April 12, 2023
BENGALURU – As political parties gear up for battle in the Karnataka state polls on May 10, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) hopes of returning to power in its sole southern stronghold are hobbled by graft allegations against several legislators.
The outcome of the election in the southern state of 64 million people is likely to impact that of the national election in May 2024, when the BJP will seek a third term with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.
Analysts say it will also influence the results of state elections scheduled in the states of Telangana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram.
Karnataka’s significance to the BJP is obvious from the frequent visits Prime Minister Modi has been making to the southern state this year, where he has inaugurated universities, highways, metro trains, factories, airports and statues – often taking the opportunity to urge people to return his party to power.
The opposition parties in Karnataka have criticised the grand inauguration ceremonies that Mr Modi has been attending, alleging that public funds were indirectly being spent on his election campaign for the BJP.
Graft allegations have emerged against sitting Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, who is campaigning for his party’s reelection on May 10 – although the BJP has not announced its candidate yet.
In August 2022, his government was accused by the Karnataka State Contractors Association of forcing contractors to pay 40 per cent of all contracts as “commission” to politicians. Two contractors committed suicide in April and December 2022, blaming the Bommai government for refusing to pay their bills without kickbacks. Senior politician and rural development minister K.S. Eshwarappa, 74, who was named by one of the contractors, resigned over this.
Mr Bommai, 63, has claimed innocence and ordered a probe, but after a legislator’s son was caught taking a bribe of 400,000 rupees (S$6,500) in March, the accusations resurfaced.
He has also been telling reporters that despite the challenges, his party is “working hard to ensure that this time, the BJP will win a majority”.
The BJP unit in Karnataka is counting on its most reliable vote-getter – former chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa, who led the party to its first win in 2008. The 80-year-old has a strong influence over his dominant Lingayat sect that makes up 17 per cent of the voters in Karnataka and, though retired, has been appointed by Mr Modi as the “mascot” of the crucial Karnataka polls.
The BJP, which is the most popular party in northern India today, sees Karnataka as the gateway to the south.
More educated, multilingual voters and empowered minority communities in the south have preferred to elect their well-entrenched regional parties over the Hindu nationalist party, which is perceived to reject linguistic and religious heterogeneity.
The BJP is popular in urban centres like the state’s capital and booming infotech hub Bengaluru, and in coastal regions where conservative voters back its Hindu nationalist ideology.
But other regions are dominated by Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), a regional party that holds sway in the agrarian southern districts of the state.
In the 2013 and 2018 elections, the BJP won more votes than any other party in Karnataka, but failed to win a majority of the 224 seats in the assembly, leaving a coalition of the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), to rule. But in 2019, the BJP toppled the coalition after a dozen legislators controversially quit the ruling parties mid term, some subsequently joining the BJP.
For the Congress party, the Karnataka polls are a chance for it to strengthen its position as the main opposition party in India ahead of the 2024 national elections. Its campaign is led by Mr Siddaramaiah, 75, a former chief minister of Karnataka, who is making a bid to woo voters from backward and lower castes.
If the Congress forms a government in Karnataka, it would be in power in four states in India. But the party is struggling with tussles among senior leaders who want to be chief minister.
The JD(S), which has a chance of 20 to 30 seats, hopes to be crucial in creating a coalition if neither the BJP nor Congress wins a majority. The party, whose founder is former prime minister Deve Gowda, holds sway in the southern, farming parts of Karnataka and among the Vokkaliga sect who make up about 15 per cent of voters.
Karnataka is an economically important state, as it contributes around 8 per cent of India’s gross domestic product. According to reports in March, the Karnataka government approved a total of 55 industrial projects worth around 34.5 billion rupees (S$560 million), which are expected to create more than 33,000 jobs. Some 40 per cent of India’s 100-odd unicorns with a valuation of more than US$1 billion are based in Bengaluru, which generates 41 per cent of India’s infotech exports.
The elections also occur amid some growing anxiety about religious polarisation marring the reputation of the state.
Karnataka has seen a rise in religious violence and hate speech in recent years, including radical Hindu groups attacking Hindu-Muslim couples, and demanding a ban on Muslim traders setting up shops near Hindu temple fairs in 2022.
Protests also broke out over a government order barring Muslim girls wearing hijabs from entry to colleges.
Just after the poll dates were announced, a Muslim man transporting cattle was killed by Puneeth Kerehalli, a Hindu fundamentalist vigilante claiming to protect cows, which some Hindus consider holy, from slaughter. The police have arrested Kerehalli, but the incident has fuelled religiously divisive political speeches across the state.
Parties will vie for 224 seats in the state legislative assembly. About 50 million registered voters will cast their votes through electronic voting machines and the results will be announced on May 13.