Bitter campaign ends with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi declaring that victory could see him become PM next year
Congress president Rahul Gandhi rides a bicycle in Malur on May 7 during his campaign for the Karnataka state election. (Photo by AFP)
The heat is on for the May 12 election in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, where the pro-Hindu party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and rival Congress have pursued an aggressive quest for power in the run-up to the 2019 general election.
A feverish campaign ended on May 10 with star campaigner Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi addressing a series of rallies and meetings, attacking each other’s policies at national level and almost forgetting state issues.
Congress, which runs the state, believes victory in Karnataka would boost party workers of India’s grand old political outfit, which has lost polls in various states and nationally since 2014.
For Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came to power New Delhi in 2014, it is a popularity test of its policies and, more importantly, its ideology of building a nation based on Hindu principles. Modi’s critics have accused him of making false promises of industrial growth, jobs and incentives for farmers.
The campaign proved it was not just a fight involving ideology, principles and failed promises. Inducements also matter in a state where at least 25 percent of its 61 million people are unable to read or write.
Surveillance teams appointed by the federal poll body on May 8 seized cash, alcohol, jewellery and items such as pressure cookers, clothing and laptops suspected to be used as sweeteners for votes across Karnataka.
Congress repeatedly accused Modi of lying and twisting historical facts during the election campaign to put Congress leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru in a poor light. Modi often accuses Congress leaders of apathy and ignoring India’s progress.
“Modi has been distorting facts and presenting issues out of context, giving wrong data, misrepresenting historical truths. The kind of things he has been saying in the election campaign has embarrassed India globally,” Congress spokesman Anand Sharma told media.
When asked if it was not a low-level campaign to call Modi a liar, Sharma responded: “What do we do if the prime minister lies?”
Another controversy emerged on May 9 when nearly 10,000 “fake” voter identity cards were seized from an apartment in Rajrajeshwari constituency. BJP blamed Congress being behind it.
Political parties are also playing the cards of caste and religion in a state where people are known to vote on these lines.
A day before concluding his campaign, Gandhi paid a visit to Archbishop Bernard Moras of Bangalore, the leader of the regional Catholic bishops’ council and a respected Christian leader in the state.
Gandhi, son of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, has said that if his party does well in Karnataka, he could become prime minister in 2019.
His mother, Italy-born Sonia Gandhi, became Congress national chief in 1998 and handed over the reins to him in December 2017.
At a symposium on May 8, when a member of the audience asked him if he could be next prime minister, Gandhi responded: “Well, that depends on how well Congress does. I mean, if Congress is the biggest party, then yeah.”
But BJP leaders are cocksure of victory in the state after Modi’s campaign tour in which he addressed more than 15 major rallies in front of massive crowds.
“People strongly want a BJP government in Karnataka,” Prakash Javadekar, federal human resource development minister and a trusted aide of Modi, told ucanews.com.
He said he would not be surprised if Congress takes only 44 of the 224 seats in Karnataka.
“Congress have lost state after state. They are afraid. They will lose this state also,” Javadekar said, noting that the party now only rules Karnataka, Mizoram and Punjab of the 29 Indian states.
Since its 2014 national election defeat, Congress has lost power in states like Maharashtra, Assam, Uttarakhand and Haryana. Congress also lost in states like Meghalaya, Nagaland and Goa, where their sizable Christian populations traditionally supported them.
However, Congress is bullish about retaining power in Karnataka. “The BJP will lose out in Karnataka. The countdown for 2019 will begin,” said Congress general secretary K.C. Venugopal.
He predicted a “shift of 2 percent in Congress’ favor” because the Congress government headed by Siddaramaiah “has contributed a lot for people’s welfare and development.”
But elections in Karnataka, despite being seen as a progressive state, also focus on caste and religious differences.
BJP parliament member Rajeev Chandrasekhar blames Karnataka’s Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of “strengthening the roots of caste politics in the last five years.”
Endorsing the idea, Modi used election rallies to accuse Congress of trying to divide the nation by starting the debate on caste-based matters.
Hindus form a huge majority of 84 percent of Karnataka’s population but are divided into various castes, subcastes and outcastes or Dalit people.
Ordinary people like Naushad Khan, a Bengaluru-based trader, believe caste divisions among Hindus can help Congress fight the BJP’s strategy of pitching others against Hindus and projecting itself as the protector of Hindu interests.
But Congress leader Venugopal maintains that managing caste is not a priority for the party. “Congress has always had inclusive development for all as the essence of its philosophy,” he said.
The result of the election will be declared on May 15.