Congress is already counting its Karnataka chickens

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The Congress has already started celebrating the Karnataka poll results — due tomorrow. For once, the exit poll predictions have not been viewed with the mandatory skepticism either by the political parties concerned and other stakeholders. Even before the electioneering ended, it was taken for granted that the BJP would be trounced and the Congress would win. The only doubt was about whether the Congress would win a majority on its own or would need allies and independents to reach the halfway mark.

Thanks to what is expected in Karnataka, the Congress has now begun turning every question on the Railway or Coalgate scams into a Karnataka issue. Even as the media speculated on Tuesday on the longevity of Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal and Law Minister Ashwani Kumar’s ministerial jobs, the thundering replies of Congress spokespersons shifted the focus to Karnataka.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath and Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari made it a point to emphasise that the people of Karnataka would give a verdict on who was corrupt and who was not. The obvious message they want to give is this: the defeated BJP will be declared corrupt and the victorious Congress clean.

The only thing the Congress has not tried to play up is the contribution of Rahul Gandhi to the Congress’ impending victory and the BJP’s defeat to Narendra Modi. For the moment, the Congress wants to deflect corruption charges at the centre with the verdict in Karnataka. This way it does not have to talk about the nephew of Pawan Kumar Bansal, who was arrested for taking a bribe to influence Railway Board postings, or Ashwani Kumar’s  decision to doctor the CBI’s report on Coalgate.

However, will the Karnataka results really be a vote on corruption?

The fact that the BJP, after some initial dithering, removed BS Yeddyurappa from the post of chief minister and did not yield to pressures to make him party chief — which is what led to his final exit from the party and the flotation of the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP) — does not appear to have cut much ice with the electorate. Yeddyurappa‘s exit did not improve the BJP’s image.

The electoral losses that the BJP is expected to suffer may thus be unrelated to corruption. They may have more to do with internal party infighting, poor governance and the split in the Lingayat social support base that Yeddyurappa had garnered. Ironically, exit poll predictions suggest that despite a massive slide in the BJP’s vote share, the Congress is not gaining much in terms of votes. But it does gain a lot in terms of seat count.

The Congress often cites the Himachal Pradesh verdict to show that the BJP’s campaign against UPA corruption scandals has not worked. Virbhadra Singh, now Himachal CM, was removed from the Union Cabinet over corruption charges, but the people gave him a mandate nevertheless. Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar kept winning till 2005, despite ruining the state and even going to jail in the fodder scam. His wife Rabri Devi ruled as CM and Lalu himself became the Railway Minister in UPA-1.

Apart from a new-found zeal for the passage of the Food Security Bill, the Congress has been buoyed by the Karnataka opinion polls to end the washed out budget session of parliament on a high. From 8 to 10 May, the Congress is likely to raise the decibel levels against the BJP, no matter how much evidence tumbles out of the Bansal closet or what the Supreme Court decides about the Law Minister’s interference with the CBI status report on Coalgate.

The Congress may be in a celebratory mood, but a look at the previous verdicts in the Karnataka assembly and parliamentary polls should offer some sobering insights. More often than not Karnataka has defied the national trend. Some experts call it “split voting,” whereby voters in the state vote differently in the assembly and parliamentary elections when when the two votes are held together.

A case in point is the famous contest between Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj in Bellary. The Congress had won all assembly segments in the Bellary Parliamentary constituency in 1999, and the difference between the Congress and the BJP was over 2.5 lakh votes. But Sonia’s victory margin was only around 50,000 votes. Some two lakh voters who backed the Congress in these assembly segments voted for the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj in Parliamentary elections.

In 1999, the NDA formed a government under Atal Behari Vajpayee but in Karnataka the Congress won the assembly. In 2004, when the Congress won the parliamentary elections, it lost power in Karnataka. In 2008, the BJP won assembly elections. And when the rest of India voted heavily for the Congress, the BJP got good numbers from Karnataka.

The Congress may be celebrating tomorrow but the BJP’s hopes for the Lok Sabha polls cannot be written off. Narendra Modi drew good support and generated enthusiasm among the party cadres and voters. There is also a great deal of speculation on what the Congress will finally do with Pawan Bansal and Ashwani Kumar.

Around the time the Congress will be bursting crackers on the expected Karnataka victory, the Supreme Court may set off a small political firecracker of its own on Coalgate.

8 May may not necessarily bring undiluted joy for the Congress.

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