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Why Karnataka holds the key
T V R Shenoy
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April 07, 2008

Karnataka is a political anomaly. It is in the very heart of peninsular India, sharing boundaries with Maharashtra, Goa [Images], Kerala [Images], Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh (the only state to do so). Yet its politics are completely different from any of those states, and nobody has ever quite understood the why and how of that.

Think about it, peninsular India is the birthplace of the regional party phenomenon. We still have the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, the DMK and the AIDMK (not to mention others) in Tamil Nadu, the Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh, and more parties than time permits me to count in Kerala and in Goa. But here is Karnataka, bang in the centre of it all, and it remains almost completely unaffected.

It is not as if politicians have never tried. Looking only at those on the active list, I can recall both Bangarappa and H D Deve Gowda sounding off on regional issues. But you have to remember that Bangarappa, having flirted with both the Congress and the BJP, is now with Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, while the Janata Dal (Secular) is an offshoot of a national party. (Headed by a former prime minister of India at that!)

It is as if Karnataka's voters are 'nationalists', in the best sense of that word. Does that make it a microcosm of India? No, but the fact does add a certain piquancy to the impending assembly elections for both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Everyone knows that a general election is due within the next year; could the show in Karnataka be a dress rehearsal for the all-India event?

Looking on as an outsider, I honestly cannot perceive any 'wave' in favour of one party or the other. (I do hope to visit the state in May for a better perspective.) That said, the Congress appeared to be the most reluctant to go to the hustings.

Four weeks ago, I wrote about the Congress's plans to derail the assembly election on the plea of the new delimitation of constituencies. This is precisely what happened. I had also written that the Election Commission had an ace up its sleeve in the form of Rule 24 of the 'Registration of Electors Rules, 1960', and the Election Commission in fact mentioned the same rule when releasing the election schedule on April 2.

Why is the Congress so reluctant to face the people of Karnataka? First and foremost, there is the rising inflation. (Frankly, Sonia Gandhi [Images] and her 'economist' prime minister would have been better off by accepting the Left Front challenge, and forcing elections last August; things are going to get a lot worse before the price of essential commodities falls.) The second is that there is a crisis of leadership in Karnataka.

The state enjoyed a Congress administration from 1999 to 2004. Any unbiased observer would have put S M Krishna in his list of the top five chief ministers in India. Chandrababu Naidu [Images] walked away with all the accolades in those years but if you ask me both S M Krishna and Jayalalithaa were every bit as good.

The proof came in 2004, when the Karnataka assembly elections were held alongside those to Parliament. The BJP swept the state in the Lok Sabha polls, winning 16 of Karnataka's 28 seats.

Only Madhya Pradesh, electing 17 BJP candidates, gave better results to the party. Had the pro-BJP tide spilt over into the assembly polls, the party would have won 128 of the 224 assembly seats.

But the BJP did not do so; it won only 79 seats, well short of a majority. The Congress, which had won only seven Lok Sabha seats, did better in the assembly polls, winning 65. It would have won only 56 judging by the Parliament polls. Significantly, while the Congress forfeited its deposit in only seven assembly seats, the BJP did so in 42.

I think it would be fair to conclude from those results that, while they gave a distinct thumbs-down for Sonia Gandhi, Karnataka's voters were willing to give Krishna their qualified approval. (It also speaks volumes for the political sophistication of the state that voters drew such clear distinctions between Parliament and the assembly even while they voted for both on the same day.)

Ordinarily, a political party would have encouraged the man who lost by such a narrow margin to stick it out and prepare the troops for the next round. But the clear message that Karnataka preferred S M Krishna to Sonia Gandhi was enough to ensure just the opposite in the topsy-turvy dynastic politics of the Congress.

True to form, Krishna was hastily bundled off to the Raj Bhavan in neighbouring Maharashtra by an ever-obliging prime minister.

S M Krishna is back in the fray today, but I am afraid his stock has not risen at 10, Janpath. When the latest imbroglio over the Kaveri began, Krishna rushed to Delhi to ask Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] to cool things over. It is no secret that he was, effectively, snubbed.

Was that the Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam's doing, or was it thanks to Krishna's unpopularity in Congress headquarters? Probably six of one and half-a-dozen of the other, but it takes some cheek to risk losing votes over the Kaveri just to put S M Krishna in his place.

To return to my original point, do the Karnataka assembly elections hold possible pointers for the general election to follow? No, not directly, Karnataka stands out thanks to its distaste for regional parties -- which are a fact of life elsewhere from giant Uttar Pradesh to tiny Sikkim.

What the elections can do -- almost certainly shall do -- is to raise the political temperature in all its neighbouring states. The Congress needs allies -- the Telangana Rashtra Samiti in Andhra Pradesh, one of the Dravidian parties (plus others) in Tamil Nadu, a whole host in Kerala, and someone in Maharashtra too. A poor performance in Karnataka will send the alarm bells ringing in every current or potential ally of the Congress, and, yes, that could have an effect in the Lok Sabha elections.

The Karnataka assembly polls are important, no doubt. But the fallout of those polls will be more interesting still.

T V R Shenoy
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