BENGALURU: On the ground, there is little to indicate that Karnataka is in the midst of heavy campaigning and headed to the polls in under a week. There are no posters, flags, flyers or other election paraphernalia that often mark intense and bitter campaigning in other parts of the country. The Model Code of Conduct is in play, and whilst it is being adhered to -- in part -- in terms of visible signs of election material on Karnataka’s streets, the gloves are clearly off when it comes to party rhetoric and strategy.

The BJP has taken out full front page ads of its recently released manifesto, and rallies have grown increasingly virulent. The Prime Minister recently hit out at the Congress for urban decay, crime and corruption, and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath openly accused the Siddaramaiah government of shielding ‘jihadis.’ The Congress, in turn, has hit back, asking PM Modi to apologise to the people of Karnataka for ‘insulting’ them and Siddaramaiah taking to Twitter to pose a point by point rebuttal to the BJP.

In party offices, rallies, public meetings and even in closed door ‘war rooms’ -- what is emerging is a clearly binary narrative, with the BJP and Congress at opposing ends of a zero sum game. The key issues in the Karnataka polls are leadership, anti incumbency, corruption, growth of cities, the split in the Lingayat vote, recent deaths in the coast belt, and the role of the Janata Dal (Secular). Other factors such as the youth vote and the Cauvery water issue are also part of the political discourse. The BJP and Congress’ differing assessment of these factors informs the party’s narrative and public strategy.

The arithmetic behind the win: The BJP and the Congress are both confident of emerging as the single largest party, each declaring that they will win majority and form the government on their own.

The BJP is basing its assessment on its performance in Bengaluru, Northern Karnataka and the coastal belt. Shantaram, the BJP’s media coordinator in Bangalore told The Citizen this much when he said that the party’s strong performance in these areas will be enough to secure a clear victory. When asked about why the party hadn’t fielded strong candidates in the Mysore region, where in 2013 the Congress won 40 seats and the JDS secured 30, Shantaram categorically said, “Mysore is not our stronghold, so our candidates, when compared to the other parties’, seem weaker. This is not intentional, it’s circumstance.”

“It’s simple,” R. Murthy, Mysore’s City Congress President told The Citizen. “The Congress is a contender in all 224 seats. In some, it’s fighting against the BJP. In others, such as in the Old Mysore area, it’s in fight with the JDS. It’s the only party that’s in the fight in all seats. By comparison, there are at least 60 seats in which the BJP is not even a player. What does that tell you about who is poised to win?”

The fact that the BJP isn’t a player in the Old Mysore region is corroborated by The Citizen’s ground assessment, as the fight is clearly between the Congress and the JDS, as it has historically been. The Chief Minister’s own constituency falls in this area, with the Congress hoping that it will be able to wrestle seats from the JDS and improve its performance in this stronghold.

The centre of ‘urban decay’: In Bengaluru, the BJP currently has 12 of 28 seats. The Congress has 13 and the JDS three. PM Modi’s direct dig calling the capital the “centre of urban decay” and “garbage city” is meant to target the urban vote in Bangalore, where the BJP says it will cross 20 seats. The Congress has retaliated by saying that the PM has “insulted” the people of Karnataka and must apologise. The Congress rhetoric focuses on giving the people of Bangalore a “stable”, and “progressive” government for five years, with the work the government has done being a key reason for it to be voted back to power. On the ground, Bangalore seems evenly divided, with old family loyalties still playing a major role in how people vote.

The Lingayat vote: In North Karnataka, the BJP hopes to secure its lead, as in the 2013 elections, about half that party’s 43 seats come from the region. Here, the Lingayat vote will play a decisive role, comprising about 17 percent of the population. “The Lingayat vote is with us,” Shantaram told The Citizen, reiterating that the BJP is poised to do will in the region. The Congress, however, says that it will secure a part of the Lingayat vote as a result of the Siddaramaiah government’s decision to grant separate religion status to the community and to contest a second seat from Badami which is in the North Karnataka region.

“The Lingayats have always been with us,” Shantaram told The Citizen. “In fact, the Congress’ announcement of special status to the community will backfire, as it is so clearly a politically motivated decision. Who is the Congress to decide such a thing? It has upset people that the Congress is willing to divide communities just to meet political ends, and they will vote against the party for doing so.” When asked why the mutts had come out in support of the Congress, Shantaram dismissed the notion saying only a few had done so, and it meant nothing.

A senior Congress leader sees it differently. “There will be a dent in the Lingayat vote, and it will probably be enough to swing things in our favour especially in northern Karnataka,” he said. “The Chief Minister’s decision to contest a second seat in the region is a smart political move as it’ll have a bearing on the whole region.”

Dead body politics in coastal Karnataka: The coastal area is another key piece of the election puzzle. The Congress currently has seven of eight seats in the area, with an increasingly polarising campaign underway in this key district.

“The Congress is behind political killings in the coastal area, where people of a certain community have been targeted,” Shantaram told The Citizen. “This has upset the people, as the government has taken no action against the killers.” Yogi Adityanath’s speeches in the area focused on these deaths, with the UP Chief Minister accusing Siddaramaiah of shielding “jihadis.” Adityanath reiterated that the government in the state has failed to act despite an increase in the murder of Hindu activists in the region.

A senior Congress leader said that the BJP’s game plan in the region is that if someone from the Hindu community dies, the party rushes to claim them as a ‘Hindu activist’ in an effort to communalise the area. “It’s been embarrassing for the BJP,” he said. “They recently released a list of such ‘activists’ who had been reportedly killed in the area, and one of the people on the list spoke up to say he was still alive.” “It’s ‘dead body’ politics that’s been fabricated to polarise voting sentiments.”

When asked about what the Congress’ strategy is to counter this kind of polarisation, R. Murthy said that good governance in enough. “People know we’ve given them a secure government and delivered on our manifesto. The BJP’s petty and communal politics is obvious to all. We don’t need a strategy beyond that.”

Anti incumbency: “It is crystal clear that the Congress government will go because of strong anti incumbency across Karnataka,” Shantaram told The Citizen. This has been echoed by BJP leaders and workers across Karnataka, with the focus being on the need for change. “Siddaramaiah has only mismanaged the state whilst in power,” a BJP worker told The Citizen. “People want change, and that change will come.”

“There is no anti incumbency in Karnataka,” a senior Congress leader says. “People are largely happy with the Congress government, and without anti incumbency as a key factor, it will be hard for the BJP to gain seats and come to power.”

Leadership and Corruption: “We have given the people of Karnataka a stable, dynamic and progressive government,” said Congress leader Manish Tewari in Bengaluru. “The choice in this election is only one - do you want the stability that the Congress has provided or do you want to go back to the days when you had three Chief Ministers in one term, and when Chief Ministers were jailed and had to resign on charges of corruption?” The Congress has contrasted Siddaramaiah with Yeddyurappa, focusing on the BJP chief ministerial candidate’s checkered past.

“Yeddyurappa is not corrupt,” Shantaram says when asked about the charge. “He’s been cleared off charges. The only charges against him now are of denotification, which even Siddaramaiah has done.”

The BJP’s strategy is to bring in its central power players -- PM Modi and Amit Shah, and to pit the election as ‘Modi vs Siddaramaiah’. For the Congress, the narrative is very much ‘Yeddyurappa vs Siddaramaiah.’ “Siddaramaiah is very scared of the Modi-Shah-Yogi factor,” Shantaram says, “that’s why the Congress keeps bringing up Yeddyurappa’s past despite the fact that he’s in the clear.” “The Congress is known for corruption,” a BJP worker says, “and Siddaramaiah is no different.”

In contrast, the Congress leadership has highlighted Siddaramaiah's corruption free image and focused on the stability provided by the government. “The Siddaramaiah factor is a huge element of our victory,” R. Murthy says. “He’s a strong backward caste leader, and there’s no equal in any party in all of Karnataka.”

The JDS: The one factor that the BJP and Congress seem to agree on is the role of the JDS. Both parties claim that they will secure a clear majority on their own, and the JDS will lose seats in comparison to its 2013 tally.

“The JDS has 30 seats here in Mysore area, they will struggle to get even 20,” R. Murthy says. “There is no question of JDS emerging as kingmakers,” is the response to a question regarding whether the HD Deve Gowda party will have a key post poll role.

The BJP leader echoes the same. “The JDS won’t get more than 30 seats,” Shantaram says. “Last election, there was a split in the BJP in some seats, so JDS was able to capitalize on this. This time, the BJP is united, so in fact the JDS and even Congress numbers will come down.”

Off the record, however, several leaders have admitted that JDS may play a key role in the election. This was corroborated on the ground in the Mandya and Old Mysore areas, where several voters spoke in strong support of the JDS and in particular, Kumaraswamy.

Other factors this election include the first time voter, with the BJP saying that Prime Minister Modi’s appeal will swing a large chunk of this vote in their favour. The Congress says that the factor is exaggerated, and that the first time voter will vote for stability and a progressive government which the Congress is poised best to provide. The Cauvery dispute was also raised by leaders and voters alike, forming a small part of the election discourse in the state.

The main parties are on an equal footing when it comes to rhetoric, having a strong counter to allegations and counter allegations. How this translates on the ground will only be revealed on polling day.

(Cover Photo: The Congress office hall in Mysore City)