Assembly elections in Karnataka will be held in a single phase on May 10, setting the stage for yet another showdown between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and the Janata Dal-Secular facing its toughest challenge in the southern state.
Announcing the poll schedule at a news conference in Delhi on Wednesday, Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar said votes will be counted on May 13.
As the political temperature in Karnataka hots up on a range of issues, the BJP hopes to buck a nearly four-decade-old trend to retain power and script history while the Congress will seek to upstage its saffron rival to up its stakes as a key challenger.
No political party has won a successive mandate in the state since 1985 and the BJP is eager to rewrite this bit of history and retain its southern citadel.
Kumar said elections for the 224-member assembly have been scheduled on a Wednesday, and not on a Monday or Friday, to encourage greater participation of voters.
"People can take a day off and have a long weekend. But by holding the poll on Wednesday, the possibility has been reduced," he said, adding that the move is part of the Election Commission’s effort to ensure greater participation and curb voters' apathy in going to the polling stations.
Kumar said the poll notification will be issued on April 13 and the last date for filing nomination papers is April 20. He said the nomination papers will be scrutinised on April 21 and the last date for withdrawal of nominations is April 24.
Like in the last two decades, the polls will mainly be a three-cornered contest involving the BJP, Congress and JD-S.
Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai said the BJP is confident of returning to power with absolute majority
”BJP is ever-ready party. I am fully confident that we will get an absolute and clear majority and the BJP government will come (back) to power in 2023,” he told reporters in Bengaluru.
Union minister Pralhad Joshi, an MP from Karnataka's Dharwad seat, echoed Bommai's sentiments and said he was confident about the BJP coming back to power for the second consecutive term because of its government's "historic" work for the development of the state.
BJP general secretary and in-charge for Karnataka Arun Singh said the party will go it alone in the polls.
Asked by newsmen if the BJP is holding any talks with the JD-S to forge an alliance, he categorically said, ”No. No. We are fighting on our own strength.”
A BJP victory is expected to help the party maintain the momentum of its winning streak and give it confidence to sail through the crucial polls in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan later this year.
Whirlwind visits by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, and BJP President J P Nadda to the poll-bound state have no doubt given the party a leg-up in campaigning but it's up against a combative Congress which has sought to make corruption a central theme of the political narrative.
The BJP state unit is banking on the party's central leadership to shore up its prospects as it fights anti-incumbency. Active campaigning by Lingayat strongman and former chief minister B S Yediyurappa, who has a pan-Karnataka following, is also expected to give a big boost to the party.
The BJP is also projecting Modi's pro-development agenda, works of the 'double engine government' and its populist schemes, along with the Hindutva card. Besides, it is highlighting its efforts in providing social welfare decisions on reservation hike for SC/STs, Vokkaligas and Lingayats.
The Congress is keen to wrest power to give the party the much-needed elbow room to help position itself as the main opposition player in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
It has made corruption a central theme of its campaign, pointing to various "scams" and the 40 per cent commission charge by a contractors' body. The BJP has sought to counter this narrative by highlighting alleged graft during previous Congress regimes both at the Centre and the state.
The Congress also faces the challenge of keeping at bay intense factionalism, especially between the camps of its two CM aspirants, Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar -- who are often seen to be engaging in political one-upmanship for some time now. Both the leaders exuded confidence that the Congress will form the government.
Shivakumar told reporters that May 10 is not only the day of voting, but the sacred day of getting rid of corruption, a day of building a new Karnataka, and giving it a "new direction".
Also, what is being keenly watched is whether former prime minister H D Deve Gowda-led Janata Dal-S will emerge as a "kingmaker" by holding the key to government formation, in the event of a hung verdict, as it has done in the past.
Plagued by desertions, internal rifts, and with the image of being a "family party", it remains to be seen how Gowda's son and former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy, who is in a way single-handedly managing the affairs of the JD-S, with his ageing father taking the back seat, would steer the party.
The JD-S faces a tough challenge as both the Congress and BJP are threatening to make huge dents in its Vokkaliga vote bank in the Old Mysuru region.
The Bommai government's decision to scrap the 4 per cent reservation for Muslims under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) quota, and distributing it equally among the dominant Vokkaliga and Lingayat communities, while placing Muslims under the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) category, and introduction of internal reservation for different Dalit communities under Scheduled Caste (SC) category, are also bound to raise the political temperature.
In the outgoing 224-member assembly, the BJP currently has 119 seats, followed by the Congress with 75 and the JD-S with 28 seats. Two seats are vacant.
Political observers feel the BJP will have to strongly counter anti-incumbency, as voters have not given any party a successive mandate in recent years. It last happened in 1985, when the Ramakrishna Hegde-led Janata Party retained power.
While Congress's vote base is spread evenly across the state, the support for the BJP is pronounced in the north and central regions and coastal Karnataka. The Veerashaiva-Lingayat community forms the BJP's major vote bank. The JD-S dominates the Vokkaliga bastion of Old Mysuru (southern Karnataka) region.
In Karnataka, Lingayats constitute about 17 per cent, Vokkaligas 15 per cent, OBCs 35 per cent, SC/STs 18 per cent, Muslims about 12.92 per cent and Brahmins about three per cent.
The BJP has set a target of winning at least 150 seats to ensure absolute majority. The party wants to avoid a 2018-like situation, when it had initially lost out on forming the government despite emerging as the single largest party with 104 seats, and had to depend on defections by Congress and JD-S MLAs to be in power later.
A total of 58,282 polling stations will be set up in the state which has an estimated 5.24 crore voters.