South India goes to polls during the first 3 phases of the General Elections 2019. Karnataka will be voting in 2 phases, April 18 and 23. This article is the fourth in a 5-part series which tracks important candidates and constituencies in Karnataka which are worth looking out for. The remaining parts will focus on the other states in the region.
Karnataka went to polls for its assembly in May 2018. Congress which was led by Siddaramaiah suffered anti-incumbency due to which its tally in the assembly fell from 122 to 80. BJP which was split into 3 in 2013 ran a focused & energized campaign on the back of rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi but fell short of the half way mark as it stopped at 104 (majority mark is 113). Janata Dal(Secular) on its part continued its also-ran status by claiming 37 seats. Congress, which was beaten hands down in all state elections across the country and had no clue how to turn its fortunes around sensed a political opportunity and aligned with JD(S) to form a post-poll coalition. H D Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) became the Chief Minister where as Dr G Parameshwara of the Congress became the Deputy Chief Minister. The swearing in ceremony of these two became a show of strength of opposition unity. Leaders from all major opposition parties from all over the country flew into Bengaluru to demonstrate that they had turned a corner and were now ready to take on the juggernaut of BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
1 year has passed since then and the coalition woes have just not ended for the two parties. Initially, cabinet was not fully expanded as it was thought that it would lead to discontentment for those who missed out. But the hopefuls kept pressure on the government. Finally when the cabinet was expanded, rebellion broke out forcing both JD(S) and Congress to quell it before it could damage the coalition itself. With an eye on the impending Lok Sabha elections, both parties tried to keep their bickering to a minimum but never succeeded. Threats, helplessness, disappointments were everyday occurrences. BJP, which always felt that it had a moral right to form the government, although legally it couldn’t, kept poking the alliance hoping it would come down crashing. Each time BJP announced a date by which the coalition would collapse, it was forced to eat humble pie.
Now, Congress and JD(S) are fighting the Lok Sabha elections together in a pre-poll alliance based on the ratio of their assembly strengths. As per this, JD(S) gets to fight in 7 whereas Congress gets to fight in 21 seats. The alliance hopes that the arithmetic would trump BJP in a large proportion of seats. BJP on the other hand is hoping to use Modi magic in the state once again (remember, he is extremely popular in the state) to maximize the spoils.
Based on alliance arithmetic, there were talks of Rahul Gandhi contesting from any safe seat in Karnataka. But Congress soon realized that there was no safe seat for their party president. As the candidates were announced, JD(S) fell into a trap by pushing forward its 3rd generation leaders to contest from its stronghold areas. This led to stiff opposition both within the party and from the alliance partner and the 2 parties are now focused on ensuring at least 50% vote transfer between each other. BJP is now focused on maximising its gains and hopes to improve on its 2014 tally despite a united opposition.
Since seats like Udupi-Chikamagalur, Bellary, Hassan, Mandya and Tumkur have been covered extensively in my earlier articles, I will focus on other high-voltage constituencies.
Kalaburgi (formerly known as Gulbarga)
Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge has been a stalwart for the Congress party in the state of Karnataka. He has been a member of the state legislature for a record 9 times uninterrupted (8 times from Gurmitkal constituency starting from 1972 and once from Chitapur in 2008). In 2009, he entered national politics by winning from Gulbarga with a slender margin of 13500 votes and became a minister in UPA2. In 2014, he improved his winning margin to a whopping 74000 votes and was appointed as the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Thus, he is a true solillada saradara (one who has never tasted defeat). This time too he is hoping to win from Kalaburgi and make it a hattrick of wins.
BJP is now hell bent on making this as difficult as possible for Kharge. It managed to get Dr Umesh Jadhav, a disgruntled Congress MLA to resign just days before the Lok Sabha elections were announced. Jadhav is now the BJP candidate hoping to turn the tables on Kharge. However, Jadhav has had to face stiff opposition within the BJP as he was considered an outsider. A few BJP district level leaders and workers have openly stated that they will not campaign for Jadhav.
In summary, although BJP is adopting a strategy to tie down larger-than-life leaders in the opposition camp to their own constituencies, it may not be successful in defeating Kharge just yet. Kharge might just continue to be called the solillada saradara a little longer.
Davanagere in Central Karnataka is known as a commercial hub and a stronghold of the Lingayats. Lingayats are a dominant community in Central and North Karnataka and are generally considered to be solidly behind the BJP. Sitting BJP MP GM Siddeshwara has represented this constituency three times since 2004. He also served as a minister in the Modi cabinet.
So difficult is this constituency for Congress to win (despite being in an electoral alliance with JD(S)), that it did not announce its candidate until the eleventh hour when it declared Shamanur Shivashankarappa, a veteran Congressman, all of 87 years. He declined insisting his son SS Mallikarjun should be fielded. Mallikarjun has already been defeated by Siddeshwara 3 times since 2004 and hence, owing to this, Mallikarjun too backed off. Finally, with time running out, Congress decided to field its Davanagere District Congress Committee President HB Manjappa. This lack of interest on the part of Congress party to take on Siddeshwara and also the strong Modi popularity wave seen in these parts of Karnataka, will imply that Siddeshwara will, in all probability, be entering Lok Sabha for the fourth time.
Dakshina Kannada (previously called Mangalore)
Mangaluru, is a commercial, cultural and financial hub for coastal Karnataka and hence has long been a prestigious battle. In the past few decades, owing to deep religious polarization, the coast in general and Mangaluru in particular has completely sided with the BJP. The last win for Congress on this seat was in 1989! The 2-time sitting MP Nalin Kumar Kateel will be hoping for a hattrick of wins.
To trump the BJP, Congress - which until then was focusing on Muslim and Christian communities – has decided to bank on soft Hindutva as seen in Madhya Pradesh in the assembly elections in Dec 2018. It’s candidate Mithun Rai, President of Dakshina Kannada Youth Congress, was handpicked by D K Shivakumar. Congress will hope that it can eat into the traditional Hindu votes to make the contest more balanced.
However, the massive response to a rally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in early April would have answered all naysayers & doubters as to which way is the mood of the average Mangalorean. The margin of victory for BJP will just be of academic interest.
Bengaluru North seems to be the only seat in which a genuine alliance arithmetic seems to have a chance to trump BJP’s sitting MP Union Minister D V Sadananda Gowda. Bengaluru North is a constituency dominated by Vokkaligas (colloquially called as Gowdas). It has 8 assembly segments out of which 5 are held by Congress (Byatarayanapura, Hebbal, K R Puram, Yeshwantpura, Pulikeshinagara), 2 by JD(S) (Mahalakshmi Layout, Dasarahalli) and one by BJP (Malleshwaram). Less voting percentages, coupled with indifference of the average Bengaluru voter towards BJP were the reasons for such a bad performance of the party here.
D V Sadananda Gowda too has had a mixed record as a parliamentarian here. His achievements like working for a suburban train network, etc haven’t been published enough and hence the electorate is at a loss whether to vote for him again.
On the other hand, Congress’ candidate Krishna Byre Gowda is the Minister of Rural Development, Law and Parliamentary Affairs in the state government & sitting MLA from Byatarayanapura. Although he himself retained his MLA seat with a lesser margin (due to his own unpopularity) than last time, Congress’ stupendous showing in 4 other constituencies should help him build a healthy lead over D V Sadananda Gowda. Add to this, JD(S) presence in 2 seats can also provide a boost to Krishna Byre Gowda. D V Sadananda Gowda had a major fillip when Narendra Modi held a rally in Bengaluru and as always the speech was well received. But it needs to be seen if D V Sadananda Gowda can pull it off. For now, I see Congress wresting this seat back from BJP for the first time after 1999.
Bengaluru Central is a new Lok Sabha constituency which came into existence after the delimitation exercise in 2009. P C Mohan, sitting BJP MP has managed to win it twice now. His victory margin increased in 2014 as compared to 2009. Although this seat has a large minority population of Christians and Muslims and Tamil and Telugu communities who generally vote for Congress, P C Mohan has been quietly able to win it for the party. This time too, Congress has fielded Rizwan Arshad who lost in 2014. JD(S) is largely absent in this area and hence Rizwan can’t hope for any additional boost to help his cause.
However, what works for P C Mohan this time is the presence of noted film actor Prakash Raaj contesting as an independent. Although a noted critic of both BJP and Congress, he identifies himself with his anti-Modi & anti-Shah agenda. Prakash Raaj has been actively reaching out to churches and mosques in the constituency hoping to get their support. This will only end up having an adverse impact on Rizwan Arshad’s chances. In summary, P C Mohan should be able to retain his seat on the back of a vote split within the opposition.
On account of a huge proportion of Brahmins and other upper classes, Bengaluru South has always been a good hunting ground for the BJP. Congress last won this seat in 1989, 30 years ago! The demise of sitting BJP MP H N Ananth Kumar in Nov 2018 has left a huge vacuum in the constituency. Although state BJP unit recommended Tejaswini Ananth Kumar, widow of Ananth Kumar, national leaders found it wise to field a rookie 26 year old Tejasvi Surya. Tejaswini was left disappointed and embarrassed as she had already started door-to-door campaigning. Semblances of rebellion was witnessed in the party with workers openly asking to change the candidate. However, Tejaswini herself pledged her support for Tejasvi, putting to rest all speculations and rebellions.
National leadership’s strategy in fielding Tejasvi Surya was simple – to handhold and nurse a young candidate in a safe seat. Amit Shah’s road show helped give the rookie the much-needed boost.
Tejasvi Surya has a huge advantage to begin with owing to the party’s strength. He is taking on B K Hariprasad, General Secretary of All India Congress Committee and MP, Rajya Sabha. Hariprasad had unsuccessfully contested against Ananth Kumar in 1999. Although defeated, he had covered himself in glory, as he had managed to reduce the margin of victory for Ananth Kumar from 1.8 lakh votes in 1998 to just 66000 votes in 1999. BJP’s margin of victory in 2014 was a whopping 2.28 lakh votes and this might just turn out to be a mountain too big to climb for Hariprasad in the end. Hariprasad might yet again reduce the margin of victory but might still end up losing this seat 20 years after he lost for the first time.