Siddaramaiah, PM Modi | Photo: PTI, ANI
Most of the pre-poll surveys in Karnataka predict Congress has an edge over other parties in the state. You have been travelling across Karnataka these days. Do you concur with the predictions?
As you know, I am no longer a pollster and do not get into forecasts. But I have gone through the poll surveys. All four serious opinion polls (Cicero, C-voter, Lokniti- CSDS, Eedina) say Congress is ahead by anything between 4 percent to 10 percent lead over the BJP. In terms of seat forecasts, they range from just a marginal edge for Congress to a comfortable majority. The Eedina survey is the only one that gives Congress a very comfortable majority of more than 134 seats. If that becomes true then that will be the highest number of seats Congress gets in the last three decades.
When I travel on the field two to three things are clear. Number one, there is unmistakable 'hawa' in favour of Congress. I am yet to meet a BJP worker who is willing to defend the Bommai government. BJP workers say let us talk about Modi, they say that they will vote for BJP because they have always voted for BJP. This is a clear sign of hawa. In a hawa, the opposite parties go silent. 2, In terms of individual popularity Congress leader Siddaramaiah is clearly head and shoulder above all other leaders. Normally the sitting Chief Minister tends to be number one. But in this case, Siddaramaiah is twice as popular as the sitting CM. Number 3, when we talk to the poor they don't have even one word for BJP. Some of them may be voting for BJP because of various factors. But the general consensus among the poor is that BJP is anti-poor. Now when I say poor I mean about two-thirds of the population of Karnataka.
I think You have pointed out this class factor earlier in an article. So, you make it clear that class is a crucial factor in the Karnataka election?
Absolutely! Class matters. It matters more than what we care to notice or admit. The Eedina survey is an eye-opener. The Eedina group engaged nearly 1,000 citizen journalists that they have trained. These volunteers went to 204 out of 224 assembly constituencies in Karnataka and carried out face-to-face interviews (instead of the cheap telephonic ones that have become common these days) with 41,169 respondents. Just look at the patterns of voting shares among different economic groups. Among agriculture labour and daily wage earners, the Congress gets 50% votes to BJP's 29 percent. But if you look at businessmen and professionals, BJP leads with 43 percent votes over Congress' 30 percent. The upper class in Karnataka forms 4% of the total population. Among this group, BJP's vote share is 41% while Congress has 29%. The middle class ( 10%) tends to favour BJP more with 38% gearing up to vote for them while Congress is favoured by 37%. But among the lower middle class, the poor and the very poor ( they constitute more than 80% of the Karnataka population) the Congress is way above both BJP and JDS. And among the bottom two, the poor and the very poor Congress enjoys a huge lead.
The class operates within every caste. For example among the richer Lingayats BJP has a big lead, but the lead becomes very small when it comes to the poor Lingayats. Among Dalits, the only section that votes for BJP substantially is the rich Dalits. The Karnataka assembly election appears more about the rich-poor divide than any other issues. In the class battle, Congress is the clear winner. Because Congress is seen to be pro-poor. The four ' guarantees' that Congress has offered to the voters (honorarium to women heads, 200 units of free electricity, 10 kg free rice, and unemployment allowance to the educated youth) are all focussed on the poor. The Eedina group engaged nearly 1,000 citizen journalists that they have trained. These volunteers went to 204 out of 224 assembly constituencies in Karnataka and carried out face-to-face interviews (instead of the cheap telephonic ones that have become common these days) with 41,169 respondents. The Eedina group engaged nearly 1,000 citizen journalists that they have trained. These volunteers went to 204 out of 224 assembly constituencies in Karnataka and carried out face-to-face interviews (instead of the cheap telephonic ones that have become common these days) with 41,169 respondents. Siddaramaiah personally is seen to be someone trusted by the poor.
Here, I would like to draw your attention to the tussle between Siddaramaiah and DK Sivakumar for the post of Chief Minister. There is a feeling that in spite of the popularity enjoyed by Siddaramaiah the Congress High command may choose DKS as the next CM? There is clearly a contest. Every political party faces such issues. But as far as public opinion is concerned Siddaramaiah is way above everyone else and that is not surprising. He has been in state politics much longer, he has been the centre of political contestations for quite some time and he has been the CM too. His popularity goes beyond his own Kuruba community, which is around ten percent of the state population. His popularity among the poor cutting across caste lines is quite high
Does that mean that the people's sentiments will work in favour of Siddaramaiah and Congress high command will be forced to make him the CM again?
It is hard for me to comment. I think even DKS won't dispute the fact that Siddaramaiah is the most popular leader in the state. But I would like to point out one important thing here. This looks like to be one of those very few elections where Congress appears to be more united than the BJP. DKS and Siddaramaiah are perceived to be rivals. But in public during the election, they have shown certain unity and bonhomie which is extraordinary. To my mind, the more important factor is that they have come together to put up a united front.
So, both DKS and Siddaramaiah have realised that the need of the hour is to bring down the BJP government?
That is right. Unlike Rajasthan, the picture is different in Karnataka. Here the BJP appears to be a divided house.
Is it because of this that the BJP is depending on the Modi factor more than anything?
Honestly, BJP has nothing going for them in the state. Their manifesto backfired, their campaign has not clicked, and they don't have a leader to show. Almost nothing seems to work. Therefore they have gone back to Modi as a last resort. But I am not sure if it will work this time.
Do you think that the scrapping of the Muslim quota and allocating that to the Lingayats and Vokkaligas will fetch votes for BJP? Will the communal cards pay dividends once again?
I doubt it. When I was in the field, I noticed that no one would mention the communal issues on their own. I am not saying that the communal feelings and divisions have disappeared in Karnataka. Of course, they are there. But people seem to have dismissed these last-minute moves by BJP. Even the Bajrang Dal controversy which has created ripples in television studios, has not struck any cord with the people. The Congress manifesto says that those who violate the constitutional laws, those who create enmity between communities and foment violence will be strictly dealt with. It mentions PFI and Bajrang Dal as two specific examples of the kind of organisations that may be taken to task. I don't understand what is anyone's problem with this? And for the Prime minister of the country to twist this as a move to arrest Bajrang Bali. This is really low. Does he mean to say that arresting Amritpal Singh, the extremist, is equivalent to arresting Punjab? This is absolutely ridiculous. It is truly a sign of desperation that the PM has to resort to such tactics in a state election.
In the last five assembly elections in Karnataka Congress got absolute majority in 1999 and 2013. Both these elections witnessed a three-way split in the votes. In 1999 Janata Dal got split into two and in 2013 BJP was deeply affected by the formation of parties by Yediyurappa and Sriramulu. Do you think that in the absence of such a scenario, Congress will be able to get an absolute majority riding on the anti-incumbency factor alone?
I am not a long-standing observer of Karnataka politics. So, those who may have a deeper understanding of Karnataka politics may be able to answer this. What you said is right. In 2013 there was no hawa in favour of Congress. The split within BJP only helped Congress. But this time there is a positive hawa in favour of Congress. That is a major difference. A positive hawa normally results in a clear majority.
What is your take on the JDS factor?
They seem to be going down. They still have a strong hold over the Vokkaliga community. But they have failed to capture the mind and imagination of the people. The family squabbles over spoilsport.
Do you mean to say that JDS may not be able to play the kingmaker role this time?
They could play kingmaker because the other two parties didn't get sufficient numbers. But this time the hawa in favour of Congress may turn the tables on them. What I gather from the signals on the ground is that this election will give Congress a clear majority.
Some civil society groups have also been working at the grassroots level to defeat the BJP candidates. How do you look at this?
I am very much a part of this. That is why I have been travelling across the state. The movement includes farmers' organisations, Dalit organisations, those who work for minorities and other democratic organisations. All of them came together to form ' Ettelu Karnataka'. Ettelu means ' Awake . It is a call to the people to awaken and reject the communal politics of hatred and bigotry. We decided to focus on around 80 constituencies where we worked. This time we decided that we would not only do press conferences but we would actually send teams to the field and actively work with the candidate who can defeat the BJP. It is for the first time that such systematic, ground-level work has been done by civil society groups. The overwhelming consensus among the people's movements is that Karnataka will set the tone and tenor of the 2024 elections. It is critical to defeat BJP in Karnataka to keep the possibilities in 2024 open. Our organisations have enrolled more than 1.5 lakh votes. We also spoke to many candidates who could have split the votes and dissuaded them from contesting. We have been running a large communication network on social media and on the ground to take on BJP's propaganda. Our team members have been going from house to house in these 80 constituencies to ensure that the votes don't get wasted.
Are your teams telling the people categorically that they should vote for Congress?
In those places where the Congress is the leading party to defeat the BJP, we are working with Congress. In some 9 constituencies, our people are supporting the JDS. The principle is to support the most effective candidate against BJP.
In one of your interviews, you termed the Karnataka elections as the battle of Kurukshetra to save the soul of India. Could you please elaborate on that?
The current election is not merely an election to decide who will govern Karnataka for the next 5 years. This election is a precursor to the 2024 elections. A victory for BJP in Karnataka will almost seal the possibility of opposition resistance in 2024. The defeat of BJP is absolutely necessary to keep the hopes alive. If the BJP wins this election BJP will present it as a victory of politics of hatred, as a victory of the politics of hijab, love jihad and other divisive policies. A decisive defeat of the BJP will send the message that the politics of hatred is not acceptable to the people of India. Therefore Karnataka has become the Kurukshetra in that classical sense to save the very idea of India. It would keep the door open for a battle which is on. A decisive victory for the BJP could close the door. A decisive defeat for BJP would open the door for everyone, for all parties, who want to struggle for an India which is in line with the vision of the constitution makers. A victory in Karnataka will not ensure that the battle is won, because the crucial battle is going to be fought in 2024. But Karnataka will be the first step towards that.