KARNATAKA goes to polls ten days from now, and winning the state is extremely important both for the BJP and the Congress. It is a state election which is going to influence the course of national politics. The BJP won elections in state after state since Narendra Modi captured the mood of the nation to give his party a majority in the Lok Sabha in 2014, something even the most optimistic of the party leaders had not expected. The party ruled 7 states before Modi became Prime Minister. Today it directly or through its allies rules 21 of the 29 states. The party did not get the big numbers its leaders had predicted it would in the elections in Gujarat last year, but it got a majority, nevertheless, on its own. The important thing about the Gujarat election was that the BJP won, sweeping aside the Congress speculations that anti-incumbency would cause BJP defeat, for the party had been in power in the state for three terms. After that the BJP won elections in northeastern states.
Yet Karnataka is more crucial to the BJP than the states that have gone to elections recently. The elections to the Lok Sabha are going to be held in 2019. There are elections to the assemblies in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and other states in North India scheduled before that. The BJP has been in power in most of those states and is expecting to be hit by anti-incumbency. If the mood of the voters turns hostile to the BJP in those states in the elections later this year, it is going to adversely affect the results for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. It is in this context that elections in Karnataka are crucial to the BJP. A win in Karnataka would keep the BJP flag flying high and make the party look strong and Narendra Modi’s popularity intact before they go into the elections in the North Indian states.
There is another reason why Karnataka is important for the BJP. It is the only south Indian state that the BJP has ruled for a full five-year term on its own, following a surprise victory in 2008. The BJP has much stronger presence in North India than in South India owing to the caste and cultural peculiarities of the two regions. The BJP has grown on the RSS base, and the RSS has much wider support across North India than South India. Among South Indian states, the RSS has grown in Kerala with the support of people opposed to the local dominance of the office-bearers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). There is constant feuding between RSS workers and Marxist workers leading to killings of hundreds of them over the past two decades. But the BJP never won a seat in the Kerala Assembly. It won its first and only seat in the election in 2016. In the united Andhra Pradesh, the BJP could never make a mark contesting in the elections on its own. In the last Assembly elections it won four seats. In 2014, the party won just two seats in the state. After the split with the TDP (Telugu Desam Party), the BJP might not be sure even of the four seats in the Assembly and two in the Lok Sabha. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP has no MLA in the Assembly and only one MP in the Lok Sabha.
Among the states of South India, the BJP is strongest in Karnataka. However, it does not have significant and influential presence in every district of the state as the Congress party has. The RSS is influential only in the coastal areas of the state and in the major urban areas such as Bengaluru, Belgavi and Hubli. The past players in state politics were the Congress and the regional party Janata Dal (Secular) headed by Deve Gowda and later by his son H D Kumaraswamy. Today JD(S) is relegated to the third place and the BJP has emerged as the main competitor of the Congress. The BJP is betting high on anti-incumbency. However, the BJP has its own problems of intra-party factionalism, skewed caste equations and its chief minister candidate Yeddyurappa’s corrupt image to deal with. Most opinion polls suggest no party getting a majority on its own in the 224-member house, with the Congress ahead of other parties, followed by the BJP and the JD(S) alliance. BJP president Amit Shah, proudly called Chanakya by his party men, has a plan B in place: an alliance with the JD(S) to form the government. A clue: Narendra Modi recently tweeted a past photograph of his with Deve Gowda.