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The anti-incumbency factor against Siddaramaiah that no one saw coming in Karnataka


One surprising facet of the Karnataka assembly elections, the results for which were declared on Tuesday, was the loss of 16 ministers, apart from outgoing chief minister Siddaramaiah in Chamundeshwari (he won in Badami). While this points to a clear anti-incumbency trend — the Congress was reduced to 78 seats from 122 in 2013 — the increase in its vote share complicates such a reading.


Ahead of the polls, Siddaramaiah commissioned four surveys, apart from the surveys commissioned by the Congress, all of which pointed to a clear victory for the party. While anti-incumbency was an accepted fact till 2017, the Congresss victory in two by-elections in that year had boosted the partys morale even as the Bharatiya Janata Partys chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa was unable to sway voters despite having campaigned in the state for over a month. Most opinion polls in the lead-up to the polls, too, had not predicted the decline of seats for the Congress, projecting instead that it would be the largest party.

A slew of measures introduced by the Siddaramaiah government over the past year was seen to have been aimed at negating any anti-incumbency in a state that has not voted back a government since 1985.

The state governments decision to notify a separate state flag, making the learning of Kannada mandatory in schools and the governments open support of the pro-Kannada groups opposition of the use of Hindi on signboards at metro rail stations, were seen as moves to project the state government as a champion of regional identity.

Meanwhile, the move to notify Lingayats as a distinct religious minority was expected to provide significant gains in the states northern regions , which account for 90 seats. But both these moves seemed to have little impact.

A senior Congress leader said the concentration of votes of the BJP was a significant factor in the polls. “Since our vote share is spread out across the whole state, an increase in vote share did not automatically mean an increase in seats. Whereas the increase in the BJPs vote share helped it win more seats because it has a better conversion rate of votes to seats,” the leader said on the condition of anonymity.

 
 
 

With the BJP getting its highest ever vote share of 36.2%, the Congress leader said this directly led to its huge gains in the coastal areas where the BJP won 16 of the 19 seats on offer. “This is underlined by the fact that the Janata Dal (Secular)s vote share decreased about 2% overall, but, significantly, its seat share did not reduce proportionately,” the Congress leader said.

Another fact, political analyst Narendar Pani pointed out, was the strategic fielding of candidates by the BJP and JD(S), which seemed to suggest an understanding between the two, but given recent developments (the Congress has offered support to the JD(S), which has accepted it and staked claim to form the government) could just mean that the two parties focused on seats they were likely to win . This was a charge that was repeatedly made by Congress leaders in the run-up to the polls, including by chief minister Siddaramaiah.

“The Congress seems to have been hurt especially by this strategy as the contest was then made a direct one, with no possibility of an anti-incumbency vote getting split,” he said.

This was especially so in the coastal region, Pani said, where the use of fresh faces helped the BJP consolidate votes. “They even did away with their old caste-based coalition, incurring the anger of the Billava community, for instance, but the decision seems to have paid off,” Pani said.

In the Old Mysuru area, too, the JD(S) benefitted from the BJPs decision to field candidates who were unlikely to corner anti-incumbency votes. This was in view in Chamundeshwari , where it was a direct fight between the JD(S)s GT Deve Gowda and Siddaramaiah. Much against local leaders wishes, the BJP fielded a virtual unknown, in order to not split votes.

A JD(S) leader said the real takeaway was the consolidation of upper caste votes against what was perceived as an AHINDA (Kannada acronym for minority communities, backward classes and Dalits) government. “At every instance, Siddaramaiah angered the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats. His welfare schemes were only aimed at the lower castes and he refused to expand his governments agenda beyond that,” the leader said.

Then, theres the criticism that most of Siddaramaiahs welfare measures were back-ended — towards the latter third of his tenure. Three-and-half years of dissatisfaction clearly seemed to have taken their toll : in this case, 16 ministers (and the chief minister in one constituency).

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