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Why the Karnataka poll is critical
Neerja Chowdhury
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May 05, 2008

It was in 1994, when covering elections in Karnataka, that several Dalit families had told me, "Had the elephant been here, we would have voted for it." This was 14 years ago when Mayawati was a rising star in Uttar Pradesh.

Now Mayawati has made it on her own steam and her elephant is on the move in all the constituencies of the southern state going to the polls in May. Last time the Bahujan Samaj Party had notched up just under 2 percent of the vote in Karnataka, damaging the Congress in 30 seats. The Congress with 35 percent vote share had got 65 seats in 2004, as against the BJP's 79 seats but 28 percent vote share. The JD-S had managed to get 58 seats. This time, BSP leaders say, they will jack up their vote percentage to seven.

Besides the BSP, there is another factor which is going to allow the SC/STs to occupy a larger political space this time. This is the first election after delimitation and the number of reserved seats for SC/STs have increased substantially, from 35 in 2004 to 51 in 2008. They now account for almost one fourth of the total seats in line with their proportion of the population. For example, all the general seats in the mineral and billionaire rich Bellary have been declared as reserved this time.

A recent survey by CSDS-CNN/IBN-Deccan Herald created a stir of sorts when it projected a majority for the Congress with 114 seats. It was otherwise being assumed that the BJP, expected to benefit from a sympathy factor with JD-S' betrayal of B S Yedyurappa, would emerge as the single largest party. The sum total of the survey's message was that the 'fifty plus' voters (made up of SC-ST-OBC-Muslims) may be more decisive than the Vokkaligas and Lingayats, who have influenced previous elections on the state.

The survey may or may not turn out to be correct but it has highlighted the strategy the Congress must plump for -- divide the Vokkaliga vote and concentrate on winning the  OBCs, Dalits, tribals and Muslims.

The Congress' fortunes will depend on two factors -- the extent to which Mayawati dents the Congress vote, and whether or not the divided and sulking state party leaders close ranks. Though Sonia Gandhi [Images] has managed to placate former Union minister C K Jaffer Sharief, whose grandson was denied a ticket, this is not the case with Margaret Alva whose son was not given a ticket. In fact, the party denied tickets to 11 relatives of Congress leaders, and went by "winnability", given the high stakes in Karnataka.

Unlike the BJP where the question of leadership is settled with B S Yedyurappa declared as the party's prospective chief minister, the Congress has not projected a leader. Bringing S M Krishna back from the Raj Bhavan in Mumbai has created its own problems within the party. The Congress is trying to project a 'collective' face -- with Mallikarjun Kharge (SC), Krishna (Vokkaliga), Siddharamaih (OBC), Jaffer Sharief (Muslim), M P Prakash (Lingayat) and so on. The arithmetic of the communities they represent looks good but it is the chemistry between them that is going to count.

The BJP's future hinges not only on the sympathy it may garner. It will also be determined by the extent to which Deve Gowda's party slumps. The greater the fall of the Gowda father-son duo, the more difficult it will get for the BJP. The JD-S had cut more into the Congress vote last time than that of the BJP.

Clearly, the JD-S is not as strong as it was in 2004, having lost many of its leaders to other parties -- Siddharamaiah and M P Prakash to the Congress and P G R Scindia, D T Jayakumar and others to the BSP. Besides his following amongst his constituency of Vokkaligas, Deve Gowda has also been wooing the Muslims. However there is a discernible difference between 2004 and 2008.  Last time, H D Deve Gowda was making a bid to emerge as the single largest outfit; this time he is talking about being the king-maker, without whose support neither party can form the government.

Every election has its own fallout but the implications of the Karnataka poll go beyond its borders. For the BJP, winning the state means gaining the much coveted entry into the south and this would be no small gain for a party which has been a north Indian phenomenon.

A victory in Karnataka would give a fillip to the Congress, after the recent string of defeats, and it could boost party morale for the battles ahead in the Hindi heartland. It could also mean having a re-look at the possibility of holding early general elections. The party suspects that the Left may anyway delink from it a few months before general elections on the issue of price rise.

Even though the Indo-US nuclear deal has been put on the backburner for all practical purposes, there is a view in the Congress that it should go ahead with the deal and invite a break with the Left on the issue, rather than wait for a parting of ways to come on the more emotive question of prices.

The party would then be able to retain the initiative instead of being  pushed around by the Left. The price situation is not likely to improve much, and inflation has already evaporated the magic over the loan waiver. However, there is a flip side to this argument and that is the impact it would have on Muslim voting. The pros and cons of the decision apart, the party can only gather courage to consider such an option, only if it gets Karnataka under its belt.

There could be another fallout of the Karnataka elections. Everyone is watching carefully what happens in the Shikaripura constituency and the bearing this may have on the future of Congress-Samajwadi Party relations nationally. Yedyurappa is pitted against the old warhorse and former chief minister S Bangarappa here. Bangarappa who contested on a BJP ticket last time is fighting as a Samajwadi Party candidate this time. He is being supported by the JD-S openly and may be given tacit support by the Congress. The Congress has already opened its channels of communication with the SP in recent weeks.

The Karnataka polls may herald new political alliances. Clearly the BSP's rise nationally is going to help the BJP in most states, including Karnataka. It remains to be seen whether it brings about a new Congress-SP equation for the Lok Sabha polls. This will impact the UNPA, which is projecting itself as the third alternative.

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