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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 40, September 25, 2010

Karnataka: A Loud Wake-up Call

Tuesday 28 September 2010, by Sandeep Shastri

Karnataka was witness to hectic electoral activity in the last few weeks on account of the two by-elections to the State Assembly. These by-elections were held in two different corners of the State. One was held in northern Karnataka and the other in south Karnataka. The results would require all the major political forces in the State to do some serious soul-searching. The incumbent party has lost in both the seats. Does it signifiy anti-incumbency? Not necessarily. The incumbency factor gets overshadowed in a by-poll wherein a wide range of constituency-specific factors assume greater significance.

Gulbarga (South) and Kadur saw some element of dissatisfaction among the immediate family members of the former MLAs whose deaths caused the by-elections. In Gulbarga, the BJP decided to ignore the claims of the former MLA’s family members resulting in his wife accepting the JD(S) ticket and winning the election. In Kadur, the battle within the family of the deceased MLA saw the brother getting the party nod and the son being none-too-happy about the party decision. It has now become a tradition in by-elections caused by the death of the sitting legislator for the party to nominate the political heir from the family. The BJP has had to pay a price for refusing to follow this tradition in Gulbarga (South) and in Kadur the Congress possibly annointed the ‘wrong‘ political heir!

What are the wider implications of these results? The internal power struggle within both the BJP and Congress will definitely be intensified. The statements and offers of resignation from party positions that the results have trigerred off, are clearly just the initial rumblings. More can be surely expected in the days to come.

The BJP Government had seen the by-elections as a referendum on its performance. It could take solace from the fact that it had no net loss as it wrested a seat even as it lost one that it held. Of course, those who would like to take credit for the Kadur victory would, in the days and weeks to come, be seen jockeying for ministerial berths as and when the reshuffle of the Council of Ministers happens. A defeat in northern Karnataka should alarm the BJP as this was a region where it had done well in both the 2008 Assembly poll and the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. It is apparent that there was a split in the vote of the influential Lingayat community which should be a matter of concern for the BJP. It could be argued that the victory in Gulbarga (South) was essentially on account of the sympathy factor and the denial of the party ticket (by the BJP) to the next of kin of the deceased MLA.

The JD(S) would be delighted with the Gulbarga victory as it capitalised on the opportunity provided by the decision of the BJP not to field a family member of the former MLA. The party was able to revive the base it earlier had in this constiuency in the late 1980s and 1990s. The defeat of a prominent leader of the JD(S) from Kadur would, of course, be a matter of concern for the party.
The real loser in the by-elections is beyond doubt the Congress party. Ever since it has lost power in the State, it has been unable to chart out a blue-print for its a recovery. Even though it had a high-profile candidate in Gulbarga (South) and nominated the brother of the deceased MLA in Kadur, it was not able to succeed in either electoral contest. The party has been unable to get its act together the recent padayatra notwithstanding, and there are enough indications to show that the campaign in both the seats did not have the unqualified support of all sections in the party.

All in all, the by-election results are a wake-up call, loud and clear, for the two principal parties in the politics of the State—the Congress and BJP.

Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist, is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Jain University, Bangalore. He can be reached at sshastri@eth.net

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