Will Congress' '40 percent Sarkara' attack defeat the BJP or will the 'Bajrang Bali' pitch save the day for the latter? Or will the Janata Dal (Secular) emerge as the kingmaker?
The voters of Karnataka are casting their vote on 10 May to elect 224 MLAs and the next government of the state. The stakes are high for the ruling BJP and possibly even higher for the Congress and the JD-S.
Why do we say that the stakes are higher for the two Opposition parties?
What are the X-factors that could decide which way this election goes?
We'll look at these two aspects in this story.
Why the Stakes are Higher for Congress and JD-S than BJP
The party's hunger to retain the state is quite evident from the extensive manner Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned in the state.
Losing Karnataka would mean losing an important, resource-rich foothold in the South.
But the BJP's electioneering model is such that it has managed to successfully insulate PM Modi's popularity from adverse state level results. For instance, the BJP lost a number of states in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections - such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka - but it swept all these states in the Lok Sabha polls.
BJP lost Karnataka in both 2013 and 2018 and managed to win a majority of seats in the state at the Lok Sabha elections held less than a year later.
The BJP still has enough going its way to absorb one loss. The same can't be said about the Opposition.
"The BJP can still afford to lose this. We can't. 2024 is over if we don't win Karnataka," a Congress insider told The Quint.
Presently, the Congress is heading governments in only three states - Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. It is a junior partner in the ruling coalitions in Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand.
Defeating the BJP in a near one-to-one contest would be just the boost it needs for the 2024 elections.
And Karnataka is a big, resource-rich state and could address at least a fraction of the Congress' resource deficit with respect to the BJP.
Karnataka also happens to be the home state of the new Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, the first non-Gandhi to hold the office in 25 years. Losing here would mean a loss of political capital for Kharge.
There is one more factor that needs to be understood. By most accounts, the Congress has run a competent campaign on the ground with a clear narrative - targeting the BJP on corruption, besides announcing its own guarantees and pro-poor policies.
The BJP, on the other hand, made its campaign highly ideological in the last phase - somehow twisting the Congress' proposal to ban the Bajrang Dal as an insult to Lord Hanuman.
If the BJP manages to reverse the Congress' lead with the help of an ideological issue and the PM's campaigning in a state election, it would be an extremely worrying sign for the Congress. These factors would be far more pronounced in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and also in the Hindi belt states voting later this year.
The Congress would hope that Karnataka puts it on the path to national revival the way the Chikmagalur bypoll did in 1978.
Except for the 2018-19 HD Kumaraswamy-led government in alliance with the Congress, the JD-S has been out of power in Karnataka and the Centre for some years now. It's vote share has also stagnated. Except for its base among Vokkaligas, dominant in the Old Mysore region, the party's fortunes have been declining among other communities and also in other regions.
Key to its hold over the Vokkaliga vote bank is the presence of former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda. Despite being 90, he is in good health. But both the BJP and Congress have become increasingly aggressive in targeting this base.
The BJP did well in the Old Mysore region in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. And its 2 percent reservation decision for Vokkaligas is a major overture to the community.
The party is also trying to weave a Hindutva narrative around Vokkaligas by claiming falsely that Tipu Sultan was killed by two Vokkaligas.
So far there has been very little penetration of Hindutva among Vokkaligas or in the Old Mysore region.
As far as the Congress is concerned, its state unit chief DK Shivakumar is a Vokkaliga and extremely popular in Kanakapura and Bengaluru Rural area. However, Shivakumar also knows he can't be the tallest Vokkaliga leader so long as HD Deve Gowda is around.
But the JD-S also knows that Shivakumar is a gutsy and hardworking leader whose influence is steadily rising.
The other threat for the JD-S is the possible erosion of the Muslim and Dalit support it used to get. It needs to emerge as kingmaker once again to retain its relevance in state politics.
What are the X-Factors in this Election?
Except for two Opinion polls - Zee News-Matrize and Jan ki Baat - all other polls have either predicted a slender Congress victory or Congress as the single largest party in a hung assembly.
There are a number of factors that could shape the verdict.
1. Extent of Rural Surge in Favour of Congress
The Congress is counting on a wave in rural areas to put it past the majority mark. The party believes that the rural voters will be most amenable to its policy guarantees as well as the least likely to get swayed by the BJP's ideological pitch in the last phase of the campaign.
2. BJP's Hold Over its Lingayath Base
The Lingayaths have been the main base of the BJP in Karnataka. However, this time the party has taken a dual gamble. It has provided a two percent quota for Panchamasalis, a sub-group within the Lingayaths who are more numerous but have enjoyed less representation compared to Banija and Sadar Lingayaths.
The second gamble is that the BJP has let senior Lingayath leaders like former CM Jagadish Shettar and former deputy CM Laxman Savadi leave and join the Congress.
Since Shettar is not a Panchamasali, the BJP feels that his exit won't harm the party much.
To what extent the BJP manages to hold the Lingayath vote will be crucial in determining the result. If there is a sizable shift away from the BJP, the Congress could be on its way to a comfortable majority.
If this shift doesn't take place and BJP retains over 50 percent of the Lingayath vote, it could possibly lead to a hung Assembly or maybe even help BJP come back to power.
3. Vote Swing
In the 2018 election, the Congress secured 38 percent votes compared to the BJP's 36 percent and yet won 80 seats compared to the latter's 104. There are two reasons for this.
First, the Congress was competitive across the state, unlike the BJP and JD-S. Therefore its votes were more spread out.
Out of the 221 seats Congress contested, it forfeited its deposit in just 13 seats, compared to 36 for the BJP and 107 for the JD-S. This means that out of the 141 seats Congress lost, it secured a vote share of over 16.66 percent in 128.
The BJP's votes were much more concentrated - it fared poorly in the Old Mysore region and did well in the other regions. For the JD-S it was reverse.
However, being competitive in more seats means that a smaller swing can help the Congress increase its tally.
The Congress lost 20 seats by a margin of less than 5 percent and 36 seats by a margin of 5-10 percent. This means that a swing of 2.5 percent in favour of the Congress and against its main rival could lead to a gain of 20 seats. A swing of 5 percent both ways could lead to a gain of 56 seats.
This is of course only a broad calculation to give you an idea. The reality in each seat is way more complex.
4. Modi Factor and Ideological Push
PM Narendra Modi led the BJP campaign from the front in the last few weeks before polling. Especially on the Bajrang Dal issue, Modi gave the spin connecting it to Lord Hanuman.
Now the mythical kingdom of Kishkindha, ruled by Sugriva with Hanuman's counsel, is often identified with the area around Tungabhadra river in present day Vijayanagara district in Karnataka. So the BJP hopes that its spin presenting the Congress' Bajrang Dal ban proposal to an 'attack on Lord Hanuman' will get traction in Karnataka.
It is not clear whether this issue has gained traction beyond core BJP supporters. Unlike parts of North India, there isn't too much sympathy with the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka apart from the polarised coastal districts.
5. Rebels and Turncoats
The shifting loyalties of MLAs has complicated the election. For instance, a number of Congress MLAs who had defected to the BJP in 2019 have been given tickets by the latter, sparking resentment among a section of BJP supporters.
An interesting seat in this context is Athani in Belagavi district. The seat had been won by Mahesh Kumathalli of the Congress last time, who defeated Laxman Savadi of the BJP. But Kumathalli was one of the MLAs who defected to the BJP. Now, he is contesting on a BJP ticket and against him stands Savadi who recently joined the Congress.
Then there is an issue of rebels. For instance take Bengaluru's Pulakeshinagar seat, which gave the Congress the highest margin in the 2018 elections. Here the party dropped sitting MLA Akhanda Srinivasa Murthy and picked AC Srinivasa. Murthy is now contesting on a BSP ticket.
6. Caste, Communalism and Class
The differing caste bases of the BJP, Congress and JD-S had made the vote shares of all three parties somewhat stagnant, except for the 2013 election which saw a large scale shift of Lingayath and Valmiki votes away from BJP due to the exit of BS Yediyurappa and B Sriramulu respectively. Yediyurappa's base, in fact, even extended to many OBC communities. The base returned to the BJP subsequently and helped it do well in 2018.
However, it is also important to state that the kind of en-bloc voting of certain caste groups for certain parties that one sees in states like UP and Bihar, isn't seen in Karnataka as both BJP and Congress aren't identified with one particular caste.
The extent of consolidation has been roughly 50-60 percent in favour of one party, with the other party also getting some support.
In this election, both the BJP and Congress have tried to break this caste-driven stagnancy through their own narratives.
The BJP is hoping that its strong ideological push could help it transcend caste loyalties and achieve some kind of Hindu consolidation.
On the other hand, the Congress is hoping for strong class-based voting and a surge in support from poorer voters.
7. Turnout, Electoral Rolls
An X-Factor that gets missed in surveys is the impact of turnout. Surveys capture voting intention with varying degrees of accuracy. But its very difficult for them to predict what proportion of these voters turn up or get to vote.
Turnout is a particularly big issue in Bengaluru city which has historically seen dismal voter attendance. The Election Commission has used several measures to try and boost turnout and the parties, too, are pulling out no stops. But it remains to be seen how many voters do manage to cast their votes.
A related issue is that of deletion of voters. There have been complaints that a number of voters have been wrongly deleted. The extent of this may be evident on polling day.