Bengaluru: The Karnataka bypoll results were a mixed bag for the two main parties in the state, with the BJP winning Sindagi in a landslide but the Congress triumphing in Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai’s backyard of Hangal. The Congress also managed to pull itself up to second spot in Sindagi from third in the previous election, despite the fact that its gambit to field a former Janata Dal (Secular) MLA’s son fell through because of some remnants of anti-incumbency.
The JD(S) emerged as the biggest loser, with its strategy to field Muslim candidates in both seats, which the Congress alleged was a strategy to split votes, backfiring.
Since the results were declared, however, the biggest takeaway from the bypolls have been the rumblings in the BJP camp over Bommai’s leadership and the sudden assertiveness of former CM B.S. Yediyurappa, who was forced to step down from the chair just a few months ago.
“I wish to convey to all the workers of BJP in Karnataka that I will visit every district and interact with workers and strengthen the party after 15-20 days,” Yediyurappa said Tuesday, responding to bypoll results.
This is the first time that Yediyurappa has made such an assertion after his plan to go on a statewide tour in September was junked by the party leadership. The assertion comes with good reason.
“The party realised it needed B.S. Yediyurappa towards the final hours after a realistic assessment at Hangal,” an aide of the former CM told ThePrint, adding that if not for the last-minute “turbo” campaign of Bommai and Yediyurappa, the BJP would have lost Hangal by a margin of 25,000 to 30,000 votes. The eventual margin of defeat was just over 7,000 votes.
Although BJP leaders publicly insist that the results do not cast a shadow on Bommai’s leadership, the campaign has left many cracks within.
“Those who came to the BJP from the Congress-JD(S) coalition in 2019 took centre stage despite not knowing anything about the seat in campaigns, while BJP old-timers like Jagadish Shettar who understand the constituency were ignored,” a senior state cabinet minister told ThePrint, hinting at the dissent brewing in the party.
The grouse isn’t just against Bommai, but also the party’s leadership.
“There was miscalculation from the party’s end. Right from candidate selection to in-charge appointments and expectations of unity among local leaders who didn’t agree with the candidate,” Yediyurappa’s aide added, pointing out that the former CM’s son and current state BJP vice-president B.Y. Vijayendra was left behind in his hotel room on one of the three days he was asked to campaign.
“An attempt to force unity among leaders on ground in Hangal backfired,” the minister quoted above said, adding that personal attacks against opposition leader Siddaramaiah and the JD(S) move to field Muslim candidates in both seats led to consolidation of OBC and Muslim votes in favour of the Congress.
Ajay Singh, chief whip of the Congress, told ThePrint: “Siddaramaiah held meetings with leaders of the minority community to expose the JD(S) game plan. We convinced them that JD(S) was trying to split votes like they did in Basavakalyan to help the BJP.”
Why Hangal loss overshadows Sindagi win for BJP
The disappointment at Hangal overshadows the landslide in Sindagi for the BJP, not simply because the bypolls were Basavaraj Bommai’s test of electoral leadership, but also because the seat is surrounded by home turfs of BJP leaders.
While Shiggaon, Bommai’s home constituency, shares its borders with Hangal, Yediyurappa’s Shikaripura is barely 50 km away. Neighbouring Hirekerur and Yellapur are Agriculture Minister B.C. Patil’s and Labour Minister Shivaram Hebbar’s constituencies.
Haveri and Soraba seats are represented by BJP MLAs Neharu Olekar and Kumar Bangarappa, respectively. The MP from Haveri Lok Sabha seat, under which Hangal falls, is BJP’s Shivakumar Udasi.
Bommai, who began his campaign for the bypolls from Hangal on 17 October, camped in the constituency for nine days, compared to his two-day campaign in Sindagi.
Congress win-win despite a hit and a miss
Speaking to ThePrint, BJP National General Secretary C.T. Ravi gave reasons for the party’s loss in Hangal.
“Delay in our candidate selection and JD(S)’s abysmal performance affected us. We expected JD(S) to win at least 4,000 to 5,000 votes in Hangal,” Ravi said. He agreed that had it not been for Bommai’s herculean efforts, the margin would have been wider.
Bommai himself said after the results Tuesday that the winning Congress candidate, Srinivas Mane, won on the merit of his work in the constituency.
“People have taken cognisance of the work that Congress candidate Srinivas Mane has done in the last two years and voted in his favour,” Bommai told reporters, adding that the result was not a referendum on his leadership.
“Bypoll results are a consequence of local specificities. The tragedy is that we extrapolate it to be some kind of a referendum on leadership, state’s mood or party popularity,” Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and national coordinator of the Lokniti Network, told ThePrint.
While Yediyurappa’s supporters in the party compared this performance to bypolls under his leadership, Shastri said it may be an unfair comparison. “(This is) for the simple reason that B.S. Yediyurappa had a long number of years to build up that legacy, while one is expecting Bommai to do it in two months,” Shastri added.
Caste, candidate, contest
A senior minister in the Bommai cabinet who campaigned in Hangal told ThePrint that there was disappointment among cadres on the day the candidate was announced, due to his “capabilities”.
“Another place we erred is fielding candidates from the same sub-sect of Lingayats (Ganiga) in both seats,” the minister said on condition of anonymity.
The minister added that the party central leadership’s decision to not give a ticket to late MLA C.M. Udasi’s kin, fearing anti-incumbency and to make a point against dynasty politics, cost the party unity. He added that many leaders refused to campaign and consolidate support of non-Lingayat castes.
“In a traditional north Karnataka ‘feudal’ constituency like Hangal, voters’ connection is essentially with families and not parties. Parties rely on these families to consolidate non-dominant caste votes. For some reason, this has broken down in Hangal,” Narendar Pani, political analyst and dean at the School of Social Sciences, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, told ThePrint.
He added that in Hangal, non-Lingayat caste consolidation worked in favour of Congress.
The lack of unity on the ground under Bommai’s leadership and the dependence on him for consolidation of Lingayat votes seems to have emboldened Yediyurappa, noted a senior psephologist from Karnataka who didn’t wish to be named.
“This is a fantastic result for Yediyurappa personally. The results have cemented his stature as an indispensable face for the party,” the psephologist said, adding that Yediyurappa’s politics enables him to get more personal mileage irrespective of the party’s prospects.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)