India Today

The Welfare Card

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analyst Prof. A. Narayana. “But the Congress is in a more formidable position this time, being the ruling party.” At the core of the Congress campaign, therefore, are the welfare schemes, or guarantees, that the Siddaramai­ah-led government has rolled out since coming to power in May last year.

In the past 10 months, the Congress has spent Rs 33,468 crore on its guarantees, which reach an estimated 45 million beneficiar­ies in Karnataka. A senior government official, citing surveys, claims that more than 95 per cent of the intended beneficiar­ies have been covered so far. “There has been no corruption and these programmes were implemente­d irrespecti­ve of the community the beneficiar­y belongs to,” says Vinay Kumar Sorake, who took over as Congress’s campaign committee chairman for Karnataka on April 5. According to him, this gives the party a “neverbefor­e opportunit­y” to swing votes away from the BJP and shore up its seat tally. The Congress’s last big haul in a Lok Sabha election was in 1999, when it won 18 seats and a vote share of 45.4 per cent. It has been downhill since then as the BJP emerged as a firm favourite in subsequent parliament­ary polls. In the past 20 years, the Congress’s best performanc­e in the state came ironica lly in 2014—when the party was at its lowest ebb nationally—with nine seats and a vote share of 41.2 per cent. Incidental­ly, the party was in power at the time in Karnataka with Siddaramai­ah serving his first term as chief minister.

The main election issues this time, says Sorake, are price rise and unemployme­nt. While the Congress is relying on its guarantees, the BJP’s outreach to voters is equally focused on the Modi government’s flagship schemes. There are 30 million beneficiar­ies of central welfare schemes in Karnataka, Union home minister Amit Shah told a convention of BJP boothlevel workers in Bengaluru on April 2. At that meeting, however, Shah opened up a fresh battlefron­t when he accused the Siddaramai­ah government of delaying the submission of its proposal seeking drought relief by three months, owing to which funds could not be released on time.

Centre vs State

Countering Shah’s allegation at a hurriedly convened press conference the same day, Karnataka revenue minister Krishna Byre Gowda accused him of “adding insult to injury”. Facing a widespread drought that has afflicted 223 of the state’s 236 sub-districts, the

BJP STATE CHIEF B.Y. VIJAYENDRA SAYS THE PARTY IS FOCUSING ON TWO THINGS— FIGHT THE POLLS TOGETHER WITH THE JD(S) AND WIN ALL 28 SEATS

Karnataka government had on March 23 filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking the release of financial assistance—under the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF)—which has been pending since October when an inter-ministeria­l central team completed its field-level assessment.

As Karnataka goes to the polls in two phases on April 26 and May 7, the clash between the Siddaramai­ah government and the Modi regime is clearly emerging as one of the key themes. At his campaign rallies, Siddaramai­ah’s line of attack is the “stepmother­ly” treatment being meted out to Karnataka despite it being one of India’s highest tax-paying states. But BJP state chief Vijayendra feels it won’t help the Congress to hinge its campaign on a local issue. “People are smart enough,” he says, “and understand that this election will decide the future of this country, not of Karnataka.”

Of the Congress’s twin planks in Karnataka, the guarantee schemes are the more potent one, feels political analyst Prof. Sandeep Shastri. “Saying that the Centre is discrimina­ting against us at the state level…[will it] resonate with the voters is the question,” he says. Besides, Karnataka’s previous poll results show that the electorate always votes differentl­y in the assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Shastri recalls how in 2014, 90 per cent of the respondent­s in a survey that he had worked on said they were happy with the Siddaramai­ah government. Yet, the BJP went on to win a higher number of seats—17, against the Congress’s tally of nine.

The Alliance at Play

In 2019, the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) were running a coalition government in Karnataka with H.D. Kumaraswam­y, son of JD(S) patriarch H.D. Deve Gowda, as chief minister.

However, the decision of the two parties to fight the Lok Sabha election together proved to be disastrous—both won only one seat apiece while the BJP went on to win 25, its best performanc­e so far in Karnataka. This time, however, the JD(S) is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and will contest on three seats, the remaining 25 seats being left for the senior ally. But ensuring camaraderi­e between party workers on the ground may be somewhat difficult. According to Vijayendra, the BJP is focusing on two things—fight the polls together with the JD(S) and set a new record by “winning all 28 seats”.

In pursuit of that objective, the BJP has replaced several of its sitting MPs. In fact, only 10 have been retained in their seats while new candidates have been brought in for the remaining 15.

This includes the party’s coastal stronghold­s of Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada, besides Mysuru. It has also pressed three former chief ministers to contest the polls—Basavaraj Bommai and Jagadish Shettar of the BJP and Kumaraswam­y of the JD(S). But when the candidate lists were finalised a month ago, there had been some pushback from disgruntle­d local leaders who had either been dropped or overlooked. “If they [the BJP] have to retain numbers,” says Shastri, “they need a 100 per cent strike rate. It seems an uphill task at the present stage, because the party had not faced dissidence in the manner it has this time.” A senior BJP functionar­y brushes aside these niggles, pointing out that the Modi factor will ultimately override the support for local candidates in this election. Instead, he points to the Congress list of nominees. “Where have they put up a serious candidate?” he asks.

The Congress does have its challenges: only six of its candidates have fought a Lok Sabha election before and as many as six others happen to be children of state ministers. Eshwar Khandre, Karnataka minister for forest, ecology and environmen­t, defends the move, saying it’s a good sign that the party has backed youngsters. “When we say it’s a young India, youngsters should come into politics,” says Khandre, who is confident that his son Sagar, 26, a law graduate who, incidental­ly, is also the youngest candidate in Karnataka, will pull off a victory in Bidar where the BJP has been struggling with dissidence. The Congress, says Khandre, will win 15-20 seats in the state. “Every day,” he says, “the graph is rising.” Vijayendra believes the BJP and JD(S) are safe in 22 constituen­cies but does admit there’s a tough fight in the remaining six. “Day by day,” he says, “things are improving for the BJP, not the Congress.” And the BJP hopes that its Modi trump card will help sustain the Karnataka poll paradox, for now.

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 ?? ?? STRIKING SYNERGY The BJP’s Mysuru candidate flanked by party’s Karnataka president B.Y. Vijayendra ( left) and ally JD( S) leader H. D. Kumaraswam­y at a rally, Apr. 3
STRIKING SYNERGY The BJP’s Mysuru candidate flanked by party’s Karnataka president B.Y. Vijayendra ( left) and ally JD( S) leader H. D. Kumaraswam­y at a rally, Apr. 3

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