So now we know how the people of Karnataka in five constituencies – three Lok Sabha and two Vidhan Sabha – have spoken. The five seats were from the Old Mysuru region (Ramanagara assembly and Mandya LS), central Karnataka (Shivamogga), Mumbai-Karnataka (Jamkhandi) and Hyderabad-Karnataka (Ballari LS). (Note : Some analysts would put Ballari in central Karnataka as well).
So they give a fair sense of the mood of the state six months after it threw up a fractured verdict to the Vidhana Soudha, resulting in the Congress and the JD(S) coming together to keep the BJP out of power.
These are my ten takeaways from the verdict of the Karnataka byelections that went 4-1 in the favour of the alliance.
1. Math works. Repeat that. Math works. It worked to bring down BS Yeddyurappa’s son BY Raghavendra winning margin significant in Shivamogga. BSY in 2014 had won this Lok Sabha seat by 3.6 lakh votes. When you look at that kind of margin, you can only say Raghavendra was lucky to scrape through by 50000 votes. The optics of Deve Gowda and Siddaramaiah together on the campaign stage created the right impact on the voter’s mind.
2. Do not poach. Or at least poach intelligently. Ramanagara was a unnecessary fiasco. No one quite expected the BJP to score an upset win in the constituency that chief minister HD Kumaraswamy had vacated so the party could have used the opportunity to give one of its deserving karyakartas to test the waters. By importing a Congress leader who went back to his parent party on the last day of campaigning, embarrassed the BJP. It showed lack of ground level intel.
3. Ballari is bad news for Sriramulu and his backers, the Reddy brothers. The public of the `Republic of Ballari’ decided to show Sriramulu the door by rejecting his sister J Shanta (former MP In 2009) by a margin of around 2 lakh votes. It is the margin that made it humiliating because this ended the 14-year long hegemony of the Reddy brothers and Co. over Ballari. It is also a rebuff to Gali Janardhana Reddy who has been trying to influence the politics of Ballari by staying on the periphery of the district since he is not allowed to step inside as per court orders.
Criticise but do not make the campaign ugly and personal. Janardhana Reddy referred to death of Siddaramaiah’s son Rakesh due to multiple organ failure in 2016 as “a punishment from God”. Though the BJP distanced itself from Reddy’s uncivilised remark, asking him to apologise to Siddaramaiah, the damage was done. Many in Ballari were horrified at the level of political discourse sinking to this terrible low. After the results came, Siddaramaiah was to hit back by saying “Ballari people have cursed Janardhana Reddy for his inhuman behaviour”.
4. Ever since the coalition government was formed, Kumaraswamy has spent much time firefighting. The feel good factor after these victories may give him a breather at least for some time. But that may last only for a while as the much-expected cabinet expansion is overdue. With the bypolls out of the way, expect the Congress leaders to start putting pressure to get inducted into the ministry.
5. The knives will be out for Yeddyurappa. The Shivamogga margin is hardly likely to please him and the 4-1 drubbing even more. A win in Ballari and an upset win against the sympathy wave in Jamkhandi for Anand Nyamagouda would have made it party time for the BJP. The party will look at it as an opportunity lost. Add to that the Ramanagara fiasco and Yeddyurappa will have to answer many tough questions from New Delhi.
6. With Yeddyurappa crossing 75, the BJP will have to look at leaders beyond the former chief minister even though he still is the tallest pan-Karnataka leader it has. With Ananth Kumar also unwell, the BJP has a problem on its hands. Karnataka with its 28 seats is too important a catchment area for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP will go with Modi as its mascot but it needs strong ground-level mobilisation to beat the opposition arithmetic.
7. Siddaramaiah has taken revenge against Sriramulu for Badami. When the former CM decided to contest from Badami in addition to Chamundeswari in May 2018 elections, the BJP fielded Sriramulu to make matters difficult for him. Sriramulu succeeded in doing so and Siddaramaiah just about managed to win by 1700 votes. To defeat Sriramulu in his Ballari den would have given Siddaramaiah some satisfaction.
8. But there is reason to cheer in the numbers for the BJP as well. Despite the desertion by Chandrasekhar in Ramanagara, the BJP tally went up by 4800 in May to 15000 now. In Mandya, its candidate had secured close to 87000 votes in 2014, that number shot up to 2.44 lakh this time. This means good news for the BJP that in the tie-up between the JD(S) and Congress, both of who are strong in Old Mysuru region, it is able to get the main opposition space from where it can gradually grow.
9. Is there reason for Narendra Modi to worry? Yes and No. He should of course worry about the arithmetic but byelections are a different kettle of fish from the real elections. Modi and Amit Shah would do well to look at the April 2017 byelections to Nanjungud and Gundlupet, both of them won by the ruling Congress, one year before the assembly elections. But come May 2018, the BJP won both seats. Moreover, these results aren’t really a commentary on Modi, it was like round two of the assembly elections playing out, this time with Congress and JD(S) pooling resources. The state leaders of all three parties were the ones who led the campaign.
10. The Karnataka experiment is the Congress opportunity to show that it can work with smaller alliance partners, even give them a significant share of the power pie. To that extent, the results will make it a happy Deepavali gift from Karnataka. But it would do well not to think that arithmetic will work the magic everytime in every constituency in 2019 too. The general elections with the Modi card, will be a different ballgame altogether.