The by-elections in Karnataka have brought a humiliating defeat for the BJP. Of the five by-elections – three to the Lok Sabha and two to the Vidhan Sabha – the party has won just one. The Assembly seats of Ramnagara and Jamkhandi were held by the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress respectively, and they have retained their seats. In Ramnagara, the BJP faced disgrace even before the by-election took place: its candidate, who had switched his loyalty from the Congress to the BJP to get the party nomination, returned to the Congress a few days before the polling. The BJP thus lost Ramnagara even before a vote was cast. The Assembly seat of Jamkhandi was retained by the Congress. Of the three Lok Sabha seats, JD(S) has retained Mandya. The remaining two Lok Sabha seats, Ballari and Shivmogga, had gone to the BJP in 2014 in the Modi wave. The BJP has lost Ballari to the Congress and retained only Shivmogga.
Among all the results the Congress win at Ballari has the greatest significance as the constituency has been a stronghold of the BJP for over a decade. Ballari was considered a Congress stronghold before the BJP built and consolidated its support. The Congress was so confident that in 1999, when party president Sonia Gandhi was scouting for the safest constituency she picked Ballari. The BJP fielded Sushma Swaraj against her who lost. But owing to general disenchantment with the Congress and a criminal boom in the following years, the BJP gained support in the constituency. In 2004, BJP nominee J Shantha won the Lok Sabha elections, and since then the party had not lost the seat until November 2018.
If the BJP has to do better in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 it has to analyse why it lost its Ballari stronghold and make the corrections. Among the first things it has to find out is whether the influence of the Reddy brothers is on the wane. The Reddy brothers – Gali Janardhana Reddy, Somashekara Reddy and Karunakara Reddy – held Ballari like their private estate. G Janardhana Reddy was investigated in the illegal mining scam and was jailed. The Reddy brothers had found a great friend and ally in a Dalit politician, Sriramulu, to build and strengthen their political influence in the mineral-rich Ballari. Between them, the Reddy brothers and Sriramulu controlled politics in Ballari, and the BJP found their combination a good horse to ride to prominence in the constituency, which has been reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST) since the delimitation of constituencies in 2008.
The Reddy brothers, led by G Janardhana Reddy who became MLA and minister in the Yeddyurappa government, very consciously and brazenly built their support base by liberally distributing a small share of the booty from their loot and corruption among the poor sections of voters. They also got jobs for whoever they recommended with the local employers, whether government or private. They perfected the art of buying voters with money and jobs, so much so that voters began to ignore their loot and corruption. The perception of voters was that the Reddy brothers were better than other politicians, because while other politicians swindled money from the government funds hampering development, the Reddy brothers would ‘rightfully’ use the money meant for developmental work for developmental work as they had enough money of their own. It was such indifference to the corruption of the Reddy brothers that helped them build a strong base in Ballari.
However, the question for the BJP to examine is: What went wrong? The BJP had left Ballari entirely in the hands of the Reddy brothers and Sriramulu. In the 2014 elections, Sriramulu was the BJP candidate in Ballari and he won. He resigned to get himself elected to the Assembly, but the BJP let him nominate whoever he wanted and he selected his sister J Shantha who had won the seat in 2004. Sriramulu and the Reddy brothers failed to get J Shantha elected this time. Is it not time for the BJP to do some rethinking? First, is the influence of muscle and money no more all that decides the outcome of an election? Sriramulu had won the seat in 2014 defeating N Y Hanumanthappa of the Congress by a margin of 85,000 votes. Four years later, the Congress got more votes than his nominee. Second, the BJP should probe for its enlightenment: Does religious excitement bring or repel votes? The Lingayats make one-fourth of the Ballari electorate. The BJP had fought against the Congress proposal to recognize the Lingayats as a religious minority, saying they were inseparable from Hindus. Why did the Lingayats not vote
for the BJP?