BJP bets on Modi to check Congress in Karnataka

By Fakir Balaji,

Bangalore : A staggering 46 million voters will elect 28 lawmakers when Karnataka votes Thursday in the sixth phase of the general election and the BJP is betting big on its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi to do well.

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The political fortunes of 434 candidates, including 195 independents and 21 women, in 28 parliamentary constituencies, with five reserved for Dalits (SCs) and two for tribals (STs), will be decided.

“Polling is in one phase this time unlike in the past, as we were able to conduct elections to the 224 legislative assembly segments on a single day – May 5, 2013,” state Chief Electoral Officer Anil Kumar Jha told IANS ahead of the voting day.

With the Congress returning to power in May 2013 after a decade and extending its honeymoon period to ride on its pro-poor image, an embattled BJP is betting on the popularity of Modi to retain as many of the 19 seats it won in the 2009 elections.

Though the Congress won only six seats in the last general elections, it improved the tally to nine by winning all three bye-elections held during the 15th Lok Sabha term.

The ruling party first wrested the Udupi-Chikmagalur seat in March 2012 from the BJP and subsequently the Mandya and Bangalore Rural seats from the JD-S in August 2013, reducing the latter’s strength to one from three earlier.

Besides the two arch rivals (Congress & BJP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are contesting all 28 seats, while a shrinking JD-S is locked in 24, as one of its candidates (Naseer Bhagwan) retired from Belgaum due to financial crunch and it did not have candidates for three other seats.

Realising that the Congress benefited from the vote-split in the assembly polls, caused by Karnataka Janata Party (KJP), a regional outfit, floated by former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa, a desperate BJP lured him back into its fold to prevent a repeat of the 2013 debacle and regain votes in its strongholds across coastal, central and northern regions of the state.

In spite of losing the state nearly a year ago owing to scams, scandals and sleaze, a united and resurgent BJP is hoping to ride on a `Modi wave’ claimed by its frenzied cadres and die-hard supporters to be sweeping the country.

Unfazed by the BJP charge, an upbeat Congress has been trying to make light of the anti-incumbency trend simmering in the people against the UPA government for its failure to check price rise, inflation, corruption and jobless growth.

Sensing anger of the people against the Congress and the mood for a change at the helm, the BJP’s state unit made Modi visit Karnataka four times during the last three weeks to campaign for its candidates by addressing a dozen public rallies across the state.

To counter and neutralise the `Modi effect’ on the electorate, the Congress too made its president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi visit the state last week and both had cautioned the people against voting for Modi, saying he was divisive and polarises people on religious and communal lines.

With JD-S supremo and former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda fighting to retain his Hassan seat for the sixth term and his son and former chief minister H.D. Kumarswamy trying his luck this time from Chikkaballapur, about 70 km from here, it will be interesting to see whose party AAP will spoil or damage most as it has fielded candidates for all 28 seats.

About 70 percent of the state’s population of 63.9 million constitutes the electorate, with 23.5 million male and 22.6 million female voters. Other voters include 40,729 service voters.

The electorate’s profile also reveals the demographic divide across the state, as 50 percent (23 million) of them are below 40 years and 10.4 million of them in the 20-29 years age group, while first-time voters in the 18-19 years are around 1.6 million.

The Bangalore North constituency has the largest electorate – 2.39 million voters, while Udupi-Chickmagalur in the coastal area has the smallest number of voters – 1.39 million.

Bangalore Central, however, has maximum number of candidates (25) in the fray while the Gulbarga reserved constituency has a minimum, five contestants.

Of all the 28 Lok Sabha constituencies going to the polls Thursday across Karnataka, 10 seats are in spotlight for their high-profile candidates, including Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, and the high octane campaign they unleashed to woo voters.

For apolitical reasons, Bangalore South is the cynosure, as the Congress has fielded technocrat Nandan Nilekani, the country’s uber rich with personal wealth of whopping Rs.7,710 crore, to log out BJP’s five-time winner N.H. Ananth Kumar, who is sweating it out to retain the seat.

What makes the contest in this tech hub keenly watched is its voters’ profile, as half of them are young, smart, upwardly mobile and aspiring to be global in vision and local in execution.

Not to be over-shadowed is the adjacent Bangalore Central seat, where the ruling party has pitted young Congress leader Rizwan Arshad against financial wizard and former Infosys director V. Balakrishnan of the Aam Admi Party (AAP), outgoing BJP lawmaker P.C. Mohan and danseuse Nandini Alva of Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S).

As Arshad, like Nilekani, is the pick of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, the ruling party’s state unit is pulling out all stops to wrest the seat from the BJP and help the scion in becoming the country’s next prime minister.

The neighbouring Chikkaballapur seat is also in limelight, as controversial union Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister M. Veerappa Moily of the Congress is seeking another term from the backward district, about 70 km from Bangalore.

Though Moily’s name was cleared by the party’s high command belatedly, anti-incumbency, failure to fulfill promises and aggressive campaign by rival parties made the going tough for the former chief minister, dubbed outsider, as he hails from Dakshina Kannada district in the coastal area.

AAP national convener Arvind Kejriwal and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi held road shows and public rallies in the constituency against Moily.

Former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy of JD-S is also in the fray against Moily though he is a lawmaker from the Ramanagara assembly segment in the adjacent Bangalore Rural parliamentary constituency.

Another fierce battle is being waged at Shimoga, about 300 km from Bangalore, where former BJP chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa is fighting against odds in place of his younger son and outgoing lawmaker B.Y. Raghavendra.

Unfazed by the corruption charges hurled at him by rival parties, including the AAP, Yeddyaurappa, who was lured back into the BJP, is betting on Modi frenzy and his contribution to the development of home district during his three-year tenure (2008-2011) as BJP’s first chief minister in southern India.

The entry of Geetha, wife of Kannada cine star Shivrajkumar and daughter of former chief minister S. Bangarappa, as a JD-S candidate has tied down Yeddyurappa to the constituency for aggressive campaigning, as the Congress and AAP have launched a blitzkrieg against the tainted leader for his alleged involvement in the multi-million mining scam in the state.

Similarly, in the rich mining town of Bellary in the state’s northern region, former BJP minister B.R. Sriramulu is contesting in place of his sister and outgoing member J.Shanta from the reserved tribal (ST) constituency against Congress nominee and former Odisha high court chief justice N.Y. Hanumanthappa.

Shanta was the lone woman winner from the state in the 2009 general elections, defeating Hanumanthappa, her old uncle.

Other star contestants and key constituencies are Railway Minister Mallikarjun Kharge of Congress seeking a second term from the Gulbarga reserved (SC) constituency, former chief minister N. Dharam Singh of the Congress from Bidar in the northern region for a second term and former BJP’s lone woman cabinet minister Shobha Karandlaje from Udupi-Chikmagalur against outgoing Congress lawmaker Jayaprakash Hegde.

For the first time, six former chief ministers, with two each from the Congress, BJP and JD-S are in the fray across the state.

Former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda of JD-S from Hassan, about 180 km from Bangalore, and former BJP chief minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda from Bangalore North are the other two former chief ministers in fray.

Deve Gowda was the Janata Dal-United chief minister from December 1994 to May 1996 and Sadananda Gowda was BJP’s second chief minister from August 2011 to September 2012 after Yeddyurappa resigned.

(Fakir Balaji can be contacted [email protected])