Karnataka Elections: Can Bommai Break The Jinx And Return As CM?

No Chief Minister has returned to power in Karnataka since Ramakrishna Hegde in 1985. Can Bommai break this trend?

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai. (Source: Official Twitter handle)</p></div>
Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai. (Source: Official Twitter handle)

The Karnataka state elections due in April-May this year is being fiercely contested with all the three major parties—the BJP, the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular)—claiming victory.

Karnataka is the only southern state where BJP is in power. It has never been able to breach other states in the zone. In many ways, this acts as the party’s gateway to the southern part of India.

The Congress desperately needs to win the state, as it is left in power in only two states—both of which face polls during the later part of the year.

It's sort of an existential crisis for the regional party JD(S). It needs to maintain, if not improve, its tally to fulfill its objective of being the kingmaker. 

All these parties are facing issues in their quest for power. The open feud between the State Congress President DK Shivakumar and ex-Chief Minister Siddaramaiah threatens to derail its comeback.

Basavaraj Bommai of BJP, who was appointed as CM after Yediyurappa resigned six months ago, is also facing opposition from senior leaders and hasn’t been able to come out of the shadows of his mentor. Rumours were rife till last month that he could be replaced. HD Kumaraswamy lacks the maturity of party patriach Deve Gowda and constant flip-flops of JD(S) have shown it as an opportunist party.

No CM Returned To Power In Last Four Decades

The population of the state is 6.1 crore—61.33% rural and 38.67% urban. Karnataka has 224 seats. 51 seats are reserved—36 for SC and 15 for ST. 

The state is divided into six regions—Old Mysuru, Bengaluru city, Hyderabad Karnataka, Bombay Karnataka, Karavali/Coastal and Central Karnataka. Bombay Karnataka (56) has the highest number of seats, followed by Old Mysuru (51) and Hyderabad Karnataka (40).

The state has been a fiefdom of the Congress party since its inception in 1957. In 1983, the first non-Congress government was installed in the state, under the leadership of Janata Party’s Ramkrishna Hegde.

BJP stormed to power in 2008, while there have been hung assemblies in 2004 and 2018, with JD(S) emerging as kingmaker and bargaining for the CM Chair. 

Karnataka Elections: Can Bommai Break The Jinx And Return As CM?

The vote share of Congress has been in the range of 35-40%, while for BJP it has been 30-35% and JD(S) has stabilised at 18-20%.

Congress has presence across the entire state, while JD(S) is mainly in Southern Karnataka. It won 24/37 seats from the Old Mysuru region. BJP is weak in this region, which has largely been a INC vs JD(S) battle in 50 seats.

BJP did make some headway in the 2018 elections, winning 10 seats in this region and making some inroads in the Vokkaliga belt.

What this means is that both BJP and JD(S) require a much higher strike rate to win the elections. In fact, for JD(S) winning on its own is a mathematical improbability. This also indicates that support of BJP and JD(S) is concentrated as compared to Congress.

BJP resultantly has won a higher number of seats than Congress in 2004, 2008 and 2018, despite a lower vote share. Even when JD(S) won in 1994, it reported a lower vote share than Congress.

Karnataka Elections: Can Bommai Break The Jinx And Return As CM?

Caste Is Cast In Stone In Karnataka

Caste plays an important factor in Karnataka, as in most parts of the country. Lingayats and Vokkaligas accounting for 29% of the population, are the most dominant and influential groups of the state. The SC/ST account for 24% of the total population, the Kurubas comprise 8%, and Muslims comprise 13%. 

Though Lingayats and Vokkaligas belong to the OBC group, they are part of upper OBCs—something like Yadavs/Kurmis of Bihar and U.P. The present Assembly has 100 MLAs (45% of total strength) from the two communities, 58 Lingayats and 42 Vokkaligas which is 1.5 times of their population size. 38/58 Lingayat MLAs belong to the BJP, while 23/42 Vokkaliga MLAs belong to the JD(S).

Acronyms like LIBRA and AHINDA are commonly used terms in Karnataka politics. LIBRA, which is Lingayat plus Brahmins, are anchor voting segments of BJP (18%). AHINDA, which is Alpasankhyataru, Hindulidavaru Mattu Dalitaru (Dalits, Backward Classes & Muslims), have traditionally largely supported the Congress. The Vokkaligas (12%) have backed Deve Gowda’s JD(S). 

While the BJP CM is a Lingayat, Kumaraswamy and DK Shivakumar are Vokkaligas, Siddaramaiah is a Kuruba.

Lingayats dominate in North Karnataka, Hyderabad Karnataka and Old Mumbai region. Vokkaligas are the dominant peasant caste of Old Mysuru. 

Karnataka Elections: Can Bommai Break The Jinx And Return As CM?

BJP’s 5-Tier Strategy To Win Karnataka

The BJP government has been mired in controversies since Bommai replaced Yediyurappa. Delay in filing of complaint/arrest of Lingayat seer, allegations of massive corruption (40% commission government), the hijab row, demand of seniors like KS Eshwarappa and Ramesh Jarkihol to be re-inducted in cabinet, exit of Reddy brothers and Yediyurappa pushing for a place for his son in the scheme of things has made BJP’s case tougher.

There is resentment against Bommai in the party as he comes from a Janata Dal background. Considered Yediyurappa’s man, he has started calling the shots according to reports which has irked the mentor. 

The party has employed a five-point strategy to retain Karnataka: 

  • Maintain hold over influential Lingayat community by projecting Bommai.

  • Make a dent in JD(S) vote share by making inroads in Old Mysuru wooing the Vokkaliga vote.

  • Play the Hindutva card; Hijab row could polarise elections reaping dividends in half of the districts where Muslim population is higher than state average.

  • Woo urban voters, especially in Bengaluru region, by highlighting its development track record, raising issues of national importance and banking on the Modi factor.

  • Deploy a targeted beneficiary outreach campaign. 

A Repeat Of 2018 In 2023?

In 2018, the BJP emerged as the single largest party with nine seats short of majority. Yediyurappa couldn’t muster majority and Congress-JD(S) joined hands to form a government in the state. Kumaraswamy became the CM, despite JD(S) having less than half the seats of Congress. This unnatural/opportunistic alliance didn’t last long, as 17 MLAs of ruling parties resigned from their membership and joined the BJP, paving the way for return of Yediyurappa as CM.

After a long court battle, most of them won on a BJP ticket. JD(S) is again banking on a hung assembly situation. Congress hopes anti-incumbency against BJP will help it get majority on its own. BJP hopes the split of opposition votes would help the party.

No chief minister has returned to power in Karnataka since Ramakrishna Hegde in 1985. Will this trend continue in 2023? Or will there be a hung assembly situation like in 2018? Only time will tell…

Amitabh Tiwari is a political commentator, strategist, and consultant advising political parties and leaders. He was previously a corporate and investment banker.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.