The by-elections to two assembly and three parliamentary seats in Karnataka, in which the Congress-JD(S) alliance won four out of five seats, was not a referendum on the checkered tenure of the coalition state government headed by HD Kumaraswamy, but a test of the electoral arithmetic of the Congress – JD(S) alliance.
In other words, this was not about whether or not the coalition government had good approval ratings in the state but simply whether or not the Congress votes plus JD(S) votes could ensure the BJP’s defeat.
The polls never threatened the survival of the coalition government which has a majority in the assembly. Now, to understand how the arithmetic has played out, each of the three parliamentary bypoll result needs to be seen independently, as the three seats represent different regions of the state of Karnataka.
BJP Bombed in Ballari Bastion
The result in Ballari, which falls in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region of the state where the Congress and BJP fight a head-on battle, is a body blow to the BJP and B Sriramulu, who is the face of the notorious Reddy brothers.
This is the first time that the Congress has won the Ballari seat since 1999, when Sonia Gandhi was elected from here. Since then, this seat has been the family bastion of the Reddy brothers who controlled it with muscle and money power.
Sriramulu had won this seat in 2014 by a margin of less than 10 percent votes. The Congress polled 42.96 percent votes and the JD(S) had just 1.21 percent.
In 2018, Sriramulu’s sister J Shantha was the BJP candidate, and the coalition fielded veteran Congress MLC VS Ugrappa who has emerged the big winner. It’s not just a defeat for Sriramulu and the BJP, but one by a huge margin by over 2 Lakh votes.
This seat shows that Hyderabad Karnataka is a region where the Congress – JD(S) alliance arithmetic is working well, and the Congress field managers have much credit to take.
In fact, state minister DK Shivakumar, known for his money power and ability for grassroots electoral management, camped in Ballari throughout the campaign. This is a big win for him and his party.
The region has 6 parliamentary seats and this result will bolster the confidence for the alliance. Most likely all the seats here will be given to Congress candidates in 2019 as the JD(S) is only a distant third player here, and this is an area the party might be keen on consolidating.
The lesson from the results here is that in any region where it is a neck-to-neck battle between the Congress and the BJP, the JD(S) alliance shifts the scale decisively in favour of the Congress.
Dented, but Not Defeated in Shimoga
Shimoga is a BJP bastion and home turf of B S Yeddyurappa; a seat he won in the 2014 parliamentary polls by a margin of over 30 percent. Yeddyurappa polled 53.69 percent of the votes in 2014 and the Congress and JD(S) candidates polled only 21 odd percent votes each.
In 2018, the coalition candidate Madhu Bangarappa, fighting on a JD(S) ticket, lost by a margin of around 47,000 votes. Yeddyurappa’s son BY Raghavendra may have scraped through, but it’s clear that the BJP can no longer sit comfortably even in its most secure seats.
The Congress- JD(S) put everything it had in this seat, and this was a big test as it would have indicated if the alliance arithmetic could get the better of the BJP in its strongholds.
In the end, Yeddyurappa’s son managed to survive, but the margin of victory is an injury.
The reason the vote share here matters is because this is an indicator that even the BJP strongholds aren’t going to be a cake walk for the party in 2019.
In places like Shimoga and Coastal Karnataka, the BJP has traditionally won huge, and this had meant that the party could focus its resources in other parts of the state. But if the Congress- JD(S) alliance can give it a tough fight even in these regions, then the BJP could be tied down.
This is the case in around 8 to 10 Lok Sabha seats in the state.
Why Mandya Matters
This is the heart of the Old Mysore region and the Cauvery belt. It has been a traditional JD(S) Vokkaliga caste-based bastion and the fight here is usually a straight Congress vs JD(S) battle. This is why there was serious in-fighting and friction, when the Congress gave the seat to the JD(S) which fielded Shivarame Gowda.
In 2014, the Congress lost this seat to the JD(S) by a wafer-thin margin of less than 0.5 percent votes. The Congress candidate and party social media icon Divya Spandana polled 43.5 percent against the JDS candidate’s 43.97 percent.
The decision to give this seat to the JDS in these bypolls was followed by serious dissidence in the Congress, and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had to work hard to keep things under control.
In effect, the results here never really mattered. It was obvious that the alliance candidate would win as the BJP has only a marginal presence. As expected, Shivarame Gowda has won with a massive margin.
However, Mandya poses a deeper and long-term problem for the Congress. How will it balance the alliance in the Old Mysore region without abdicating its electoral base?
It cannot afford to give too many such seats away to the JD(S) in the parliamentary election, and this is a major challenge.
In fact, some observers feel that the decision to give the Mandya seat to the JD(S) opens the doors for the BJP in the Old Mysore region. This is a long-term problem for the Congress. The JD(S) has its base amongst the Vokkaliga caste here, but the Congress base is a combination of castes opposed to the Vokkaliga domination, apart from having its own Vokkaliga leadership.
Abandoning these seats to the JD(S), especially a seat like Mandya, could mean a backlash from other castes and that is dangerous for the party. Seatsharing with the JD(S) will be a major challenge in this region as the JD(S) would want a lion’s share here.
The Two Assembly Seats
As expected, the alliance has won comfortably in both Ramanagara and Jamkhandi.
In Ramanagara assembly seat, Anita Kumaraswamy, wife of the chief minister, had a cake walk after the BJP candidate L Chandrashekar publicly withdrew from the contest at the last minute.
In fact, this was a major embarrassment for the BJP, as the candidate’s announcement came just a few days before polls, much after the last day for withdrawing nominations. In effect, his name was on the EVMs but only as a formality.
In Jamkhandi seat, it was expected that Congress candidate Anand Nyamagowda, son of late MLA Siddu B Nyamagowda is leading comfortably. This was also expected as he had a sympathy factor going in his favour after his father died in a road accident.
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(The writer is an independent journalist. He can be reached @TMVRaghav . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)