Explained: What the recent bypoll results mean for the three key parties in Karnataka

Although the BJP's campaign in Hanagal was unprecedented in terms of leaders and funds that were utilised for electioneering, BJP candidate Shivaraj Sajjanar could not win the seat on account of localised disconnect between the BJP, its candidate and the electorate.

The bypolls in Karnataka for two assembly seats – Hanagal and Sindgi – has thrown up a mixed verdict with the ruling BJP winning one seat and the opposition Congress winning the other in results announced on November 2. The JDS lost deposit in both seats it contested. The bypolls have provided crucial insights on the standing of the three main political parties in the state in the run-up to the 2023 state elections.

A look at the key takeaways from the polls for the three parties:

What are the learnings for the BJP from the bypoll verdict?

While the BJP was able to rally the support of its main vote base, the Lingayat community, in the Sindgi constituency in the Vijayapura district, it failed to do the same in the Hanagal constituency in the Haveri district – which is the home district of new chief minister Basavaraj Bommai. This shows that the BJP in Karnataka is yet to find a leader to fill the shoes of veteran leader B S Yediyurappa, 78, who had the capacity to rally votes of the Lingayat community in Lingayat-dominated seats. Although Bommai is also a Lingayat, albeit from a smaller sub-community, he is yet to grow to Yediyurappa’s stature in attracting votes on his own.

In the Hanagal constituency — like many constituencies in north Karnataka — caste factors and goodwill earned among the local population play a bigger part in winning polls than religious polarisation strategies that the current BJP leadership wants to employ. In the run-up to the polls, Yediyurappa had remarked at a BJP executive meeting that Prime Minister Modi cannot deliver victories for the BJP in state and local polls and that the BJP should make efforts to connect to communities in every constituency in the state.

Since the mixed verdict in the bypolls for the BJP, Yediyurappa has again stated that he would like to tour the state in the coming months to rally support for the BJP for the 2023 polls. The BJP central leadership, which is likely to effect a change in the party’s state leadership in the coming days, has not yet given a green signal to Yediyurappa’s state travel plans.

Although the BJP’s campaign in Hanagal was unprecedented in terms of leaders and funds that were utilised for electioneering, BJP candidate Shivaraj Sajjanar could not win the seat on account of localised disconnect between the BJP, its candidate and the electorate.

Despite camping for over 10 days in the Hanagal constituency, in an attempt to overcome strong undercurrents against the BJP, Karnataka CM Bommai failed to deliver victory against Congress candidate Srinivas Mane, who had earned the goodwill of people in the constituency during the Covid-19 crisis when local BJP leaders were reportedly absent.

While some party workers blame candidate selection for the loss, others suggest that the removal of Yedyiurappa from the CM’s post by the BJP in July may have played a role in the results – with the Lingayat community not showing solidarity with the party.

CM Bommai has remarked that the BJP was not able to retain the vote base of former BJP MLA C M Udasi in the bypolls. Udasi, a Lingayat closely associated with Yediyurappa and Bommai, had contested every assembly poll in Hanagal since 1978. Udasi, 85, died in June 2021 and the BJP looked beyond the Udasis for the bypolls after the death.

Bommai has also admitted that Congress candidate Mane had benefited from the work he had put in during the Covid crisis to help people access treatment and hospitals.

The Hanagal result has put state BJP in a fix on whether they should go for the 2023 assembly elections with Bommai as the leader — as already indicated by Amit Shah — or whether the party should replace him with a leader with more Lingayat clout or a core Hindutva leader.

The margin of victory for the Congress in Hanagal was only slightly higher at 7,383 votes compared to other recent polls in the region where the margin was around 6,000 votes — when the BJP’s Udasi won in 2018 and the Congress party’s Manohar Tahsildar in 2013.

“We were not able to get votes as per our expectations in Hanagal. We were not able to get the support that our veteran leader C M Udasi used to get. Our party workers and leaders put in a lot of effort in the constituency but we were not able to win it. The Congress candidate had earned a lot of goodwill through his work during the Covid crisis,” Karnataka CM Bommai said regarding the Hanagal loss.

In a plus for Bommai, the BJP put up a strong performance in the Sindgi seat – despite the Congress fielding a Lingayat candidate — the former JDS MLA M C Managuli’s son Ashok Managuli — to counter the BJP’s former MLA and Lingayat candidate Ramesh Bhusanur.

Congress candidate Ashok Managuli lost to Ramesh Bhusanur of the BJP by a whopping margin of 31,185 votes. The BJP wrested the seat from the JDS whose candidate M C Managuli won the 2018 polls but died in January 2021 at the age of 85, forcing the bypoll. In Sindgi, the BJP candidate was well-known to the constituents as a good worker and the BJP managed to rally the support of all communities to win the polls.

Does the win in Hanagal indicate a Congress recovery in Karnataka?

The Congress’ win in Hanagal had more to do with the local goodwill enjoyed by its candidate Mane who is from the minuscule Maratha community rather than a concerted Congress effort to win the polls. Mane who lost the 2018 polls by a 6,000 vote margin to the BJP’s C M Udasi worked in the constituency over the last two years to connect to the people. Mane set up a hospital, helped people find treatment and care during the Covid crisis even as the BJP MLA Udasi was ailing and frequently in hospital. The Congress also benefited from Lingayat undercurrents against the BJP and the outsider tag attached to the BJP candidate. The Congress got sucked into a slanging match with the BJP during the bypolls and did not focus on real issues in constituencies but still managed to put up a reasonable performance.

While the Congress gained ground in Sindgi, rising from the third place to the second place for the first time in four elections, the margin of loss — 31,005 votes– was still big. The last time Congress won from Sindgi was in 1999. Factionalism within the Karnataka Congress remains a key issue with the party divided between state Congress chief D K Shivakumar and former CM Siddaramaiah. The KPCC chief has claimed that the Congress performance in the bypolls is an indicator for the 2023 state elections while the BJP has scoffed at the remark. Some Congress leaders are of the view that the strategy of importing candidates from other parties to field on Congress tickets – at the cost of local workers – may work against the party in the 2023 bypolls like it did in the Sindgi bypoll.

Has the bypoll been a major setback for the regional Janata Dal Secular party?

The JDS, which had won the Sindgi seat in 2018, managed to bag only 2.66 percent of the vote share in the recent bypoll. In Hanagal, it got only 0.54 percent of the total votes. The JDS had fielded Muslim candidates in both the seats and could win only 927 votes of the 1.71 lakh votes polled in Hanagal and 4,353 votes of the 1.62 lakh votes polled in Sindgi. The JDS candidates were expected to cause problems for Congress candidates by dividing the nearly 20 percent minority votes in both seats but they did not make any difference in the polls. JDS national president H D Devegowda camped in Sindgi for many days in what was seen as an attempt to ensure the defeat of Ashok Managuli, who switched from the JDS to the Congress earlier this year following the death of his father M C Managuli, a JDS man.

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Former JDS chief minister H D Kumaraswamy carried out a largely indifferent campaign despite issuing strong statements against the RSS and BJP in the campaign phase in order to negate charges of trying to help the BJP in the polls by fielding minority candidates. The former prime minister and JDS supremo HD Devegowda has said he will carry out a statewide tour to mobilise support for his party for the 2023 polls in north Karnataka.

The JDS is essentially betting on winning a large chunk of seats in its strongholds in south Karnataka and maybe one or two seats in north Karnataka to emerge in the position of a kingmaker in 2023 – like it did in 2004 and 2018.

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