Almost all opinion polls predict a hung assembly in Karnataka. Yet let me stick my neck out and say the BJP will probably form the next government, on its own or in collaboration with the Janata Dal(S).
One reason is anti-incumbent sentiment, running strong in India right now. Anti-incumbency helped the BJP sweep Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand last year, and fare well in north-eastern states — Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya. BJP enthusiasts interpret this as a pro-BJP wave. It is actually an antiincumbent wave. After all, the wave swept the incumbent BJP out of power in Punjab. Anti-incumbency signals that voters are fundamentally unhappy. This unhappiness is likely to oust the incumbent Congress in Karnataka.
The second reason is that the BJP looks very different from the party that was thrashed in the 2013 state election. Then, the BJP had forced B S Yeddyurappa to resign as chief minister along with the Reddy brothers because of their association with the illegal mining scam. This resulted in the BJP splitting into three parts — the official party, Yeddyurappa’s splinter party, and a third splinter led by B Sriramulu, a tribal leader linked to the Reddy brothers. This BJP split helped the Congress to win easily. But today the splinters have consolidated and have the added advantage of a charismatic leader in Narendra Modi.
The third reason is money. The BJP is in power in 19 states and likely to win the general election next year. So it is flush with donations from those wanting to back a winning horse. The Congress party rules only two major states (Punjab and Karnataka), has little chance of winning the next general election, and is therefore not attractive to business donors. This means it has to milk Karnataka for funds, giving some credibility to the BJP taunt that the Siddaramaiah government is a 10% kickback government.
The BJP has an army of unpaid volunteers full of ideological vigour. The Congress has no unpaid volunteers and barely any ideology, and has to hire election agents lacking loyalty or passion. Neither money nor volunteers win elections on their own. But when combined with anti-incumbency, they can be a tipping factor.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is a decent administrator. But Karnataka’s GDP growth has not accelerated under his rule. An Economic Times model suggests this implies a 60% chance of defeat. Bengaluru remains an urban mess. Siddaramaiah has copied welfare schemes that have helped win elections in other states, such as rice for one rupee a kilo, partial farm loan waivers and canteens providing meals for just Rs 5. He has promised minority status for Lingayats to woo them away from Yeddyurappa, the BJP’s Lingayat leader. Yet history suggests that freebies and caste manipulation rarely overcome strong anti-incumbent sentiment.
The BJP’s weak point is its decision to stick with scam-tainted leaders, making nonsense of Modi’s claim to represent clean governance. Yeddyurappa was not convicted in the illegal mining case, yet he was in charge when the Reddy brothers and others ran amok. Some of the brothers are back in the list of BJP candidates, a craven surrender to mafiosi money and networks.
Such political compromises are, alas, common in all political parties. The BJP fielded mafia don Kuldeep Sengar in the UP election, wooing him away from other parties. He won, but was arrested in a sensational rape case that has landed him in jail and spoiled the image of the BJP government. This damage cannot be offset by attempts at communal polarisation, or by just relying on Modi’s charisma.
Getting into bed with tainted mafiosi can win a few seats, but is myopic in the longer term. It tarnishes Modi’s image, the BJP’s greatest asset. That taint might just cause his defeat in the state — possible though not probable. If so, that will be a wake-up call to re-set his priorities.