In the Siddaramaiah vs Amit Shah Battle in Karnataka, Congress Has the Edge

The BJP is facing an inherent crisis of credibility after having projected Yeddyurappa as the chief ministerial candidate.

A few days ago, Bharatiya Janata Party national president Amit Shah, at a press conference, said: “The B.S. Yeddyurappa (naming the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate instead of chief minister Siddaramaiah) government is number one in corruption.” The faux pas made things worse for the BJP, which is struggling to build a campaign based on anti-corruption and governance to fight Siddaramaiah and the Congress party.

For the BJP, this entire election depends on its ability to amplify the anti-incumbency – a decisive factor in Karnataka, where no incumbent government has been re-elected in over three decades. But it is facing an inherent crisis of credibility after having projected Yeddyurappa as the chief ministerial candidate.

Yeddyurappa had to step down as chief minister in 2011 following allegations of corruption, and making him the chief ministerial face was a forced decision. He would have split the party like he did in 2012, had he not been nominated. That’s why he was chosen – even though he lacks a clean image and is already 75 years old.

In this scenario, Shah is the one leading the BJP campaign in the state. The Congress seems to be shrewdly crafting a narrative of Siddaramiah vs Shah, in a state vs Centre battle.

After announcing the controversial decision to have a separate Karnataka flag, Siddaramaiah, in a Facebook post, made the case for greater federal autonomy and questioned the principle of allocation of finances. The effort is to build a narrative around the Centre’s injustice towards Karnataka and emerge as the champion of the state and local language.

Centre vs state disputes over the allocation of resources are common in India. To mix that with linguistic and regional identities could lead to a dangerous, but electorally powerful, cocktail.

In many ways, the Congress is like a regional party in this election, led by a regional satrap, and is using linguistic and regional chauvinism to combat anti-incumbency. It’s similar to how Prime Minister Narendra Modi used “Gujarati asmita” and regional pride to his advantage in Gujarat when the UPA was in power at the Centre. His party is at the receiving end now.

In all these issues, state flag or federal autonomy, the BJP state leadership has been forced into silence. Challenging Siddaramaiah would mean risking the perception of going against regional sentiments, but endorsing him won’t help the party electorally at the state or ideologically at the national level.

This has further brought the focus on Shah as the one challenging Siddaramaiah’s statements and engaging the chief minister in a public debate.

The Congress hopes to turn this to its advantage and pit Siddaramaiah as the champion of the state against Shah as the face of the Centre. Rahul Gandhi, for instance, is not dominating the debate like he did in Gujarat, and its Shah vs Siddaramaiah, online and on the ground.

In fact, one Congress leader jokingly said, “Rahul has outsourced to Siddaramaiah and Yeddyurappa has outsourced to Amit Shah.”

While Shah has been at the forefront of party campaigns in Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat, the larger narrative was a Modi vs Rahul battle. In Karnataka, the BJP has not been able to make it a Yeddyurappa vs Siddaramaiah battle, and a regional satrap usually has the edge over a national leader in a state election.

This apart, the state government’s decision to recommend religion status for the Lingayat sect has created confusion in the BJP. The Lingayats are divided into various sub-sects and form about 14% of the state’s population.

Yeddyurappa’s calling card is that he is the most powerful Lingayat leader in the state, but the religion tag has forced him to spend most of his efforts in consolidating his core base.

Even Congress leaders admit that they may not get a sizeable chunk of the Lingayat votes, but giving them the religion tag has denied the BJP a chance to be on the offensive.

Finally, the BJP needs something to turn the tide. One hope for the party is that Modi will be a powerful counter to the regional sentiments whipped up by the Congress. But at the moment, the Congress and its rare regional satrap seem to have the edge.

T.M. Veeraraghav is an independent journalist.