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Karnataka Bypolls: BJP The Underdog In Face Of Opposition Unity

BJP could well lose one more Lok Sabha seat here in face of a determined, united Opposition, if not two.

Media coverage goes wall-to-wall at any sign of weakening unity among the Opposition parties. When Mayawati declared she would not contest in alliance with Congress in upcoming assembly elections in five states, many journalists immediately claimed that Opposition unity was dead and Narendra Modi would now face no real opposition in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, events during the Karnataka bypoll election campaign should worry these commentators. BJP could well lose one more Lok Sabha seat here in face of a determined, united Opposition, if not two.

Three Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka — Shivamogga and Ballari previously held by the BJP and Mandya by the Janata Dal (Secular) — will see bypolls on November 3. Whoever wins will get all of six months to serve his constituency, and the results will not really affect the composition of the Lok Sabha either. But this belies the importance of these bypolls. A win in any seat will boost confidence of party workers ahead of the big battle that matters. A loss could cost some political heavyweights their influence. An upset will raise the political temperature. Importantly, it will show what a united Opposition can achieve against Modi’s BJP.

This is because the Karnataka bypolls have been virtually a model of an Opposition working together. The leading Opposition party, the Congress, has often been accused of being arrogant towards the smaller, regional parties, but this has not been evident in the Karnataka bypoll campaign. Having staked claim to fight the seats of Ballari and Shivamogga based on its performance in the assembly polls, Congress withdrew from the latter to accommodate the JD(S), its smaller partner in the Karnataka government. The Congress did so despite having pulled in more than two lakh votes than the JD(S) did in the eight assembly segments that comprise Shivamogga Lok Sabha seat — all for the stated cause of putting up the strongest candidate against the BJP’s BY Raghavendra.

The Congress and JD(S) sense an opportunity to pull off a great upset in Shivamogga. On paper, though the BJP swept all eight segments of Shivamogga, the combined alliance votes outnumber the BJP’s by nearly a lakh in May this year. Their combined vote percentage at 52% crossed the winning threshold for a Lok Sabha seat. The BJP vote share was at 44%.

But adding up votes on paper is not the same as winning on the ground. For that, you need a strong candidate and an aggressive campaign. And in Shivamogga, that candidate was S Madhu Bangarappa, a former JD(S) MLA. Madhu, pointing to the support he has from the Congress, is confident about avenging his recent defeat at the hands of his brother S Kumar Bangarappa of the BJP in the Sorab assembly seat.

Shivamogga is where the JD(S) stronghold of Malnad region meets the BJP stronghold of coastal Karnataka. Bangarappa is from the Idiga community which has large presence in several assembly seats of Shivamogga which are neighboring Malnad. Lingayats dominate other segments. In a close contest, deciding votes lie with the scheduled castes, and this is where the Congress support can tip the scales in favour of Bangarappa. Going all out to grab the opportunity, the Congress’ tallest leader in the state, former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, campaigned for Bangarappa. Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy and Minister GT Deve Gowda of the JD(S) also campaigned and the workers of both parties coordinated their ground effort. The alliance would love to pull off an upset here, knowing it will not be a big setback if they lose.

The stakes, however, could not be higher for the BJP candidate, BY Raghavendra, who is fighting to save his father, prominent Lingayat leader and former CM BS Yeddyurappa’s home turf. Left out of the fray in the assembly elections, Raghavendra knows that if he loses the Shivamogga bypoll, this would mean the end of his father’s influence within the Karnataka BJP, if not his own political career. It’s no secret that not everyone in the BJP would be unhappy with a loss for the party here. Not a single BJP minister has come to campaign for Raghavendra, leaving him to depend on his father, brother, Shivamogga MLA KS Eshwarappa and party workers. While Kumar Bangarappa has also been campaigning among Idigas, his aim is seen more as defeating his brother Madhu than getting Raghavendra elected.

Events in Ballari will also have an impact in Shivamogga. Here, Karnataka voters saw former Prime Minister and JD(S) chief HD Deve Gowda share the campaign stage with his former protégé turned bête noire Siddaramaiah, as part of the Congress party’s high decibel campaign for VS Ugrappa. The BJP, whose candidate B Sriramulu last held the seat, is going into the bypoll as the underdog.

The Congress swept six of the eight assembly segments of Ballari in the assembly polls. The JD(S) recorded a strong presence only in the Kudligi assembly segment. But the Congress-JD(S) combined took nearly 48% votes across all 8 assembly segments, compared to BJP’s 40%, and was ahead of BJP by nearly a lakh votes. In a parliamentary poll, even the few thousand JD(S) voters in each assembly segment will make the difference between victory and defeat. HD Deve Gowda’s presence was to ensure that this conversion happens in favour of Congress, which has been campaigning vigorously and garnering massive crowds. At the end of the campaign, Upgrappa looks in a strong position to defeat BJP’s J Shantha, sister of Sriramulu and a former Ballari MP herself. Congress could well pull off an upset this time.

The Mandya Lok Sabha bypoll is virtually a no-contest. The JD(S) swept all eight assembly segments in May — at the expense of the Congress party, which is now backing its candidate. The average vote share of the alliance across eight seats was 91%. Together, they were ahead of BJP by over 12 lakh votes. Even with a low turnout, JD(S)’ L Shivarame Gowda will win. We will find out on counting day, November 6, whether BJP’s Dr Siddaramaiah manages to retain his deposit.

Two assembly seats of Ramanagaram and Jamkhandi will also see bypolls. In Jamkhandi, a real fight is on between late Congress MLA Siddu Nyamagouda’s son Anand and BJP’s Shrikant Kulkarni, who lost the assembly election by less than 3,000 votes. The seat is in play; hence the campaign saw presence of senior Congress leaders from Siddaramaiah to Deputy CM G Parameshwara and MB Patil, and BJP heavyweights Jagadish Shettar and BS Yeddyurappa.

The JD(S) support doesn’t add up to much here, however Anand Nyamagouda has the advantage of being the candidate of the ruling coalition, which has won both assembly bypolls to date. Ramanagaram, the one seat where Opposition unity faltered, is now officially a no-contest with the BJP candidate pulling out in favour of alliance candidate Anitha Kumaraswamy. BJP hopes that disgruntled Congress workers opposing her nomination would benefit them went up in smoke.

Lesley A Esteves is former Digital Editor at National Herald.

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