Karnataka: In Quest For Majority, Congress and BJP Look to Weaken Each Other in Their Strongholds

The state's political tradition has allowed for hung verdicts which have led parties to stitch up anti-ideological alliances and encouraged opportunistic defections.

Bengaluru/Mysuru: Manjunath, a college-going student in Bengaluru, expects people to vote for a stable government when they exercise their franchise on May 10 for the Karnataka assembly elections.

“We have had far too many unstable governments in the state, because of which horse-trading has become normal. Development work has suffered as a result, and corruption has become all-pervasive,” says the 21-year-old. 

Manjunath is not alone in wishing for a stable majority government in Karnataka. Like him, many others, especially youngsters, are hoping that Karnataka can finally have a government with a hefty majority that lasts a full five-year term without much controversy. 

Election after election, Karnataka has become infamous for hung outcomes in assembly elections. The BJP has never got a majority on its own, and has had to depend on post and pre-poll alliances with others to come to power. Barring 1999 and 2013, when Congress attained a full majority, a large section of state’s voters across regions barely remember a government that has completed its term without bouts of defections, multiple chief ministers, and power tussles within parties. 

Conflicting regional dynamics with different caste and community equations has played the most significant role in delivering hung verdicts. Since 2004, the state has had 11 chief ministers because of rumblings within coalitions and parties. The last assembly term also saw Yediyurappa’s forced resignation and B.S. Bommai’s appointment as the chief minister in the middle of the BJP’s tenure. 

 The hung verdicts have allowed for parties to stitch up anti-ideological alliances and encouraged opportunistic defections. Such verdicts have also given us an epithet – “Operation Lotus” – which is euphemism for BJP’s frequent attempts to engineer defections in other parties. The phrase first gained currency when B.S. Yediyurappa-led BJP fell short of a majority in 2008 and could form the government by wooing six independent legislators, allegedly by paying them out. 

As recently as 2019, the BJP lured 16 MLAs from the ranks of Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) and transported them to a Mumbai resort before Yediyurappa could form the government.  

Also read: Leaked Snoop List Suggests Surveillance May Have Played Role in Toppling of Karnataka Govt in 2019

The 2023 assembly elections in Karnataka are not entirely different from past ones. 

Congress is the only party that has a solid footprint across the state’s different regions – Kittur Karnataka and Kalyana Karnataka in the north, Coastal Karnataka, Old Mysore in the south, and Central Karnataka. However, despite securing the maximum vote share among parties in all the assembly elections over at least the last three decades, it has managed to get a comfortable majority only in 1999 and 2013. The Congress’s vote share to seat share ratio has been poor in the presence of other parties that may have a restricted territorial presence but have a much better strike rate than the grand old party. 

For instance, the Congress increased its vote share from 36.59% in 2013, when it won a majority 122 seats in the 224-member assembly, to a little over 38% in 2018. Yet, it ended up as second to the BJP with 78 seats. Similarly, it secured 65 seats with a vote share of 35.27% in 2004 but won 80 in 2008 even with a one percentage point drop in its vote share. 

BJP leaders, including B.S. Yediyurappa, at a campaign rally. Photo: Twitter/@BJP4Karnataka

The BJP, on the other hand, has performed much better despite the fact that its vote share has been lower than the Congress in all assembly elections in the past.

The BJP has a negligible presence in the Old Mysore region that sends 61 legislators to the assembly. Despite this weakness, the BJP has a consolidated presence in rest of the regions of the state, and is a dominant force in Kittur Karnataka, Central Karnataka, and Coastal Karnataka. Its strike rate in these regions has been so high that it ended up as the single-largest party in 2008 and 2018 in the 224-member assembly. However, on both occasions, it remained a non-starter in South Karnataka region, or the erstwhile Old Mysore region.

The third major political player in the state, the JD(S) led by former Prime Minister H.D. Devegowda, is a much smaller force than the two national parties but has been in an enviable position. Its pocket of influence, the Old Mysore region, has remained strongly in favour of the party. The JD(S) commands a significant presence in the region’s 61 seats as its primary vote base, the Vokkaliga community, constitute almost 40% of the region’s population.

Thus, despite having been written off by analysts in successive elections because of its weakening in Kittur Karnataka and Central Karnataka regions, it has consistently polled around 20% vote share in the state. Since the BJP has a negligible presence in the Old Mysore region, the contest has primarily been between the JD(S) and the Congress. Such an electoral dynamic means that both JD(S) and the Congress could turn around a great strike rate in the region.

For instance, JD(S) won 58 seats with 20.77% vote share in 2004 and 40 in 2013 with around the same vote share. Its worst performance in the last four elections was in 2008 when even with nearly 19% votes, it could win only 28 seats – still substantial enough to play a major role in the case of a hung verdict. When it won 37 seats in 2018, JD(S) leader and Deve Gowda’s son H.D. Kumaraswamy could still bargain with the Congress which had 78 seats for the chief minister’s position when the two parties got into an alliance to form the government. 

H.D. Kumaraswamy with Congress leader Siddaramaiah. Photo: PTI/Files

In the run-up to the 2023 assembly polls, the JD(S) remains a force in the stronghold. In the absence of any pre-poll coalition between any of the two parties in this triangular battlefield, the Congress and the BJP are eyeing to secure a majority on their own, the reflection of which can be seen in their tactical canvassing.

The BJP has made aggressive efforts to find a foothold in the Old Mysore region. Over the last two years, the saffron party has tried hard to woo the Vokkaligas as its new community ally. None other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited to instal a giant statue of Kempegowda, the 16th century Vokkaliga ruler who founded Bengaluru, outside the city’s airport. It also led a shrill anti-Muslim campaign by falsely claiming that two fictional Vokkaliga chieftains Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda killed the 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan.

Then, the Sangh parivar organisations also laid claim to multiple Muslim shrines in the Old Mysore region. The Bommai government also created a development council for the community, and in the last leg of his government also snatched the 4% Muslim quota in jobs to distribute equally between the dominant Lingayats and Vokkaligas. In the run-up to the polls, BJP has tasked Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath to aggressively campaign in the Vokkaliga heartland. 

Also read: Denying OBC Reservation to Muslims Is Unconstitutional and Communal

The Congress, in turn, lashed out against the Union cooperation minister Amit Shah’s statement that Amul and the Karnataka state dairy Nandini would merge, and as recently as a month ago campaigned extensively against Amul’s plan to sell fresh dairy products in Bengaluru. The largest chunk of milk farmers live in the Old Mysore region, which is what explains the Congress backlash against any reforms in the Karnataka state’s Nandini. 

At the same time, the grand old party has made quick efforts to weaken BJP’s vote base in north Karnataka, where Lingayats play a greatly influential role in a majority of the seats. To lure the Lingayats, the Congress has propped up its own Lingayat leader M.B. Patil against BJP’s Lingayat face and chief minister Bommai who is seen as a weak representative of the community.

It has also amplified the sidelining of Yediyurappa and his son Vijayendra by the BJP, and has been quick to induct Lingayat rebels in the saffron party, the most significant being Jagadish Shettar and Laxman Savdi. 

Video screengrab showing Jagadish Shettar being welcomed into Congress by Mallikarjun Kharge. Photo: Twitter/@INCIndia

At the same time, the Congress is hoping that its anti-corruption pitch under the popular leadership of Siddaramaiah and its “40% commission government” slogan against the Bommai government will deepen its support across regions and communities, and amplify the existing anti-incumbency sentiment on ground. 

The Congress will need to weaken the BJP in Kittur and Central Karnataka, and also perform respectably against the JD (S) in Old Mysore region to secure a majority. The BJP will have to break into the Old Mysore region while also consolidating its existing voter base to get past the majority mark. 

Meanwhile, the JD(S) will be hoping for yet another hung verdict to remain politically relevant, and play the “kingmaker”.