Cong., JD(S) still strange bedfellows; BJP eyes fault lines in Karnataka

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Leaders of the ruling allies share little chemistry, casting doubt whether the two parties would ensure vote transfers

There was no missing the optics at the oath-taking ceremony of H.D. Kumaraswamy as Chief Minister of Karnataka in May when an array of political leaders from across the country lined up in an apparent show of solidarity by parties opposed to the BJP.

Mr. Kumaraswamy described it as a precursor to “the big change in 2019”.

The State’s coalition government, comprising the Congress and the Chief Minister’s Janata Dal (Secular), was to be a model for a similar but larger alliance of unity against the “common enemy” at the national level.

But 10 months later, with the Lok Sabha polls just weeks away, no one is any longer quite sure what the once ‘heady’ alliance will deliver in Karnataka, especially as headwinds buffet the coalition.

If politics were simply about arithmetic, the Congress-JD(S) combine, which in 2014 had polled 40.8% and 11%, respectively, against the BJP’s 43%, ought to be a winning formation. But the chemistry between the leaders on both the sides has frequently gone missing casting doubts about whether they would work to ensure the transfer of votes to each other’s parties.

While the partners, to their credit, have managed to keep the government afloat by warding off the external threat in the form of the BJP’s unrelenting efforts to destabilise the coalition, it’s the internal bickering, distrust and oneupmanship between the leaders that has kept the alliance in fire-fighting mode for most of its tenure. That they continue to do so, even so close to the election, is only likely to be to be to the advantage of their “common enemy”.

The contradictions and trust deficit are most stark in southern Karnataka where the Congress and the JD(S) are traditional rivals, particularly in the Old Mysore region. For instance, in Mandya, where Mr. Kumaraswamy has fielded his actor-son Nikhil, many Congress workers have opted to back Sumalatha, actor and wife of former Union Minister M.H. Ambareesh, who is contesting as an Independent with BJP support. And despite the Congress expelling some members, dissidence has refused to die down. With three members of JD(S) patriarch H.D. Deve Gowda’s family, including the former Prime Minister, Mr. Nikhil and Mr. Gowda’s other grandson Prajwal Revanna, contesting from this region, the stakes for the regional party are high. Mr. Kumaraswamy recently said there was a “conspiracy” afoot against his family, implying that some in the Congress were a part of it.

Old Mysore opening

The coaliton’s troubles offer the BJP a rare opportunity to boost its hitherto tenuous presence in the Old Mysore region, where the Congress and JD(S) had assiduously built strong support bases over the decades and fought direct battles. The BJP, which used to end up as an also-ran in many segments, finds itself elevated to the position of the principal rival this time. The BJP candidate in Hassan, where Mr. Revanna is contesting, was once a Congress Minister.

“The JD(S) and its leaders have created an identity for themselves by opposing the Congress; how can we work alongside them?” asked a JD(S) member of the Mysuru Zilla Panchayat, declining to be identified. It is this discontent that the BJP is likely to be banking on.

In northern Karnataka, where the JD(S) has a relatively marginal presence, the alliance could potentially prove significant. For instance, a transfer of JD(S) votes either way in places such as Chikkodi (39,992) or Raichur (21,706), where the Congress had won by wafer-thin margins, could prove decisive.

While the undivided Janata Dal held sway over the northern districts during the 1980s and 1990s, a large proportion of their voters turned to the BJP after repeated attempts to unite the splinters of the Janata Parivar in Karnataka failed.

The coalition may not have an easy run even in places like Kalaburagi, the constituency of senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge, where the BJP has fielded a ‘rebel’ Congress leader Umesh Jadhav.

Neither does the State unit of the BJP present a picture of strength and confidence, with its heavy reliance on the “Modi” factor. While one senior leader has said that Mr. Modi is their candidate in all 28 constituencies, another has said that even “unfit” candidates would win because people want Mr. Modi back as Prime Minister. The increasing grip of central leaders was seen in the choice of 28-year-old, RSS-moulded Tejasvi Surya for Bengaluru South, a key seat over which former Union Minister Ananth Kumar had held sway. State leaders, who had strongly pitched Mr. Kumar’s wife Tejaswini for this seat, were themselves kept guessing on the outcome till the midnight of March 25. The State unit had in fact backed Kumar’s wife Tejaswini for the seat.

In fact, less than a month ago, the State unit of the saffron party had appeared exhausted after repeated attempts to pull down the coalition government had proved unsuccessful.

But, post-Pulwama, the national ruling party appears to have been re-energised.

And the bickering in the Congress-JD (S) coalition is a fault line that the BJP is going to do everything, it possibly can, to capitalise on.

Indeed, as the heat and dust of campaigning picks up, some of the most crucial issues that ought to have been debated — be it a drought gripping 156 out of the State’s 176 taluks, a severe funds crunch for implementation of the MNREGA scheme with huge dues from the Centre, or the impact of farm loan waivers on the agrarian community — are barely audible.

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