repair works are in full-swing and treatment plants are being set up for waste disposal to curb fires, whether these initiatives have come too late will be a factor.

Rural distress: No incumbent government has been re-elected in the state since 1985 and farmers reeling from two successive droughts constitute a challenge for the ruling party. Last year, the drought was the worst in 42 years but this year’s rain has brought some respite. Rural seats are almost double the number of urban seats, making it an important vote-base. The budget in mid-February announced a guaranteed income scheme for dry land farmers and cheap loans amongst others. But that may not necessarily be enough. Narendar Pani, professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies says, “Droughts give an opportunity to the people to evaluate the government. So, it will be important whether the government is ‘seen’ to be sensitive or not.”