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This article was first published 1 year ago  » News » Congress Can't Afford To Lose Karnataka Poll

Congress Can't Afford To Lose Karnataka Poll

May 08, 2023 09:08 IST
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The new chief minister, if from the Congress, will have little or no time for political administration, to ensure that he does not lose the voter's goodwill even before the Lok Sabha polls.
He can count only on one thing. That the BJP may not want to upset him too early lest an early failure should become an added problem for the party in all the polls to follow, predicts N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge addresses a public meeting in Yadgir district, Karnataka, May 4, 2023. Photographs: ANI Photo

For the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Karnataka, which is also the governing party of the nation for the past nine years, the May 10 assembly polls in the state's south is crucial.

It is even more so for the Opposition Congress in the state, which is still seen as the anchor for a credible anti-BJP combine ahead of next year's Lok Sabha polls.

Or, so is the general perception of the political class, pundits and people alike. But is it so?

For one thing, the election schedule for the months ahead of the parliamentary polls is equally interesting and even more challenging for the contesting parties.

Assembly polls are due this year in two Congress-ruled states -- Chhattisgarh (November) and Rajasthan (December).

Against this, the BJP is the ruling party only in one state, namely, Madhya Pradesh, in November.

Yet, for the BJP ,the MP elections are as critical as the one in Rajasthan is for the Congress rival.

Some claim that anti-incumbency may be visible in both, with the result they may end up swapping places in these two Hindi belt states.

But it is not as simple, not in Congress-ruled Rajasthan. The high command is clueless about sorting out the mutual hate that ageing Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his one-time deputy Sachin Pilot harbour. It could embarrass the party more than it may be prepared for, when elections are announced.


Apart from these crucial states, including Karnataka, assembly polls are due also in Mizo National Front-ruled Mizoram (November) and Telangana (December), ruled by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi turned Bharat Rashtra Samithi leader K Chandrasekar Rao with his unveiled prime ministerial ambitions (though he is not speaking about it for some time now).

It does not end there. Along with the Lok Sabha polls or around the same time, assembly polls are due also in the Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party citadel of Andhra Pradesh, BJP's Arunachal Pradesh, Naveen Patnaik-ruled Odisha (Biju Janata Dal) and Sikkim Krantikari Morcha-held Sikkim, all of them in April 2024.

The Lok Sabha elections are also due in April-May 2024.

The chances of the Election Commission wanting to hold them both together in these states cannot be ruled out.

The question is, which of them will influence the other -- whether Prime Minister Narendra D Modi's appeal will hold sway over the constituencies especially of Odisha's indefatigable Naveen Patnaik and Andhra's Jaganmohan Reddy.

The alternative would be that they sweep away the 'Modi magic' in the respective states, carrying a message of its own.

The third possibility of course is that the voters in these and other states with simultaneous polls, the voter shows greater maturity and splits his verdict between the LS and assembly polls, as he deems fit.

In both cases, the ubiquitous anti-incumbency too could hold, for instance.

Patnaik, in particular, has not lost an election since becoming chief minister way back in March 2000, and may be the dark horse in the Opposition camp if they were to win the Lok Sabha polls.

Of course, thus far he has steered clear of identifying with the BJP or its rivals at the national level though he has fought the party in all elections in his state. But he has been voting in favour of the Modi government's initiatives in Parliament, on most occasions.

IMAGE: United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi with Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, party leader Rahul Gandhi and others during an election meeting for the Karnataka assembly poll in Hubballi, May 6, 2023.

Against this background, the Karnataka assembly polls become critical for the BJP on the one hand and not just the Congress party, aspiring to win back the state, but for the aspiration-clad national Opposition as well, in the long run-up to the Lok Sabha polls.

Bihar's Janata Dal-United Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who hopes to facilitate an anti-BJP coalition at the national-level, has said he is now waiting for the Karnataka polls to be behind them, for picking up the threads.

One reason could be that Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge is busy with the assembly polls in his native state.

More importantly, various regional party satraps, barring possibly Tamil Nadu's DMK Chief Minister M K Stalin (but not excluding Nitish Kumar himself) seem wanting to wait for the Karnataka polls before placing the Congress party in the national context.

Some of them may claim wanting to wait until after the Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh polls before making up their minds -- if not on a common candidate, but on seat-sharing in particular.

Independent of some favourable pre-poll surveys (which the BJP naturally has dumped), the Congress cannot afford to lose the Karnataka elections.

It cannot also afford to lose 'honourably' with seats and vote-share closer to the victory mark. It just has to win.

For the ruling BJP, it just cannot afford to lose, even closely.

No one is now talking about the hung assembly last time and the way the BJP Opposition engineered defections after a Congress-JD-S alliance had formed a government.

Such recourse to defection-based government-formation could put the BJP on the defensive not only in Karnataka but also in distant Madhya Pradesh, where too Shivraj Singh Chauhan returned as chief minister only after splitting the ruling Congress under then chief minister Kamal Nath.

Aspiring youthful Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia provided the cause and fulcrum, yes, but even without him, the BJP may have attempted precisely the same act. He was Sachin Pilot's equivalent in MP.

Where the BJP succeeded in MP, Pilot could not do it in native Rajasthan -- and had to stay put in the Grand Old Party, only to start complaining against Gehlot in this election year.

There is a message in it from the Congress. That high command trusted the old guard (Kamal Nath in MP and Gehlot in Rajasthan) and they have proved their loyalty to the party, without yielding to pressures from the BJP.

That was not the case with Scindia and Pilot.

The surmise is that even as Congress chief minister, the likes of Scindia in particular may have had enough for the BJP-ruled Centre to arm-twist them into submission, through raids and tax/court cases.

If true, the Congress high command had a 'visionary' approach to the state of things to come, though on the key issue of 'missionary' commitment to political campaign and electoral victories, they all have a long, long way to go.

IMAGE: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has a chat with gig workers and delivery partners in Bengaluru, May 7, 2023.

It is also here that the Congress, even if it wins Karnataka, will have a huge problem on hand.

Long before the elections, the state party was divided over the chief minister's post, even when it was not the party's.

Former CM Siddaramaiah and state party president D K Shivakumar are in the fray.

The former's earlier reign was without great blemishes. The latter faced alleged harassment at the hands of central agencies and continues to face charges and cases flowing from tax raids, aimed at stifling his multiple contributions to the Congress poll machinery the last time round.

Indications are both have been working as much at cross-purposes against each other, even as they are working to a common strategy to defeat the ruling BJP, to begin with.

As if this were not enough, the Congress has admitted into the party a host of BJP veterans, whom the parent party had concluded were not worthy of re-nomination.

The list is long and those that have joined the Congress rival and also have got party nomination in the assembly polls, is equally so.

This has meant that the Congress had to disappoint party men who had been nurturing their respective constituencies with the hope of obtaining party nomination in an election they had hoped that they stood a better chance than in the past. It does not stop there, either.

The top-heavy BJP defectors, if they won, would aspire for major ministerial positions. It is going to hurt loyal Congressmen even more. Either the BJP defectors or dissatisfied Congressmen would then be sitting ducks for the BJP leadership to poach, now or later.

Fighting with his back to the wall, the new chief minister, if from the Congress, will have little or no time for political administration, to ensure that he does not lose the voter's goodwill even before the Lok Sabha polls.

He can count only on one thing. That the BJP may not want to upset him too early lest an early failure should become an added problem for the party in all the polls to follow -- and not just in Karnataka -- may alone be his saving grace.

IMAGE: Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge addresses an election meeting in Gurumitkal, Yadgir district, May 4, 2023.

Not many may have noticed it. Even before Nitish Kumar met Mamata Banerjee and Akilesh Yadav, along with his RJD deputy Tejashwi Yadav, in his bid to form an Opposition alliance of some sort, the two, as also Delhi's Arvind Kejriwal, had registered strong protests against Rahul Gandhi's disqualification.

The effect of an appellate court restoring Rahul's Lok Sabha membership, say, pending his appeal in the original criminal defamation case in Gujarat, could cut both ways.

One, the Congress cadres and leaders may want him projected as the anti-BJP prime ministerial candidate, even pre-poll.

Many among the rest may resist it, thus making Nitish's job that much more difficult.

Even without it, the Congress's response to positivity emanating from other anti-BJP parties, both through the Nitish initiative and otherwise, is also not encouraging.

If the BJP Opposition in Delhi criticised Kejriwal recently on his having a lavish house and a luxury car -- which were against his poll promises of simple living even as CM -- the Congress too was too quick to hit out at him in equal vein.

Thereby hangs a tale, a tale about the possibility of an anti-BJP alliance for the Lok Sabha polls, which the Karnataka election results may herald -- one way or the other.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst & political commentator.

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