By Professor James Manor

Any ruling party in Karnataka can expect to struggle to win re-election. No government has achieved that since 1985. The state’s voters are demanding, sophisticated and impatient. But Basavaraj Bommai’s BJP government faces additional problems.

It took power after an “Operation Kamala” that induced MLAs from other parties to defect to it. That has set up inevitable faction fights for election tickets between long term loyalists and newcomers.

Two other things have made factional conflict worse. The BJP’s national leaders have promoted younger people and sidelined some formidable veterans who have reacted, sometimes aggressively. And those same national leaders have strongly promoted hard-line Hindutva. That is a departure from BJP traditions in Karnataka, and it has triggered resistance from the old guard in the state.

Former Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa, who built and utterly dominated the BJP in the state until recently, has openly opposed that trend. It also runs counter to Chief Minister Bommai’s approach during a long political career. It has unleashed conflict between their reassurances to Muslims that they will be protected and the new drive for communal polarization.

In recent weeks, the BJP has changed tack somewhat by focusing on caste calculus which has served the party well. But the robust promotion of Hindutva remains very visible in the campaign. Yogi Adityanath will tour the state and his incendiary message will be echoed by several hard-liners from within the state BJP. In the past, communal polarization has found little traction outside of a few pockets, for reasons that Muzaffar Assadi has authoritatively explained recently. By promoting it, the BJP’s national leaders are taking an audacious but perhaps an unwise gamble.

The BJP government also stands accused of serious corruption and, in words of one of its leaders caught on tape, serious ineffectiveness. Since even some previous governments with positive records tasted defeat, this might be expected to doom the party this time.

The BJP can take some encouragement from some findings in a recent, reliable pre-poll survey by CSDS-Lokniti. It found that voters were reasonably satisfied with key state government programmes to provide benefits.

But the survey also contained grim news for the BJP. 49 percent of the ‘rich’ and 52 percent of the ‘middle class’ disapprove of the government. Those groups have been core supporters of the BJP, and these surprisingly high negative numbers suggest that the party may be in trouble.

That same survey also found that the issues which most concerned rural voters were unemployment and poverty. This could also be bad news for the BJP since state elections here are always won and lost in rural constituencies in the maidan (plains) areas of northern and central Karnataka.

Congress, the BJP’s main rival, also faces internal conflicts. Former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA theme reaches out to disadvantaged groups while D.K. Shivakumar appeals to his fellow Vokkaligas, a traditionally dominant landed caste. But the party has largely succeeded in demonstrating unity between these two leaders.

Another well designed poll by Eedina offers Congress some reassurance. It suggests that AHINDA may have some appeal among poorer voters from the Vokkaligas and other privileged groups.

This echoes a view expressed long ago by a former Chief Minister, the late D. Devaraj Urs. In 1972, he broke the dominance of state politics which Lingayats and Vokkaligas had exercised since Independence, by mobilizing support from newly awakened disadvantaged groups who outnumber the landed castes. He changed the rules of Karnataka politics. Since then, parties can only hope to gain and retain power by appealing to a broad diversity of social groups.

The approach that he pioneered was very similar to Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA strategy today. Urs insisted to this writer in 1979 that his pro-poor policies attracted support from poorer members of the landed castes – and his successes in elections suggested that he was right. The Eedina poll found that many poorer members of all social groups, again including some from the landed castes, prefer Siddaramaiah’s Congress to the BJP.

Some senior Congress leaders privately expressed worries that their campaign got off to a slow, late start. But more recently, they have improved their ground-level operation, and they believe that their tactics – partly based on their successful effort in the recent Himachal Pradesh election – will bring them a majority or something close to it.

Both Congress and the BJP hope to win seats from the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) in its stronghold in southern districts – old Mysore. The BJP will struggle in that region, but Congress hopes that Shivakumar’s appeal among Vokkaligas – the main base of the JD-S – and Siddaramaiah’s popularity among OBCs in those districts will produce gains.

The JD-S has suffered some recent defeats in special elections there, and several of its leaders have defected in frustration with the dominance of H.D. Deve Gowda’s family over the party. But the former Prime Minister remains an appealing leader who has often been underestimated by commentators. And the JD-S has adroitly advocated some new policies to benefit farmers. So it may still win enough seats to undermine the two main parties’ drives for majorities. A sharp decline for the JD-S could enable Congress to score a solid overall victory.

The Dalit vote in the state has long been split fairly evenly between a ritually left hand group which backs the BJP and a right hand group that mainly supports Congress. It would be surprising if this changed much, even though the new Congress national president, Mallikarjun Kharge is a Dalit from Karnataka. He is stubbornly regarded by left hand Dalits as a leader of the right hand group. His main contribution may be to prevent national Congress leaders from inserting incompetent supervisors over the state campaign – something that has damaged the party before.

Prime Minister Modi will campaign extensively, and his skills and the vast edge in campaign funds that the BJP enjoys may produce gains for the BJP. But Karnataka voters have a history, from 1985 onward, of focusing on state rather than national leaders. And in roughly 70 percent of state elections in Karnataka and elsewhere since 1980, the parties with the most money to spend have actually lost! So these factors may not prove decisive.

The opinion polls, many of which are unreliable, offer such mixed signals that many unknowns remain. We must wait for the voters to have their say.