OPINION: Karnataka Phase 1 Polls: Big test for Congress-JD(S) alliance

Puranika Narayana Bhatta

Chikmagalur: Janata Dal (Secular) President and former prime minister HD Devegowda with Congress-JD(S) coalition candidate Pramod Madhwaraj during an election campaign for Lok Sabha polls, in Chikmagalur, Monday, April 15, 2019. Also seen is former Karnataka chief minister and chairman of the Congress-JD(S) Coordination Committee Siddaramaiah. (PTI Photo)

Chikmagalur: Janata Dal (Secular) President and former prime minister HD Devegowda with Congress-JD(S) coalition candidate Pramod Madhwaraj during an election campaign for Lok Sabha polls, in Chikmagalur, Monday, April 15, 2019. Also seen is former Karnataka chief minister and chairman of the Congress-JD(S) Coordination Committee Siddaramaiah. (PTI Photo)

Elections to half of Karnataka’s 28 parliamentary constituencies are happening today (April 18); while the other half of the constituencies from Shivamogga northwards vote 5 days later on April 23.

Karnataka is one of the states where Congress stitched up an alliance for all the seats. Congress allied with a regional party, Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S). Of the 14 seats polling today, Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held 6 seats each, with JD(S) holding the remaining 2 seats. Of the constituencies voting on April 23rd, BJP had held 11 and Congress 3 in the outgoing Lok Sabha. Clearly, it is in this phase of elections that the logic and the effectiveness of the alliance in Karnataka will be tested, most.

Alliance arithmetic

The logic of the alliance is based on the arithmetic of vote shares. Across Karnataka, in the previous Lok Sabha, BJP had 43.4% of the votes vis-a-vis Congress share of 41.2% and JD(S) share of 11.1%. So, if the vote share of Congress and JD(S) could be seamlessly transferred in an alliance, such alliance would sweep the state and provide a strong counter to the Modi juggernaut in 2019 Lok Sabha election. This is the simple premise when seen from Delhi.

Trouble with arithmetic

The trouble with such a simplistic assumption is that it assumes that BJP has a uniformly strong presence across the state. BJP has been a marginal player in about 15% of Karnataka, with vote shares in these areas rarely getting to 20%. These constituencies are entirely in the southern part of the state. This weakness of BJP has actually been filled by JD(S). So, JD(S) has been the dominant opponent to Congress in these constituencies. In the constituencies of Mandya, Hassan, Bengaluru Rural and Kolar, which have either JD(S) or Congress representatives, it is unclear how an alliance would be of any use, as BJP has been a truly a marginal player.

Additionally, JD(S) has not even been a marginal player in about 75% of the state for more than a decade. Their continued decline in districts north of Shivamogga means that the probability that they will be able to help an alliance partner is not based on vote share in those districts. But, that will be a matter for the April 23 phase.

Bengaluru: Prime Minister Narendra Modi given a party symbol by Karnataka party President B S Yeduyurappa,party candidates Sadananda Gowda,PC Mohan and others  during a Vijaya Sankalap election rally ahead of the Low Sabha Election 2019 in Bengaluru, Saturday, April 13, 2019. (PTI Photo)

Bengaluru: Prime Minister Narendra Modi given a party symbol by Karnataka party President B S Yeddyurappa, party candidates Sadananda Gowda, PC Mohan and others during a Vijaya Sankalp election rally ahead of the Low Sabha Election 2019 in Bengaluru, Saturday, April 13, 2019. (PTI Photo)

Chemistry of the matter

In the April 18th phase, the big challenge for JD(S) and Congress has clearly been getting local teams to not pull down each other. When there is a huge overlap of areas of influence and caste leadership, it is natural that enmity gets entrenched at all levels. So, it should have surprised none that the alliance partner denied tickets would either jump ship (like Hassan) or oppose the alliance’s chosen candidate (like Mandya and Tumkur). The amount of back and forth in finalising specific seats for each of the alliance partners followed by candidate finalising taking a long time, was a clear indication of the heartburn at the local level.

This sentiment was further fanned by JD(S) deciding to field two grandsons of the party supremo from seats which were considered safe seats for them. This led to leaders of Congress walking out and boosting BJP in areas which they had no hopes of running a decent campaign, let alone winning.

Finally, the JD(S) supremo, HD Deve Gowda took a long time in choosing his own constituency once he vacated his Hassan home to one of his grandsons. Local papers reported a Congress revolt against his candidacy from Bengaluru North, forcing him to move to Tumkur. Even there, the sitting Congress MP actually filed his nomination amid a lot of fanfare, before withdrawing. This meant that Congress had to choose candidates quite late for several constituencies. Some of the Congress candidates are very senior leaders at the state level, with little incentive to win the Lok Sabha election. In some of the constituencies, incumbent BJP MPs were very vulnerable to a spirited campaign; but, that never materialised. In the case of Udupi Chikmagaluru, which BJP won with 56% vote share in 2014, it was rather baffling to find Congress concede the seat to JD(S) which got all of 1.5% of the votes. JD(S)’ lack of presence in this constituency meant that they ended up giving ticket to a Congress leader.

So, what will it add up to?

With this background, here are the key battlegrounds to check the efficacy of the alliance from the 14 constituencies polling today (April 18th):

Supremo and grandsons: Kannada television channels have covered only one constituency non-stop for the last few weeks: Mandya. In Mandya and Hassan, grandsons of former PM HD Deve Gowda are fighting from JD(S). These are JD(S) strongholds, with the party holding all 7 Assembly seats in Mandya. But, the choice of candidates and the very nature of the alliance has caused significant damage to Congress presence in these districts. The alliance relationships are so fraught that local Congress leaders did not even attend a Rahul Gandhi event in the neighbourhood. Tumkur should have been the ideal showcase of vote share arithmetic. Congress won the seat with 39%, while BJP polled 32% and JD(S) 24%, in a 3-way poll. But, all seats have become close to call. If JD(S) loses any of these seats, then the whole basis of the alliance will be questioned.

Local anti-incumbency

BJP: It has been believed that 5 of the 6 BJP seats had problems of anti-incumbency. It would appear that the seat sharing confusion and the Modi wave may see them all through. The 6th seat, Bengaluru South, has a new candidate, which has been one seat where BJP has shown some confusion and may be vulnerable to NOTA. In the case of senior ministers of Karnataka government fighting Lok Sabha election, it is unclear what motivation they have to win the election. This is seen in the lack of energy in Bengaluru campaigns.

Congress: Kolar and Chikkaballapur are two constituencies where Congress candidates have a tough battle. Again, the alliance arithmetic seems confined to theory. A 3-way battle brings down the threshold for victory and a strong 3rd candidate makes the campaign easier for parties with vote share closer to the 35% mark.

The toughness of the battles in these constituencies as compared to 2014, demonstrates that many a time, alliance may make it more difficult to the alliance partners.

In summary, it would appear that today’s (April 18) election in Karnataka might end up questioning the logic of the electoral alliance, leaving BJP with more seats than they had. This may also serve up serious questions for the ruling alliance at the state-level.

For now, let us get out of our homes and vote.

-Puranika Narayana Bhatta, Political Commentator.