“I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees.”
– Pablo Neruda
As Karnataka voters head to the polls today, the outcome remains uncertain. Most of the opinion polls, except one, have predicted a hung state assembly. One has foreseen a Congress victory. Both Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress leaderships are keeping their fingers crossed. Though publicly the leaders of both the parties are exuding confidence of a clean sweep, getting around 110 seats, in private they seem to lack conviction. The Karnataka election is crucial for the Congress party—the polls will decide whether the party can halt the march of BJP into southern India and whether it is able to prevent its expansion to newer territories. Every ruling party faces some kind of antipathy from sections of the populace: no government can please everyone all the time. This disgruntled section would come out openly to vote against the incumbent government. If one goes by media reports it is to Siddaramaiah’s credit that this anti-incumbent sentiment appears to be relatively weak in Karnataka. The stakes are high for the Congress in this election and that populist schemes floated by the Siddaramaiah government could give the party an edge. And if the verdict goes in Congress’ favour, it would be the first time since its historic defeat in the 2014 general elections that the grand old party has retained a state. Interestingly, no incumbent government has been re-elected in Karnataka since 1985. It is a make-or-break situation for the Congress.
No doubt the BJP is on a strong turf from the point of view of campaigning. Besides Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party chief Amit Shah, it has many star orators while Congress has only two prominent faces: Rahul Gandhi and Siddaramaiah himself. Only time will say if these two have proved to be a match for Modi. But at almost all the rallies Modi has been targeting both and his desperation for a win in Karnataka is palpable. Modi’s recent move of calling on JD (S) supremo and former prime minister Deve Gowda at his residence and paying glowing compliments to him has been a clever tactic to win the trust of the octogenarian. Overnight, Modi turned a virtual foe – the former prime minister – into a friend overnight. In an ideal situation the “secular” Congress would have been the natural ally for the JD(S). But with personal equations between Siddaramaiah and his mentor Deve Gowda at their worst, there is no possibility of an arrangement. With Rahul Gandhi attacking Deve Gowda, Congress has virtually closed the possibility of working out a post-poll alliance with JD(S) minus the incumbent chief minister. But, the question is has Modi successfully hijacked JD(S) away from Congress?
Modi through his olive branch to Gowda might have been intended to send separate signals to JD(S) leaders and the BJP cadre. Firstly, that the BJP, despite the bitter experience of the past, is still willing to do business with the JD(S). Secondly, that in constituencies where the fight is between the Congress and the JD(S), the BJP, rather than finish a close third, would have the JD(S) win. Karnataka will not be the last state to go to the polls before the next Lok Sabha polls, but it holds great importance for the Congress and the BJP in the run-up to 2019.