[This is a three-part series on Karnataka elections, you can read part 1 here]
“I cannot tell this to many. But I can tell you now that I consider I committed the biggest sin in my life in Chikmagalur by securing votes through large sums of money. If I had not distributed money in Kadur, Tarikere and Birur (three of the assembly segments of the then Chikmagalur LS seat), Mrs. Gandhi would have lost!”
Devraj Urs, the former Congress Chief Minister of Karnataka, had confessed later to Ethiraj Raghavan an Indian Express and Times of India journalist. That famous Chikmagalur by election of 1978 is widely believed to be the turning point of Indira Gandhi’s political career post-emergency. Before 5th November 1978, she was perceived as a ‘Dictator’ who had fallen. In fact, just a few months before that by-election, she had to cut short her visit to a Congress ruled Karnataka because there was widespread stone pelting at her convoy wherever she visited. Indeed, the situation was so tense that she had to be packed into a police van on her way to the Bangalore airport because the authorities feared violence directed against her.
Yet, all of this changed after the November 5th by-poll. Indira Gandhi got a new lease of life and reclaimed her national political role. Karnataka in general and Chikmagalur in particular had paved the path for Congress’s revival virtually from the ashes. Rest is history.
Today, once again, it is Karnataka that stands as the last pillar of support for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. History has a strange sense of humor indeed. Just like in 1977-78 when the mighty Indira Gandhi found herself powerless and willed her fate to a popular ‘Backward Caste’ CM, today her grandson finds himself powerless in front of CM Siddaramiah and is depending on this ‘Backward Caste’ CM to keep the Congress party afloat.
MAPi – Micro Analytical Projections (INTELLIGENCE) – shows that currently BJP is not exactly sweeping the coastal-Malnad belt (home to Chikmagalur) which consists of 31 seats spread across the 5 districts of Shimoga, Udupi, Chikmagalur, Uttara Kannada and Dakshina Kannada. As of today, BJP is leading in about 14 of those seats while Congress also is in pole position in 11 seats. This is turning out to be a tough polling booth to polling booth battle in this stronghold region of BJP.
If there is one man who can make a crucial impact in this region, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In fact, we had been specially tracking Udupi in order to measure the impact of Modi’s rally in the town. We can now clearly demonstrate how Modi rallies still have the power to turn electoral equations even after 4 years of his Prime Ministership. In Udupi, until Modi’s rally this week, the BJP’s Raghupati Bhat was trailing by 2 percentage points behind Fisheries Minister Pramod Madhvaraj of the Congress party, but data of the last 3 days confirms that BJP now has reversed that deficit and has actually taken a small lead in the race.
What Modi does is basically turn the agenda and the opposition then starts chasing the narrative instead of setting one. For instance, before Modi’s arrival in the state, the electoral narrative was mostly revolving around the Reddy Brothers, the denial of ticket to B.S. Yeddiyurappa’s son etc. Now everything has changed. Most party workers as well as leaders are talking about Modi’s praise of Devegowda and 2+1 and electrification of villages etc. Depending on who you talk to, you will get one or the other version of the same topic. If you are a Congress leader or worker you are likely to hear about Reddy + Yeddy as 2+1 while if you are a BJP worker you will probably get to hear about how every second Congress party ticket has been given to a dynast. Similarly, Congress workers and leaders are explaining how lakhs of villages were already electrified before Modi while their BJP counterparts are bragging about every village being powerful now.
This is how even opposition leaders and workers are amplifying the original Modi message. The election is slowly turning into Modi v/s others in the narrative platforms of villages and towns. This is where Siddaramaiah is erring by hyper reacting to Modi’s speeches virtually within minutes. It may create an ego boost to see thousands of retweets and media posturing this as the battle of Modi v/s Siddu, but electoral history of the last 5 years tells us that whenever Modi becomes the central theme, opposition suffers. For instance, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav during their 2015 Bihar campaign almost completely defocused Modi some 15 days before the election began (apart from the solitary Bahari v/s Bihari campaign) and maintained that stance throughout the month-long election season. In fact, PM Modi made many attempts to provoke them but mostly failed to get a reaction. Everybody knows what the end result was.
Now that Modi is getting the required traction, BJP’s task is cut out, it has to ensure maximum possible turnout of the base. This is where the gap is for BJP. All the talk of Panna Pramukhs and Booth Pramukhs is nice in theory but on the ground there is a lack of coordination and even lack of resources. For example, in the high profile Malkalmooru constituency, Sriramulu has had to import entire polling booth level infrastructure from Bellary because local party structure was virtually non-existent.
“Surprisingly, there were no Panna Pramukhs, the local party just delegates responsibility to Shakti Kendra and forgets about it. We had to virtually build Page Pramukhs from the scratch” rued a Gujarat BJP leader deputed to the state for campaign duty. “Workers here straightaway demand 500 rupees even to attend meetings, no wonder elections are so expensive here” he added with good measure as he is used to the Gujarat electoral model of finishing an election with as little as 40-50 lakh rupees whereas every seat in Karnataka is a multi-Crore affair for each candidate. It is also probably testimonial to the fact as to how institutionalized is corruption in Karnataka.
The last part of the electoral battle will also depend on money power. Contrary to popular belief, major chunk of election expense is not distributing money among voters, the fact is that the biggest chunk of capital gets expended in maintaining booth level infrastructure. If a candidate has to be really viable, he has to maintain 8 to 10 workers and leaders per polling booth. With an average of 250 booths per seat in the state and each worker demanding 500 to 1000 rupees as basic pay per day, one can do the math of how much gets expended in Karnataka in just one month of electioneering.
Karnataka is also a rare state where Congress has a solid electoral infrastructure in virtually every booth and every village. It is a well-oiled and moneyed machine. BJP on the other hand is a bit more lucky on this count as large number of RSS and other Sangh affiliate workers usually work for free due to ideology – this is also one of the reasons why BJP-Sangh are so lacking in creating and sustaining media/narrative ecosystems because unlike Congress which believes in expending capital to get a service, BJP’s default DNA is that people shall work for you purely because of ideology without any capital expenditure.
The Sangh has been active in coastal Karnataka, no doubt, but there seems to be a tad bit of reluctance among the RSS workforce. For example, in Kundapur where Haladi Srinivasa Shetty was given a ticket despite massive resistance from the local RSS owing to his Communist background, one can sense that the RSS is not active at all. In fact, one can sense this reluctant participation of the Sangh across Udupi district. If it continues till election day, the impact on BJP’s prospects could be quite negative.
In Karwar district too, there is a sense of dejection among local Hindu organizations. In Kumta, BJP’s rebel Suraj Naik Soni has received decent support from Hindu organizations and may affect the chances of the official candidate, a JDS import. In the entire Karwar belt, the polarization that existed due to Paresh Mesti’s murder can only yield result if the Sangh and BJP run a coordinated campaign. As of today, that coordination seems to be missing and that is why BJP is ahead in only 2 seats.
In Dakshina Kannada district, let us take the case of Mangalore South seat which the Congress had never won since 1989 but regained in 2013. This is a supposed BJP stronghold, but the problems with the party are aplenty. There are 52k Christian voters in the constituency and our current MAPi projections show that anywhere between 35-38k will turnout to vote on May 12th. It is a well-known fact that almost every single Christian vote will go to J.R. Lobo, the Congress candidate along with Muslim votes too. BJP would then require 1800 Hindus to turnout for every thousand Christian voters to get an optimal performance because Hindus do not vote one-sided. As of today, BJP doesn’t seem to have a plan for such an exercise and consequently MAPi is also showing that Mangalore South is currently in dead heat between the two parties.
BJP’s problem in coastal belt is that it is essentially top and bottom heavy. It has more polling booths in which it gets sub-100 votes (due to obvious minority consolidation) and also more number of sweeping booths with over 400 votes. Congress wins the battle because it captures more number of booths where it gets 300-400 votes and thereby having better seat conversions. For example, in Uttara Kannada district, BJP needs to work on those 700 booths where Congress and BJP get about 300-400 votes to achieve much better sub-regional seat conversion.
If that is the story of coastal belt, Central Karnataka is continuing with the same pro-BJP tilt as we witnessed in the northern belt. As of today among all the zones, Hyderabad-Karnataka and Central Karnataka are the two zones that are giving the best results for BJP. One of the primary reasons for this is Congress’s failure to supply adequate water. Water is the biggest problem here and every Congress MLA is facing the wrath of the voters in different villages and Tandas. Modi, therefore rightfully mentioned about water in his rally in Bellary yesterday. If anything, he needs to stress more on this one issue.
MAPi projects that as of today, BJP is leading in a whopping 15 out of 23 seats of the three Central Karnataka districts of Bellary, Chitradurga and Davangere. This is also the belt with maximum Veerashaiva-Lingayat and Valmiki population which is giving the saffron party a big boost. The impact of the return of Reddy brothers is another factor that is showing up. In the 9 seats of Bellary district, BJP is ahead in 6 and Congress is leading in just two. Even the rich mining baron, Anil Lad seems to be trailing by a small margin in Bellary. In effect if the Reddy Brothers and Sriramulu run a good turnout operation on 12th May, Bellary could witness a saffron sweep.
As BJP moves towards south of Karnataka, it is witnessing resistance and the wave like conditions of the north are getting dissipated. How will the party face this challenge and how much more can Modi do are the two questions that will decide whether Karnataka will be the last battle of the dynasty or whether history will once again repeat as a farce.