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Chamarajendra Wodeyar X was the king who introduced representative assembly of Mysore kingdom in the year 1881. The privilege of voting though was given to only those who paid higher land revenue of 100 to 300 rupees. In 1923, this property qualification was reduced to those people who paid no less that 25 rupees per annum. By 1937, the legislative council and representative assembly elections had become a major political exercise of the Mysore kingdom. 

Congress the then dominant party of India was totally routed in the 1937 elections of Mysore because the local leaders were all elitists with hardly any connect to the rural areas of the kingdom. In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru had chosen to distance the INC from the Mysore Congress because of its lack of grassroots leadership.

Today, BJP’s dilemma is somewhat similar. While the saffron party is a dominant force across India, it lacks grassroots leadership in the Old Mysore region. The party is virtually non-existent in the Mandya-Hassan belt and has very few scattered pockets of influence in the Mysore-Chamrajanagar belt. Even in 2008, BJP had a much better presence in this region but things have only deteriorated since then.

Arithmetically, this extremely low vote spread in the Old Mysore zone has created a uniquely positive seat conversion ratio for the BJP. With even 33% overall vote-share, BJP can now come close to a majority in Karnataka whereas Congress suffers a handicap of much lower seat conversion ratios even if it were to get 36% overall vote share. Furthermore, with every 1% increase in vote-share for BJP from its threshold of 33%, the number of seats that it would win would be exponentially high because what it would mean is converting those light-blue Congress seats to saffron in other parts of the state. For example, if BJP were to cross 36% overall vote-share, it may actually win a landslide.

Strategically also BJP seems to be quite comfortable in this geographical skew of the party as the saffron focus is unwaveringly at the north and central regions along with Bangalore which is also reflected in the choice of venues for the Modi carpet bombing. The truth is that the party is simply happy to play second fiddle to JDS in the old-Mysore belt for now, but of course the party will have to have a smart long term plan to build young Vokkaliga leadership in this part by grooming somebody like Mysore MP Pratap Simha who already has built a big fan following in various pockets. How the RSS and BJP can convert these pockets of fan following into strong party bases over the next 5-6 years will also tell us how BJP will expand beyond its core geographies in order to maintain and sustain the saffron hegemony.

At the moment though, the party is in full flow in the Karnataka elections. Modi has altered the game in a big way. Siddaramaiah and the Congress party, notwithstanding their well-oiled election machinery in the state, seem to be clueless as to how to counter this saffron surge. To be sure, it is not Modi alone who is driving this surge, but instead it is a whole host of leaders who are virtually carpet-bombing every geography of the state leaving the Congress workers gasping for breath. B.S Yeddiyurappa, Amit Bhai Shah, Yogi Adityanath, B. Sriramulu etc. are constantly involved in tier 2 towns and villages with road shows and corner meetings. At the same time, almost nobody other than Siddaramaiah and Rahul Gandhi are campaigning coherently or consistently for the Congress party. The Congress has displayed serious lack of leadership strategies in this election, especially when powerful oratory of huge Modi rallies are occupying so much of mind-space with almost all local TV channels covering all his speeches followed by hour long prime-time discussions on the Modi blitzkriegs. Yet, the Modi shock and awe show is not just about winning the perception battle, but there are some very specific tactical goals that the BJP wants to achieve with his ultra-smart messaging.

 

  1. The Lingayats and Vokkaligas, the two dominant castes of the state have been at loggerheads ever since Ramakrishna Hegde and Devegowda parted ways in the 90’s, but today Modi may have achieved the impossible by bringing them together. His praise of Devegowda (the tallest Vokkaliga leader) has signaled the coming together of these two castes to defeat Siddaramiah. In Old-Mysore pockets where BJP is not strong, Lingayats are now shifting in a big way towards JDS while in other regions where JDS is not in fight, Vokkaligas are voting along with Lingayats.
  2. Modi has a specifically targeted Dalit outreach plan in the state. His speeches have not only reassured all the non-Right SC voters in the state including Madigas, Bovis, Lamanis and Kolis, but also have stirred the pot in the SC Right. The Modi taunt in Gulbarga rally about Congress party never making Kharge a CM seems to have hit bulls eye. Among WhatsApp groups and nukkad-talk in the Chalavadi community (the SC Right), there is now a big debate on how Siddaramaiah has always ill-treated the Chalawadi SC leaders like Kharge, Parameshwar and Srinivas Prasada. Even if 2-3% of Chalavadis either shift base or don’t turn out to vote it can create a massive impact on the Congress party’s fortunes.
  3. There is no doubt that B.S. Yeddiyurappa is the tallest BJP leader in the state, he is indeed even winning the popularity contest with Siddaramaiah by almost 4 percentage points, but he also has a special urban weakness because of the past taint of alleged corruption. What Modi has ensured over the last week is that BSY has disappeared from the popular narrative even as the battle has now become virtually a contest between Siddaramaiah and Modi. The Congress party after falling into the trap is now desperately trying to shift focus, but it may be already too late.
  4. Presence of Modi in a district not only galvanizes BJP cadre but also ensures that even those sulking subgroups become active. This is something that we observed in Udupi and Mangalore districts where all the internal issues seemed to have mostly dissipated and the party has begun to gain big momentum. Of course, the other big impact that mammoth Modi rallies always achieve is to create self-doubt among opposition leaders and workers who get numbed by the immensely large crowds and people’s enthusiasm. From Jamakhandi to Tumkur and from Udupi to Raichur, Congress leaders and workers are currently in that frame of mind where self-doubt is killing them from inside.
  5. In north Karnataka, Congress maintains its base through feudal overlords who have converted their district regions into personal fiefdoms. The M.B Patil family, the Hukkeri family, the Jarkiholi family, the Khandre family and many such families are the power centres of Congress party who have been retaining their seats for generations. Modi’s ballistic attacks on dynastic politics has been aimed at giving courage to voters as well as party workers to take on these powerful feudal overlords.

 

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It is not just the speeches and leadership charisma that wins you an election, mind you. It is the organizational strength that ensures the depth of the campaign reaches the last mile. Over the last week or so, the Sangh-BJP organization has begun to outrun the Congress party. It is now clearly visible that the organizational superman, B.L. Santhosh Ji who has tremendous regard among the karyakartas is running the whole electoral machinery like a flawless symphony with impeccable timing. 

At the start of April, BJP’s weakest zone was the 28 urban seats of Bangalore district. The politics in Bangalore is quite well known for its match fixing as both the party’s top leaders barter neighboring seats by putting up weak candidates against each other. Thus, there are seats like BTM Layout or Chickpet or Byatrayanpura where BJP’s contest is merely symbolic as the Congress invariably wins them. Similarly, BJP strongholds like Padmanabhanagar and Basavangudi are almost never seriously challenged despite the former being Devegowda’s backyard. In such a muddled politics, creating any sort of a wave is virtually impossible.

This is indeed an irony that Bangalore being the headquarters of RW activism still finds so much of difficulty in creating a wave. Like all the past elections, turnout will be a crucial factor in Bangalore. At least, until now, most middle class Bangaloreans, the core RW voters, have very little incentive to go out and vote. Modi’s blitzkrieg has taken BJP which was leading in a paltry 8 seats to 12 as of now, but the saffron candidates need a further push. Weather also may play spoilsport as rains and thunderstorms are predicted on May 12th. If BJP’s planned Modi roadshow through N.A. Harris’ constituency does get permission, then expect a major boost to the party candidates in Bangalore – as of today, Harris is leading comfortably in Shantinagar which is home to 90k minority voters.

The Prime Minister has already made a big difference to BJP’s fortunes in the state, but he has the potential capacity to provide more disruption. The trend is already in BJP”s favour and if Modi can just give that one last push, BJP may well hit the landslide territory. In order to measure BJP’s chances of going beyond a simple victory, 3 districts need to be crucially monitored:

  1. Bangalore urban district’s seats, especially swing seats like K.R. Pura, Shivajinagar Rajrajeshwarinagar, Govindrajnagar etc. that have smaller Congress leads and are vulnerable for a BJP onslaught.
  2. Uttara Kannada district in the coastal belt where BJP is still struggling because Congress has some very strong candidates
  3. Belgaum district where Congress still has deep pockets of influence in more than half a dozen seats.

 

As these trends solidify, there is a danger for the ruling party, Congress in this case, that the anti-incumbency will begin to extrapolate to the last few polling booths. Thus, on polling day, with a combination of lower turnout differential (due to Congress workers losing confidence), micro-shifts among fence sitting voters (due to sub-regional perceptional failures) and counter polarized opposition cadre may lead to Congress losing many close contests. To some extent, this happened in Gujarat to BJP (the ruling party there), at least in the Saurashtra belt. Since BJP was facing a two decade long anti-incumbency and since the saffron party workers and cadre were feeling the heat for the very first time and since Congress leaders and workers were sensing a surge for the very first time in 2 decades, many of the closely contested seats were taken by the Congress. For example, 49 of the 77 seats that Congress won in Gujarat were with a margin of less than 10%, furthermore, 29 of those seats had a margin less than 5%. Thus, despite a 7% vote-share lead, BJP managed to win only 99 seats.

In Karnataka, the danger for Congress is that it has a two-sided battle among the closely contested seats; in the Old Mysore and BKT (Bengaluru rural, Kolar and Tumkur) region it is the JDS which is waiting to pounce whereas in most of the rest of Karnataka it is the BJP. Even if some of those two-dozen light-blue seats begin to lose steam, Congress could slip abysmally. There is however one positive element for Congress this time unlike previous elections. This time almost all the Congress factions seem to be united. At least most Congress leaders are not working at cross purposes in trying to cut each other down. In every Karnataka election of the past, the Congress would lose at least a dozen seats simply because of internal backstabbing – Parameshwara’s loss in Koratagere in 2013 was a classic example of this Congress habit. To that extent, Rahul Gandhi seems to have managed the state unit pretty well.

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As of now BJP is ahead in 97 assembly segments whereas Congress has leads in 63 seats. JDS has also shown remarkable resilience by taking pole position in 32 seats. There are 32 swing seats as of now, of which 5 are swinging towards smaller parties and independents. Essentially, these remaining 26 swing seats will decide whether BJP gets a full majority on its own or whether it would still need the support of JDS. If the current trend towards BJP continues, it is quite likely that Congress may even have to fight hard to retain the position of the main opposition party.

A potential loss in Karnataka would leave a telling blow on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. If Rahul Gandhi fails to deliver a state where the party still has its electoral machinery intact and where a strong regional Congress leader was fighting for the regional pride, it would demoralize the party completely. All the talk of Congress winning Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh would sound as empty rhetoric, because PM Modi would have demonstrated his ability to come in slog overs and deliver victory. Thus, Karnataka is standing at the edge of history to ensure that this would be the last battle of the dynasty.

You can track all the 224 Assembly Segments of Karnataka here