The Karnataka elections, the way things are turning out, will be quite a challenge to psephologists who analyse to death caste arithmetic and try to predict the outcome based on convoluted theories and complex statistical interpretations. It is not easy to extrapolate the mind of a population from sample answers obtained from a miniscule percentage. There are myriad forces at play and divining the mind of the voter before elections is tricky.
This time there is complete chaos in the Karnataka political landscape, making the predictions even more challenging.
The Congress Scorecard
The Congress seems rejuvenated with Rahul Gandhi taking over the mantle of leadership from Sonia Gandhi. He appears more self-assured and has shown a more serious commitment to politics than in the past. He has been relentlessly attacking the BJP's brand of politics and continues to slam the government over its actions such as demonetisation and launch of GST or allegations of nexus with disgraced diamantaire Nirav Modi.
Rahul is also now more careful with words and is drawing massive crowds. The Congress social media campaigns, led by former Kannada actor Divya Spandana, has also acquired spunk in recent times.
But such a frontal attack bears risks and could boomerang. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is still popular, as many polls have shown.
It may also not be a cakewalk for the Congress. People are canny. They eventually decide to vote based on the performance of the incumbent government. Simply put, they will vote for Congress if their lives are better than before.
Siddaramaiah, the incumbent chief minister, is a mass leader, with a wider following than other Congress leaders. But he does not have much development to show.
Job creation in rural Karnataka is almost nil. Bad roads, power shortage, scarce drinking water, poor sanitation, migration from rural to urban areas resulting in terrible living conditions, shoddily-run government schools and pathetic health care continue to plague the state like the rest of India, regardless of the party in power. Bengaluru city, which was once one of the best liveable cities in India, is grappling with creaky infrastructure.
How is the BJP doing?
Against the background of such shoddy performance, one would think the BJP would ride the Modi magic and romp home. But the party is a house in disorder.
The record of the BJP while in power under the watch of BS Yediyurappa, who has again been projected as the chief ministerial candidate, was abysmal. The government was shadowed by massive mining scams and real estate scandals.
Yediyurappa was forced by the party high command to step down. Three different chief ministers ruled the state in as many years. Things are no better now.
The party is riven with fierce feuds between factions. While some like KS Eshwarappa, a past president of the party who also aspires for the chief minister’s chair, were openly crossing swords with Yediyurappa, others were lobbying behind the scenes to prevent Yediyurappa's return to the party. Even after his return, a sizeable section opposed his name as chief ministerial candidate.
The rivalry between Union minister Ananthkumar and Yediyurappa is an open secret. Adding to these intra-party shenanigans and rivalries are the Reddy brothers who still wield enormous clout in the Bellary region. They are asserting themselves and demanding tickets for their allies in the elections.
The decision by the BJP brass to pick Yediyurappa to lead the Karnataka elections was largely a caste-based decision, overcoming stiff opposition that his choice would undermine the larger vision of the BJP as a party with a difference and at odds with Modi's election campaign credo of good governance. The central leaders threw caution to the wind aside as they were swayed by his huge influence as a leader of Lingayats, the dominant caste, who can tilt the election in the BJP’s favour.
But Siddaramaih's wily move of recommending to the Centre the state Cabinet decision of declaring Lingayats as non- Hindus and recommending minority status to the community has caught the BJP completely off guard. The Central leaders including Yediyurappa himself are flummoxed and have not made their stand clear, shifting their position frequently because they are unable to gauge the mood of the community.
The BJP is in a fix. If they woo all Hindus and consolidate these votes as one, what will happen to Lingayats if they proclaim they are not Hindus? Psephologists will have difficulty figuring that out.
Then There is the JD(S)
There is one more party, almost a spent force according to many, which is in the fray -- the Janata Dal (Secular). Though the party contends it is secular, its distribution of tickets is based on caste arithmetic, not unlike several other parties.
The JD(S) is still led by the ageing, but never-say-die octogenarian Deve Gowda. It is seen as a family party with an increasingly shrinking base.
Siddaramaiah, who was a deputy chief minister under the late JH Patel and was once a diehard Deve Gowda acolyte when the JD(S) was in power, rebelled against the party when Deve Gowda superseded him over his sons in the party hierarchy and joined the Congress.
HD Kumaraswamy, the son of Deve Gowda, became chief minister with BJP support. His term was a complete disaster.
The BJP and JD(S) were sent packing home by the voters who voted the Congress back to power. Now, the children of Deve Gowda are feuding in public over seats.
The JD(S) still wields influence in the pockets of Hassan, Mandya, Mysore , and Bengaluru rural -- the old Mysore districts that are inhabited by a large population of Gowdas, a farming community. Deve Gowda has a large following in these areas as the farmers believe he represents their interests.
He is now busy stitching up a grand electoral alliance with SP, BSP, NCP, MIM (All India Majlis -e -Ittehadul Muslimeen ), CPI and CPM. It is a quick fix of disparate groups with some of them having conflicting interests or ideologies and without much of a local cadre base to secure victory at the hustings.
Seat sharing looks tough and the efforts have already run into rough weather.
Against such a dismal backdrop, the voter is at a loss. When no party has a good record, when one is confused whether to pick better governance or improved living standards and quality of life, one simply keeps the cards close to the chest and casts the vote at the last moment according to one’s conscience. That is what I think the common people will do.
Poll pundits, all the best!
GR Gopinath is the founder of Air Deccan.