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October 7, 1999


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Anti-incumbency rules in Karnataka

"Since my husband was busy campaigning all over Karnataka, we women decided to try and take care of his constituency for him," said Prema Krishna in the last week of campaigning in Maddur.

Her husband, S M Krishna, the man who might well become Karnataka's next chief minister, was still playing truant in his home constituency, though he lost there the last time round.

"He is confident of winning this time because his party projected him clearly as the future chief minister, and the people of Maddur believe they will benefit by electing a chief minister," confided an aide.

Anti-incumbency seems to have been the strongest factor in these elections. The people have certainly voted strongly against the Janata Dal that ruled Karnataka for the last five years. "We will easily win a majority and form the government," state BJP chief B S Yediyurappa had told some weeks ago.

"But we have sacrificed our personal interests in the larger cause, at the request of our national leadership, and agreed to join forces with the Janata Dal-United and the Lok Shakti, which voluntarily approached our leaders in Delhi and asked to align with us."

But this is probably a sacrifice that has cost the BJP as a whole, and Yediyurappa personally, very dearly. The state BJP chief lost Shikaripura, the seat he had won four times in the past. K S Eashwarappa, the backward class leader who led the BJP to a creditable showing in the last assembly election, also lost in Shimoga.

Some popular BJP candidates like Ananth Kumar (Bangalore South, Lok Sabha), Dhananjaya Kumar (Mangalore, Lok Sabha) and Suresh Kumar (Rajajinagar, assembly) have won as expected.

Worse, instead of standing by the alliance, the state BJP adopted the strategy of hedging its bets by supporting rebel candidates in more than 20 constituencies, in the misplaced belief that they might win and support the BJP. This attempt at one-upmanship over the JD-U also affected them badly as the votes of the alliance got divided between the official and rebel candidates.

As for the Janata Dal, both factions have taken a bad beating, showing that the Karnataka electorate has not forgiven it for all the infighting and non-performance of the past five years. All the top party leaders have lost. In the Janata Dal-S, H D Deve Gowda, who won narrowly the last time, lost by a margin many times larger this time. His deputy and staunch supporter Siddaramiah, the man whom the party projected as their choice for chief minister, was one of the earliest losers.

Ramakrishna Hegde's remark that this election would see the political end of Deve Gowda seems to have come true. Even two of Deve Gowda's sons who are in politics, Revanna in Hassan and Kumaraswamy in Kanakapura, have been vanquished. Kumaraswamy lost to former Bangarappa crony D K Shivakumar of the Congress, who is now known to be very close to S M Krishna and is a certain inclusion in the ministry, should the Congress form a government.

The JD-U has fared no better. Chief Minister J H Patel was trounced in Channagiri, not by Vadnal Rajanna, the BJP rebel who much was made of, but by the Congress candidate. His greatest supporter and confidante Anant Nag, who was reduced to contesting from the Basavanagudi constituency against the official BJP candidate Subba Reddy, was beaten badly. The Lok Shakti component of the JD-U, including state party president Jeevaraj Alva, were defeated.

Alva lost to Roshan Baig of the Congress who, ironically, had hopped to the Congress from the JD-U! "I don't think I won because of an anti-incumbency factor or a pro-Congress wave, but mostly because the voters feel I have worked well for them," says Baig now.

In-fighting is the one thing that angers the Karnataka electorate off no end, because every political party in power in the state over the past 15 years, has fallen victim to it. In fact, the only real promise for which the people of Karnataka voted the Janata Dal into power with such a resounding majority last time, was that of unity. The last election video featured Ramakrishna Hegde, J H Patel, Deve Gowda and S R Bommai walking together across the lawns of Hegde's house, Kritika, in Bangalore.

This was almost the first promise they broke, with in-fighting between Hegde's Janata Dal and Deve Gowda's then Samajwadi Party erupting into open violence against each other even before the new government was sworn in. This time, it was worse with all the partners of the NDA, the JD-U, Lok Shakti and the BJP openly decrying each other and even fighting over seat adjustments. How could they ever hope that an electorate, completely sick of infighting, and the non-performance that it brings, would vote for them?

Did the Bellary factor play any role in determining the outcome of this election? It probably did, to the extent that it added to the general atmosphere of issues being sidelined, and personalities coming to the fore.

However, Krishna and party undoubtedly goofed up a little bit in confidently projecting this constituency as a walkover to Sonia Gandhi.

"We wanted a constituency that we were sure of, and we found it in Bellary, which is a Congress stronghold," Krishna had told a month ago. "We have been trying to get her to contest from Bellary from a long time, and it finally came through."

Krishna personally threw in his might and all his personal time behind Sonia to the extent of completely neglecting his constituency, a factor which is bound to reap him rich dividends now that the Congress has won in Karnataka, and Sonia from Bellary.

However, other contenders that one can definitely expect to jump into the fray for the post of chief minister, should the occasion arise, are former Union railway minister C K Jaffer Sharief and Mallikarjun Kharge, who was leader of the party in the recently dissolved assembly in Karnataka.

Kharge has won creditably from Gurmitkal. Jaffer Sharief, predictably, won from Bangalore North against Janata Dal candidate Michael Fernandes.

"I was confident of winning and am grateful to the people for justifying my dedication to them," said Sharief complacently. However, it will be nearly impossible for them to outsmart Krishna, who has waited for almost a decade to become chief minister. Krishna was so confident about being the only strong Congress candidate for that post that when asked him if he expected to be Karnataka, he replied, "Inshallah."

Several other high-profile Congressmen have also coasted to victory, undoubtedly helped along by the anti-incumbency wave. Amongst these is film star Ambareesh -- who told, "The people like me as a film artiste. It has nothing to do with which party I belong to" -- won by a huge margin of over 50,000 votes from Mandya.

Then, there is fledgling politician and state Youth Congress chief Dinesh Gundu Rao, who won in Gandhinagar in Bangalore, most probably because of the work put his by his party cadres. Princeling Srikantadatta Wadiyar appears to have been carried along on the anti-Dal wave sweeping the Mysore region. He won a Parliament seat for the Congress there this time, after having lost the last couple of times from both the BJP and the Congress.

Did the Congress and Deve Gowda's faction of the Dal have any kind of understanding in Karnataka? Considering that it was Deve Gowda's old enemy Puttaswamy Gowda of the Congress who vanquished him now, this seems unlikely.

However, Deve Gowda does seem to have encouraged his fellow caste men, the Vokkaligas, to support Krishna in Mandya, irrespective of their normal party affiliations. It is also common knowledge that Krishna was a regular at Deve Gowda's durbars in Delhi when the latter was prime minister. This, though Krishna belonged to a rival party. So Deve Gowda and his family's fortunes might personally be in ascendance if Krishna comes to power, irrespective of the fate of the JD-S.

Even if the BJP had been able to form a government in Karnataka, Yediyurappa's prospects of becoming chief minister would have been dim.

Ananth Kumar, who has been repeatedly telling in interviews and chats that only Yediyurappa would become chief minister, might well have found greatness thrust upon him. In the event, Yediyurappa lost his seat while he won with ease.

His star will certainly be in the ascendance, and, if the Congress forms a government in Karnataka, he will simply flit to New Delhi, and perhaps turn minister.

Would the BJP have made gains in Karnataka but for its alliance with the Janata Dal and the Lok Shakti?

"We don't regret our decision to align with the Janata Dal in Karnataka," says BJP general secretary M Venkaiah Naidu. "We stand by our move." But he will find it difficult to repeat that before the party rank and file in the state.

As things stand now, the state is likely to get a chief minister who is both accessible and articulate. Krishna always weighs his words carefully and speaks almost as if he were dictating notes to a stenographer.

He has frustrated many a young reporter on his trail by chatting informally about various political issues off the record, but maintaining his standard two sentence replies on record. He may weigh his words carefully but what he augurs for the state is yet to be seen.

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