Mysore: “Alliances are not as straightforward as people think, especially in a national election,” says Nauman (name changed), at a tea stall in the heart of Mysore city. “Mysore – actually one could even say the whole of Karnataka – is all about caste. If you want to be strategic about defeating BJP, you need to understand caste.”
South Karnataka goes to the polls on April 18. The Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) (JDS), the two leading parties in the “Old Mysore” region, have allied against the BJP. In simple electoral arithmetic, this should translate into a landslide victory for the alliance.
In 2014, for example, when the BJP won 17 of the state’s 28 seats, its vote share was 9% less than the combined vote share of the Congress and the JDS.
Even in the state assembly elections held last year, 34 out of the 104 seats the BJP won could have potentially been won by the Congress and JDS, assuming a perfect transfer of votes in the case of a pre-poll alliance. In that case, the alliance could have won two thirds of the state assembly with 150 seats, as opposed to the 116 they currently have.
With the polls just a few hours away, the importance of this alliance has come to the fore.
The JDS is considered a party of the Vokkaligas, a community that is numerically dominant mostly in southern Karnataka. The Congress represents a mixed-bag: Siddaramaiah is seen as a leader of the Kuruba community, while its other major leader, Mallikarjun Kharge, is seen as a leader of a particular section of the state’s highly divided Dalit population.
The Congress, particularly in a national election, is considered to be the only viable option for most Muslim voters, who may otherwise think of going with the JDS in a state election.
The BJP relies on a multi-pronged strategy: to use Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity in the state’s urban areas, leverage its Hindutva firebrands in communally polarised parts of the state, and finally use local leaders like B.S. Yeddyurappa and B. Sriramulu to galvanise vote banks of the Lingayat and Valmiki communities respectively.
A good microcosm
Mysore, the erstwhile capital of the predecessor state to Karnataka, is a good microcosm to understand the kind of social churn, conflict and conversations that occur in the state during the Lok Sabha elections.
Despite their alliance, the Congress and the JDS are for the most part, rivals in the region. The expedient nature of electoral politics ensures that neither party would want their respective vote bases to exhibit easily shifting loyalty, even when they are in an alliance.
The Mysore-Kodagu parliamentary seat was at the centre of a visible public rift in the alliance. Siddaramaiah refused to cede the seat to the JDS, despite the fact that they had more MLAs within the parliamentary constituency. It will now be contested between the incumbent BJP leader Pratap Simha, a Vokkaliga, and the alliance candidate from the Congress, C.H. Vijayshankar, a Kuruba.
“To be honest with you, Vijayshankar would have stood a better chance of winning had the JDS not been in the alliance”, says Nitin (name changed), an election campaigner. “If the JDS contested the seat, they would have surely fielded a Vokkaliga, splitting Pratap Simha’s base. Last time, Simha rode the Modi wave to win, despite being a newcomer. He would not have been able to win again this time, if not for the alliance fielding a Kuruba. Vokkaligas who would otherwise have gone with the JDS will now vote for him”.
Thus, a seat where the alliance partners won 51% of the vote share at the height of the Modi wave faces a stiff contest despite anti-incumbency solely due to caste arithmetic.
The Mandya conundrum
To compound the complexity, most people feel that the alliance’s working relationship in Mysore-Kodagu is highly dependent on its co-ordination in the neighbouring seat of Mandya. In Mandya, the alliance has fielded Nikhil Kumaraswamy, chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy’s son.
The BJP has not fielded a candidate, and is throwing their weight behind Sumalatha Ambareesh, wife of the late Kannada film star Ambareesh, who is contesting as an independent. This constituency too, in a regular election would be a cakewalk for the JDS, but has turned into a stiff contest.
The party high command has made it no secret that they are underwhelmed by the help received from the Congress in Mandya. They have made it clear that without more active support for Nikhil, they would not campaign strongly for Vijayshankar in Mysore. As a result, south Karnataka appears set for a closer contest than one would have imagined with a pre-poll alliance.
Among the other seats, battles appear to be more straightforward. Bengaluru’s three major seats are poised for a straight contest between the BJP and the Congress. Bangalore North, a seat which the JDS returned to the Congress, might see a more seamless transfer of votes to the alliance candidate, Krishna Byre Gowda.
Tumkur and Hassan, from where former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and his grandson Prajwal Revanna are contesting also seem to favour the alliance.
Communal polarisation in Dakshina Kannada
In Dakshina Kannada and Udupi-Chikmagalur, communal polarisation is likely to benefit the BJP. During fieldwork for the Karnataka assembly elections last year, respondents from across coastal Karnataka expressed disappointment with the BJP for gutting their businesses with demonetisation and GST. However, they insisted that while they might abstain from voting in the state, they would certainly turn up to vote Narendra Modi back to power in 2019. This perception is only likely to have strengthened over the course of the year – particularly given the excessive use of the national security discourse in rallies in the region.
“During the assembly elections, Siddaramaiah benefitted from targeting Modi. When he targeted Yeddyurappa and Deve Gowda, he lost the chance to split the Lingayat or Vokkaliga base,” explains Lokesh, an auto-driver in Mandya. “Parties have learned to target the opposition’s national leaders. Targeting local leaders can backfire on your own vote base.”
While there is evidence to show that many of Karnataka’s seats will be a closer fight thanks to the JDS’s alliance with the Congress, often the inverse is also possible – a winning seat being turned into a close fight by extraneous circumstances.
As South Karnataka goes to polls however, it is evident that local factors and caste calculations are shaping the discourse to a greater extent than broad national issues. Who will be able to leverage their discourse more strategically will determine the outcome of the “gateway to the south” for both national parties.
Pranav Kuttaiah is a research assistant at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.