Karnataka polls: Which way will it swing?

It was a moment of hope and high expectations among the BJP’s well-wishers when the party formed its first government in south India in Karnataka, home to enterprise and IT hubs. That hope lies virtually shattered as the party fights with its back to the wall in this erstwhile southern citadel. If Karnataka was to be a trailblazer attracting voters to vote for the BJP in other southern states as a model of good governance, it has been a damp squib.
As Karnataka goes to polls for a new assembly May 5, there is a sense of disillusionment which runs deep in the state. It’s a despairing situation for the average voter who is unable to see a glimmer of hope in any of the political parties which are selling him dreams and promises he knows will never be fulfilled. An incumbent government being voted out is by no means unusual in Karnataka — it has happened in every election since 1985 because of the heightened expectations of people at large and the failure of every political party to live up to the surging aspirations of the people. But this time the BJP is adrift because it is virtually leaderless and directionless in the state. The jettisoning of former chief minister B.R. Yeddyurappa on whose shoulders the BJP rode to victory in the 2008 elections should have been touted as a reaffirmation by the BJP that it is uncompromising in its war against corruption after Yeddy, as he is called, had been indicted and even jailed for corruption by the Lok Ayukta. However, so weak and ineffective were Sadanand Gowda and Jagadish Shettar who were foisted as chief ministers after Yeddyurappa that the cancer of corruption made deep inroads in the state and the state fell into a terrible state of maladministration.
As one political observer told this writer recently, there is rampant corruption in Tamil Nadu, too, now as well as earlier when the DMK was in power, but the governments there have been shrewd enough to spare welfare schemes from large-scale diversion of funds. Hence, corruption is not so visible and blatant though it is there on a massive scale. In Karnataka, corruption has percolated to every scheme and every walk of life because of a serious lack of accountability with the weak BJP chief ministers failing to call the shots and discipline the workers.
The BJP high command, which should have nurtured Karnataka as a crucial state, has been clueless about how to salvage the situation. For a long time, the leadership lived in the hope that Yeddyurappa would return to the party fold but leaders like L.K. Advani and his protégé Ananth Kumar were hell bent in putting spokes in the wheel. In his heyday, the party had invested so much in Yeddyurappa that it was too late for the BJP to tell its voters that the break with him was final.
Neither Sadanand Gowda nor Jagadish Shettar had the guile and mass appeal to match Yeddyurappa. BJP leaders, especially those in Delhi are still hopeful that Yeddy would return to the BJP fold, either directly or in alliance with it and together they would be able to make the numbers in a hung assembly that is likely to emerge after the results of the assembly poll are out. But even the central leaders admit now that returning to power would be an uphill task after the way the state BJP has performed.
The moot question doing the rounds is will the nascent party of Yeddyurappa, the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), be able to emerge as anything but a spoiler for the BJP? Will it win a substantial number of seats to be able to strike an effective bargain in the assembly with either the BJP or even the Congress? Will the current chief minister Shettar be able to wean away a sizable section of voters of the dominant Lingayat caste away from the Lingayat strongman Yeddyurappa? These are overwhelming questions, and the answers will indicate the shape of things to come in Karnataka.
On the Congress front, too, there are many ifs and buts. Will the Congress, buoyed by opinion polls and its impressive performance in the civic body polls, be able to neutralize the dissidence within its ranks which has been its biggest bane for long? Will the anti-BJP vote consolidate in favour of the Congress or would sizable chunks of it go to Kumaraswamy’s party the Janata Dal (S) or to Yeddyurappa’s fledgling outfit? Kumaraswamy commands substantial support among the Vokkaligas who have also been the major vote bank of the Congress in the past? Will the Vokkaliga vote split down the middle to the advantage of the BJP?
Oddly, while the BJP has a famine of mass leaders in Karnataka with all power having been vested in Yeddyurappa in the 2008 elections, the Congress has too many leaders, each vying to outdo the other. The frontrunners are Mallikarjun Kharge who has wide support among scheduled castes and backward communities and the Kuruba strongman Siddaramaiah who has great pull among the backward communities. Former union external affairs minister S.M. Krishna who as chief minister gave a reasonably good account of himself is an ageing warhorse who can’t make a big difference to the party’s fortunes.
The Janata Dal (S), which had tied up with the BJP and tasted power with Kumaraswamy as chief minister earlier, could well spring a few surprises this time around. In a hung assembly, Kumaraswamy could well be the king-maker. In the hard bargaining that would go on, it is anybody’s guess who Kumaraswamy will strike a bargain with — the Congress or the BJP. Scruples are not the strong point of the Gowdas — – former chief minister Kumaraswamy and his father and former prime minister Deve Gowda.
Yet, unlike many other state assemblies in which a hung assembly is a foregone conclusion, in Karnataka there is still a chance that the Congress could emerge with a simple majority. In this election, the corruption charges against the ruling collation UPA helming the Centre may not be a major issue though in the Lok Sabha election it is expected to be so. Local corruption, poor governance and the civic mess especially in Bengaluru with heaps of unpicked garbage and the consequent filth in all of Bengaluru may well be determining issues.
The average Karnataka voter is disillusioned with all political parties —be it the BJP or the Congress or the JD (S), but confronted as he is with a difficult choice which way will he go? Will this pervasive sense of disenchantment force many voters to stay away from polling booths. The answer will be locked into the ballot box in just a week from now.

Kamlendra Kanwar is a Bangalore-based senior journalist and political commentator.)