Early this month, the Election Commission announced the poll schedule for a handful of states in the Northeast. However, it is the Karnataka assembly election due later in the first half of this year, the month of May to be more precise, that has everyone's attention.
Apart from being one of the economic powerhouses of the country, this major south Indian state has a special significance for the primary pan-India political players - BJP and Congress. It could well be a portent of how the 2024 Lok Sabha polls play out in the state which sends 28 members to Parliament.
Both parties are prime claimants for the 224 assembly seats at stake in Karnataka. The incumbent BJP government in the state hopes to return to power on the strength of the 'Double-Engine' sarkar model propounded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The Congress which has ruled Karnataka for the most time, is eyeing a return to power on the anti-corruption and anti-communalism planks.
However, the current situation in Karnataka politics is a minefield that makes it equally complicated for both the rivals to achieve a majority on their own in the Legislative Assembly, come May 2023.
For starters, the electorate has exhibited a willingness to experiment with alternatives whenever they arise. For instance, from a Congress bastion in the initial years of state formation, the state gradually emerged as a strong base for the Janata Parivar, and in later years inclined towards the BJP.
Of the 15 Assembly formations since 1952, the first seven were led by the Congress. In 1983 the Janata Party stormed to power for the first time with Ramakrishna Hegde as the chief minister.
Even as the battle for supremacy raged between the two political ideologies over the next two decades, the BJP was making inroads in the state. The party formed it's first government in south India with the swearing in of BS Yediyurappa as Karnataka chief minister in 2008.
The electoral battle's evolution into a triangular fight increases the chances of a hung Assembly, opine insiders from all the three parties. The recent entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Karnataka is set to further complicate the outcome of the forthcoming assembly polls.
In the 2018 Assembly elections, the BJP led by BS Yediyurappa emerged as the single largest party with 104 seats, followed by the Congress with 78 seats and the Janata Dal (S) with 37 seats. Unleashing 'Operation Lotus' to lure legislators from the opposition ranks, Yediyurappa managed to take the BJP strength to 120 seats, and form the government.
But the outlook for the 2023 assembly polls is not looking so rosy for the party right now.
According to BJP sources, the high-level internal meeting on Friday night projected a gloomy scenario for the 2023 Assembly polls. "Of the 224 assembly seats, only 30 have been categorised as 'A' or 'sure BJP win seats', while as many as 70 seats have been categorised as 'D' or 'definite BJP defeat' seats," the sources said.
Apart from anti-incumbency, corruption, and administration-deficit issues, the ruling BJP will be hamstrung by the half-hearted efforts of old warhorse and former chief minister BS Yediyurappa, who is miffed ever since he was forced to step down a little over a year ago, and has been sidelined by the party ever since.
With a 'younger' Bommai leading the government, the BJP has adopted a pro-Hindutva approach as the elections approach. Critics say that the BJP has taken up aggressive Hindutva to tide over the public resentment over corruption and scams in government departments.
On the other hand, the opposition Congress is battling it's own internal devils. While it has two strong leaders, former chief minister Siddaramaiah and state unit head DK Shivakumar, both are eyeing the chief ministerial seat if the party regains power. Adding to the party's electoral challenges is the surcharged communal atmosphere in the state, especially in the crucial coastal and north Karnataka regions. The party is treading cautiously in an effort to avoid antagonising Hindus. For instance, when the Congress' Karnataka working president Satish Jharkiholi recently stated that the term 'Hindu' is of Persian origin and denotes a slave, the party clamped down on it. Its ambivalent stand is costing the Congress party the minority vote which has been drifting gradually towards the Janata Dal (Secular).
Former Prime Minister and former Karnataka chief minister HD Deve Gowda's Janata Dal (S), largely confined to some areas of Old Mysore region and north Karnataka, has been the beneficiary of the triangular battle in the state. While the party leadership claims that it will contest all the seats and form the next government, party insiders concede, "We will be the biggest gainers in case of a hung assembly which seems extremely likely in the present scenario."
The recent setback in the Gujarat assembly polls has not dampened the AAP's spirits in Karnataka. The party has been steadily adding to its ranks prominent citizens from various walks of life. Hampered by its lack of grassroots presence, the party is aggressively highlighting civic issues which is the Achilles heel of the Bommai government, especially in capital city Bengaluru.
While the AAP may not create waves in the Karnataka assembly elections just as the Janata Dal (S) might not form the government, the fact remains that the presence of these players will have a bearing on the winning prospects of both, the Congress and the BJP. When votes are counted after the assembly polls in May, Karnataka may well prove to be a riddle for the two parties, especially with Lok Sabha polls set for early 2024.