The Karnataka Assembly polls would be the first of the four "semi-finals" between the BJP and the Congress before the 2024 general elections, and the notion of a sympathy factor for the grand old party post the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from the Lok Sabha would also be put to test in the high-stakes contest.
Four assembly elections — Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — are scheduled for this year in which the BJP and the Congress are in a direct contest and they would set the tone for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
The four states together have 93 Lok Sabha seats, which account for 17 per cent of its total strength, but they are close to 50 per cent of about 190 seats where BJP and Congress were in a direct fight in 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
In Karnataka, the Congress' vote share rose marginally to 38 per cent in the 2018 assembly elections from 36.6 per cent in 2013 but its tally fell from 122 to 78. On the other hand, BJP's vote share was marginally lower than that of Congress but at 36.2 per cent it recorded the highest so far and also managed to bag more seats at 104, though it fell short of nine seats for a comfortable majority in a House of 224. The BJP had won 40 seats in 2013 state elections.
The BJP currently has 119 seats, followed by the Congress with 75. The JD (S) has 28 MLAs, while two seats are vacant.
Experts feel that the polls in Karnataka will indicate which way the political wind is blowing but one should not get carried away by the result as the issues at play in elections in states and at the national level differ.
Sanjay K Pandey, political commentator and professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said the Karnataka polls would be the first of the "four semi-finals" before 2024 polls. He, however, also cautioned not to read too much in the results as state polls are often guided by different issues.
"More than the BJP, it is a test for the Congress as to whether it can put up a spirited fight before the 2024 finale," Pandey said.
The contest in Karnataka is largely between the BJP and the Congress but JD(S) in the past has proven to be a crucial cog in the political wheel.
For the Congress, in Karnataka, it has been hitting the right notes after the passage of the Bharat Jodo Yatra last year despite the looming shadow of simmering tensions between chief ministerial hopefuls Siddaramaiah and D K Shivakumar.
The party has organised a state-wide bus tour called 'Praja Dhwani Yatra', jointly led by party state unit president Shivakumar and leader of the opposition in the state assembly, Siddaramaiah.
The Congress has described the Bharat Jodo Yatra as a "booster dose" but whether it will provide the party a new lease of life in election-bound states such as Karnataka is a million-dollar question.
Another crucial aspect would be whether the Congress can capitalise on the sympathy factor following Rahul Gandhi's disqualification from Lok Sabha and whether it would work electorally.
The Congress seems to be fighting the polls in Karnataka so far on the strength of its local leadership and focusing on issues concerning the state, making corruption a central theme of its campaigning. The polls are also a prestige battle for the grand old party with a Kannadiga M Mallikarjun Kharge, who hails from Kalaburagi district, at its helm as the national president.
For the BJP also, it is a crucial election as if it manages to retain power in the state, the only one it rules in the south, its push for power in other southern states could also get a boost.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching a number of projects in Karnataka in the run-up to the announcement of the assembly polls, the BJP is confident that the prime minister's appeal and his fervent call for continuing the "double-engine" government in the state will combine with its development narrative to give it an edge over the Congress.
In a state where the Congress continues to remain robust organisationally and has strong regional satraps, the BJP top brass believes that larger factors overshadow local issues to quell the opposition challenge, as seen in several assembly polls.
It is of the view that its disciplined organisational machinery will be in a better position to deal with any disaffection within its ranks born out of ticket distribution and internal rivalries than the Congress.
Noted political scientist Sanjay Kumar, who is also the co-director of Lokniti-CSDS, said the ruling BJP faces a challenge from the Congress in Karnataka and the fight in the state is in no way going to be one-sided.
"There is some anti-incumbency mood in the state against the ruling BJP as there have been charges of corruption. But still what goes in the favour of the BJP is the divided opposition," he said.
Kumar, however, said there will be no impact of the Karnataka polls outcome on the 2024 elections. "In the 2018 assembly elections, BJP's performance was not so good. Congress' vote share was much higher than that of the BJP. But look at what happened in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Out of 28 Lok Sabha seats in the state, 25 were won by the BJP," he said.
Manindra Nath Thakur, associate professor at JNU's Centre for Political Studies, said if the margin of the result is big, then it may have a larger message for 2024 but if it is a close contest then not much can be read for the general elections.
However, the election is crucial with BJP and the Congress facing-off in a direct contest, he added.
The Election Commission on Wednesday announced that Assembly elections in Karnataka will be held in a single phase on May 10 and the votes counted on May 13.
Meanwhile, an opinion poll by the ABP News-C Voter on Wednesday predicted Congress' victory in the Karnataka elections.
The Congress is likely to win 115-127 seats and secure 40.1 per cent of the total vote share, it said in a statement.
"BJP is projected to achieve 68-80 seats with a 34.7 per cent vote share, while JD-S is predicted to be in a distant third position, with a relatively low vote share of 17.9 per cent and 23-35 seats," it said. — pti
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