For pension panel, a red line: Turning clock back on … – Maharashtra News

The Indian Express | 3 days ago | 28-03-2023 | 12:45 pm
THE committee under Finance Secretary TV Somanathan, announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman last week, to relook at pension may not recommend a solution where the gains made over two decades are reversed, The Indian Express has learnt.That’s the big-picture sense from conversations with officials who have to balance the imperatives of politics in a pre-poll year and a reform that has withstood the pressures of time — and partisanship.There are options.One, increase the government contribution to the pension corpus of its employees from the current 14 per cent to such a level that the employee can expect 50 per cent of her last drawn basic pay as pension upon retirement.Indeed, one of the models being looked at is the Andhra Pradesh government proposal which has a “guarantee” that employees will get 50 per cent of the last drawn salary as pension.Officials said the government may also explore ways to make good for the increase in payout (dearness relief announced twice every year increases the pension by a certain percentage taking care of the rise in living expenses) as it happens under the old pension scheme (OPS).The NDA lost elections in 2004, the year NPS was implemented. But the Congress carried it forward. After a decade, when NDA returned under Modi, it consolidated the gains. But in 2019, just before elections, NDA hiked government contribution. Now, a fresh review again just ahead of 2024 polls.Whatever the formula that’s worked out, one thing is clear.The committee and its mandate mark a sharp turnaround in the Modi government’s support of the new pension system (NPS) — where contributions are defined, and benefits market-linked — which came into effect in January 2004, just a few months before the Lok Sabha elections.“There was no question of any looking back when the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi returned to power. His political conviction in pension reforms and fiscal conservatism meant the NPS was there to stay,” said an official.And yet there was no escaping the politics.In fact, the BJP’s electoral loss in May 2004 may have nothing to do with pension reforms – the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was convinced of the economic rationale behind the move. But the party’s 10-year loss of power, between 2004 and 2014, is a memory that still stalks North Block.This when, in 2009, BJP’s loss in the Lok Sabha elections had not deterred the Congress from staying the course on pension reforms. With Manmohan Singh at the helm, and P Chidambaram as Finance Minister, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government earnestly implemented the NPS, exhorted states to follow suit, and also introduced a Bill to develop and regulate the pension sector. This was one of the many reforms that earned bipartisan support.There were four good reasons the government reformed the pension sector at the time it did: i) with increasing life spans, pension bills were ballooning, putting to risk future finances of the Centre and states, ii) a safety net for a very small percentage of workforce was being funded ironically by even the poor taxpayer, iii) inter-generational equity – the next generation footing the bill for the previous – presented a difficult-to-ignore moral hazard, and iv) India was at the cusp of a 50-year demographic dividend opportunity beginning 2005-05 with the best working age population ratio (workers or those in the 15-64 age group age/ dependents or those under 15 plus 65 and over).However, after the first five years in power, the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre did not take any chances. Just before Lok Sabha elections in 2019, it increased the employer’s contribution to NPS to 14 per cent of the employee’s basic pay every month from 10 per cent earlier; the employee continued to contribute only 10 per cent of her basic pay.The timing was not lost on those keeping a tab on BJP’s economic thinking; this came into effect from April 1, 2019.Now with just a year to go for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is acutely aware of an altered economic and social landscape. The straws in the wind have been there for the past couple of years.Low growth that precedes the pandemic, job and income losses during Covid-19, stretched financial resources of people due to medical expenditure, and high inflation – which works like a painful tax on the poor, have highlighted the inadequacy of safety nets for a bulk of the country’s people. The political class cannot be blind to this. To discount the giveaways in recent Budgets by even fiscally prudent states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra as an election freebie will be drawing a wrong message.It is in this backdrop that government employees are demanding a return of the old pension scheme. At least five states (Congress-ruled Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh, JMM-led Jharkhand, and Aam Aadmi Party-led Punjab) have done so, having already notified the old pension scheme.The Congress win of the Assembly elections in Himachal, which most attribute to its promise to bring back OPS, has made the BJP leadership anxious. In Maharashtra, protests by state government employees prompted the Eknath Shinde government, whose finance minister is BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, to set up a committee and address the NPS shortcomings. Some national employee unions continue to protest too, giving calls for rallies demanding restoration of OPS.Then, there is the insider bias. A section of senior IAS bureaucrats – who have the political executive’s ear – feel their juniors who joined service after January 1, 2004, can’t be left to the “mercy” of markets while seniors retire with the assurance of a continuously rising pension kitty.This conversation on NPS has been in the top echelons of power for a while now. Not that the Prime Minister is not aware of these noises around him. But if his preference for fiscal prudence is an indication, he will be happy only with a solution that doesn’t put the future of state finances in jeopardy.
If BJP leadership’s recent move to name a seasoned organisational taskmaster and ex-minister Manmohan Samal as the Odisha party chief was a sign, Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan’s fresh outburst over alleged lawlessness in Odisha has reinforced the signal that the saffron party has taken off its gloves for an aggressive fight with the ruling BJD led by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik for the 2024 Lok Sabha and state Assembly polls.Taking to Twitter Thursday, Pradhan launched a scathing attack on the Patnaik government over the alleged kidnapping and murder of a 15-year-old boy Samarth Agarwal in Jharsuguda district. The horrific incident occurred recently, two months after state health minister Naba Kisore Das was gunned down by a police officer in Brajrajnagar in the same district.“Lawless Odisha is a reality. High-time people in power recognise the fault-lines in the law-and-order situation in the state. Murder of young Samarth exactly within two months of the broad daylight killing of Minister Naba Kisore Das exposes Odisha govt’s tall claims on rule of law,” Pradhan tweeted.He also alleged that neither citizens nor public representatives were safe in Odisha, stating that “Gruesome incidents like these on a regular basis, particularly in Jharsuguda have shocked everyone and weakened the trust of people of Odisha”.Samarth, son of a local businessman, went missing from Sarbahal area in Jharsuguda on Monday afternoon. A few hours later, his parents received a call demanding ransom of Rs 50 lakh. On Tuesday morning, the police recovered Samarth’s half-burnt body. The police have arrested two persons in the case so far. Jharsuguda SP Smit Parmar said the “detailed motive” behind the crime will be ascertained after the investigation.Underlining that no amount of empathy will bring solace to Samarth’s family, Pradhan urged the BJD government to pull up its socks to ensure rule of law and safety of citizens.This was one of the rare occasions when Pradhan, one of the most prominent BJP leaders from Odisha, openly targeted the Patnaik government.Keeping its focus centred on Odisha, the BJD has refrained from joining any Opposition grouping against the ruling BJP on any issue at the central level. In the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, the BJD MPs remain non-committal without joining any Opposition protest against the BJP.Pradhan’s broadside was another pointer to the BJP’s changing relations with the BJD, which is dubbed in political circles as “one of the saffron party’s most reliable friendly party inside and outside Parliament”.Although the BJP is yet to firm up its final Odisha strategy for the 2024 polls, the party leaders have made it clear that it is in “fighting mode” against the Patnaik dispensation. “It’s time for the BJP to go for a direct battle with the BJD in the state,” said party sources.Referring to the appointment of a grassroots OBC leader with an RSS background Manmohan Samal as the new Odisha BJP chief, who has vowed not to let the Patnaik government “sleep”, a source said, “He (Samal) is a fighter. He has taken up issues against the state government on many occasions,” adding that “If the party wanted the status quo with the BJD, the leadership would have given an extension to Samir Mohanty (former party chief).”Sources claimed that when Patnaik got wind of the new appointment, he invited West Bengal CM and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee to Odisha. During her three-day visit to the neighbouring state, both leaders met and held discussions. A prominent Opposition face, Mamata is trying to bring several parties together on a platform against the BJP.“Things are changing in the Odisha Assembly too. The approach of the BJD and BJP MLAs towards each other has also undergone a change – it has become more hostile now. Leader of Opposition and Sambalpur MLA Jayanarayan Mishra is taking on Patnaik directly over corruption and apathetic governance, which is unprecedented. Now under the situation Patnaik would perforce act aggressively too,” said a source.Pradhan’s fresh “lawless” charge came following Patnaik’s dig at his party for allegedly insulting the state. Pradhan had also expressed concern over “lawlessness” in Odisha following the murder of the health minister.Patnaik, who also holds the home portfolio, in his reply to the budget discussion of the department on March 21, told the House that “by accusing the state as lawless, the Opposition parties are insulting the people of the state, thereby doing injustice to the peace-loving people of Odisha.”The white paper released by the state home department on law and order situation states that there has been a 15% increase in crime rate in the state in 2022, albeit with reduction in number of rapes and murders, as compared to 2021.Pradhan has also been vocal for the past few months over a number of other Odisha-related issues including rising incidents of forest fire and deaths of elephants.Despite not being part of the BJP-led NDA government, the BJD with 12 MPs in the Lok Sabha and 9 MPs in the Rajya Sabha, has always extended cooperation to the government on various policy issues, in presidential elections and during passage of legislation.Following Pradhan’s latest barb, the BJD’s leader in the Rajya Sabha, Sasmit Patra, hit back, accusing the former of “insulting the peace-loving people of Odisha”. “Don’t insult the peace-loving people of Odisha by branding them as lawless. Don’t insult Odisha for your petty political narrative. It’s surprising to see that despite you having been an Hon’ble Union Minister for so long,” Patra tweeted.
THE TWO-TERM BJP MP and former Union minister of state Jasvantsinh Bhabhor who, along with his MLA brother Shailesh, shared the stage with one of the released convicts in the 2002 Bilkis Bano case recently made his place in the BJP for his enviable electoral record in the crucial tribal district of Dahod. And, according to party sources, for his close association with the convict, Shailesh Bhatt, with whom he was captured sharing the front row at the March 25 event.Local BJP leaders recall how, then working as a primary school teacher, Jasvantsinh was “randomly picked” by the party in the 1995 Assembly polls to contest from Randhikpur, a seat it had never won — and pulled off a surprise victory. Since then, there has been no looking back. A local BJP leader said Jasvantsinh holds an additional advantage. “The Bhabhors are a family with strong roots in the Jan Sangh. His father Sumanbhai was a teacher too and an active Jana Sangh leader in the tribal areas of Dahod and Panchmahal,” the leader said.A senior BJP leader from central Gujarat said Bhatt had not only groomed Jasvantsinh, but also handheld him when he entered political life. “Being from the same village, they obviously had proximity. Bhatt was the sarpanch of Singvad in Dahod before 2002, and was a very powerful BJP leader in the district. In fact, had it not been for his conviction (in the Bilkis case), he would have well been an elected representative today in place of Bhabhor,” the leader said, adding that it was but natural for Jasvantsinh to feel indebted to Bhatt and to share the stage with him.Must Read |Early warnings: 3 FIRs against J&K conman, bragged about PMO in 2017“Jasvantsinh has continued to have him by his side at public events, even during Bhatt’s parole days. For the BJP, Dahod is a critical tribal district, where it has gained ground only recently, and Bhabhor is an influential leader. So it will not publicly chastise him, but it is also untrue that the party is asking him to take Bhatt along at events…,” the leader added.Apart from Bhatt, his brother Mitesh is among the convicts in the 2002 case who are now out after the remission of their sentence. The list also includes Ramesh Chandana, who then worked as an assistant to Jasvantsinh.Members of the Muslim community in Randhikpur say they are more hurt than surprised at their local MLA and MP sharing the stage with Bhatt. A witness from Randhikpur in the 2002 case said, “This is not the first time we are seeing Bhatt with Jasvantsinh… Even between 2015 and 2017, when Bhatt was on parole multiple times, he attended public events of the BJP and was seen next to Jasvantsinh on the dais. In letters, we pointed this out to police officials and the Home Department, but no action was taken.” What was new this time perhaps, the witness adds, is that the event where Bhatt made an appearance was organised by a government department.Also Read |Over Rs 10k crore lying ‘locked’ in 176 incomplete projects in Gujarat: CAGThe March 25 event marked the groundbreaking ceremony of a Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board (GWSSB) project in Karmadi village of Dahod district, photographs of which were sent to mediapersons by the Dahod Information Department. After the controversy broke over Bhatt’s presence, officials distanced themselves from having anything to do with the list of invitees.While Jasvantsinh was unavailable for comment, Shailesh said he was “too busy” to notice who else was on the stage. Bhatt told The Indian Express that he was there as “it was a public event”.After his first poll win in 1995, Jasvantsinh had held on to Randhikpur till the seat was dissolved in 2012. Moved to the Limkheda Assembly constituency in that year’s election, the 56-year-old had won again. In 2014, the party picked Jasvantsinh for the Dahod Lok Sabha seat and he won this too, and repeated the same in 2019. Between July 2016 and May 2019, Jasvantsinh served as Union MoS for Tribal Affairs.Political Pulse |Kolar rally 2019 to Surat conviction 2023: how the Rahul ‘Modi’ case moved, trial to stay to verdictMeanwhile, after picking someone from outside the family for the 2014 bypoll held for the Limkheda seat vacated by Jasvantsinh, the BJP returned to the Bhabhors. In the 2017 and 2022 Assembly elections, Jasvantsinh’s younger brother Shailesh (43) was elected MLA from the seat.Jasvantsinh was also trusted with ministries while he was an MLA. He served first as MoS for Food and Civil Supplies between 1999 and 2001, then as MoS for Health and Family Welfare between 2001-2002, MoS for Forests and Environment between 2005 and 2007, MoS for Tribal Development, Rural Development, Labor and Employment from 2007 to 2010, and then MoS for Tribal Development, Panchayat and Rural Housing from 2010, till his 2014 Lok Sabha win.Apart from this, Jasvantsinh held the posts of Chairman of the State Tribal Development Corporation between 1998 and 1999, and Chairman of the Committee of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly on Scheduled Tribes on three occasions.
During my recent visit to India, I wanted to get a feel for politics beyond the metropolis, particularly to find out what echo the banner headlines in the national media about democratic backsliding had in areas beyond the limelight. My destination was Odisha’s Kashipur village, where I had spent three months in 1977 to gauge the impact of the Emergency on the electorate. The village was familiar to me prior to the study. The landowning upper castes lived in the centre of the village and people lower in status lived farther away, in concentric circles around the centre over which presided a temple of Durga, the deity of the landowning Khandayats. The architecture of space matched the cartography of power. Caste, class and clout dovetailed quite neatly.The Emergency had upturned the apple cart. In Orissa (now Odisha), Chief Minister Nandini Satapathy, an ardent supporter of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had targeted the lower social order as her electoral base. The coalition of Panas — an elite caste among the former “untouchables” of the region — and Juangas, a tribal community that had got assimilated into the local caste system, used the Emergency to stand up to the dominant Khandayats (land-owning Kshatriyas). Moneylenders and landholders, the main support base of the Janata party, were the target of their wrath. The district-level Congress leadership — a conduit between the lower social order of Kashipur and the state Congress leaders — had instilled a sense of empowerment, and entitlement, linked to Indira Gandhi’s 20-point programme, resented by the upper castes. In the event, the constituency, of which Kashipur was a part, bucked the national trend by electing the Congress candidate, to the chagrin of the upper social order. The Emergency had come to Kashipur as the catalyst of change in the structure of dominance.Forty-five years on, the landscape of the village has changed radically. Already a large, multi-caste village back then, it has grown immensely in population. The most spectacular change is in the physical appearance of the village. The old concentric circles are gone. Instead, the village today resembles a drawing board where an indifferent Lego player has strewn bits and pieces of architectural types, where pucca buildings of all possible styles jostle for space. The money for this building boom has come from central schemes like the expansion of the national highway, the railway line and a huge canal that now cuts through the village. These have pumped cash into the hands of those who have lost land, many of whom happened to come from the lower social strata. Practically all houses are connected to electricity, piped water, cooking gas, and have toilets. A pucca road connects the Pana and Juanga neighbourhoods directly with the national highway.Underpinning this new pattern — chaotic at first sight — is a complex and semi-fluid structure of the co-existence of competing elites. Mobile phones, rituals and deities — Durga, Shiva, Jagannatha and Govinda, drawing devotees from different castes — are much more in evidence than before. The political clout that had emboldened the young hotheads among the Panas to challenge the dominant Khandayats in 1977 has now found an institutional shape in terms of the composition of the panchayat where the lower social classes dominate. However, the upper social strata has found a new avenue to exercise influence, in the shape of the “village committee”, which organises the village jatra, manages rituals and processions and holds loutish behaviour in check by imposing fines and social boycott. The overlap of membership between the two — the panchayat and the village committee — signifies the muted nature of social conflict. Instead of overt conflict, there seems to be a unity of purpose — to acquire electoral power and cash this in — through getting contracts in the myriad “developmental” activities in the village and its vicinity. Freewheeling transaction, cutting across castes and factions, seems to transcend the truculence I had noticed in 1977.There was little evidence of the political waves sweeping over Delhi, either in the local Odia papers or in the local political rhetoric. Presiding over all this, through an unbroken run of 23 years as chief minister, is Naveen Patnaik, leader of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), and son of the visionary Biju Patnaik, a former chief minister. To my question, “how come the BJD is so solidly placed in the village whereas all the cash and benefits flowing into the village are the doing of Prime Minister Modi,” the response I got from several respondents was revealing. “The Prime Minister does what he should, but we get rice at one rupee a kilo, thanks to Naveen Patnaik”. The sophisticated vote-splitting — Modi for Parliament and Patnaik for the assembly — and careful strategising that connects local power and the cornucopia of patronage showed me how the Kashipur that I knew in 1977 has caught up with the most sophisticated electorates of the world. “And how about the decline of Indian democracy?” The answers I got to this question were all a variation on the main argument of existential phenomenology: “Existence precedes essence.” (Sartre).The life-world of voters is the key to their electoral choice. Choice generates the cash, and not the other way around. Cash does not buy votes, but issues germane to the life-world of the voter do. The kaleidoscope of India’s electoral space results from localities and regions, following their own trajectories. These countervailing forces, activated in elections that are not synchronised, are the myriad little feet of India’s democratic centipede, which keeps moving, notwithstanding the disapproval of global ranking agencies and the metropolitan elite’s disdain of this “Indian way” of politics.True, meta-issues such as the Lohia-inspired anti-Congressism of the late 1960s, “garibi hatao” of Indira Gandhi, and the subsequent “Indira hatao, desh bachao” slogans can meld the local and regional trends into a national narrative. But this can work only when it effectively connects with the life-worlds of voters into a national leitmotif. That requires the agency of leaders with adroit organisational skills, who sense an opportunity and seize it. Up against the BJP with its second-level leaders at the peak of their careers, its legion of karyakartas at constituency levels working seamlessly during, and between, elections, and the capacity that the party has demonstrated to recruit from the pool of retired diplomats, civil servants and military officers, and give them appropriate positions, and its ability to co-opt regional leaders, the leaders of the opposition have demonstrated no such mettle. “Rahul bachao” as a surrogate for a fight to “restore democracy in India” cuts little ice with the folks in Kashipur, and I suspect, in much of India’s rural electorate. As of this writing, the 2024 general elections might still turn out to be rather like that of 2019, a “maintaining election” rather than a “transforming” one, like those of 1967, 1971 and 1977.The writer is emeritus professor of political science at Heidelberg University, Germany. His earlier study of Kashipur was published under the title ‘Ballot Box and Local Power: Electoral Politics in an Indian Village’, in the Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics
Week 1 of Parliament: Opposition MPs from Trinamool Congress wear black masks around their mouths to signify how their voices are being muzzled in Parliament.Week 2 of Parliament: Opposition MPs from Congress, DMK, SP and others put up a giant banner on the facade of Parliament building, demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee. Some Opposition party MPs sign caps with the words “Arrest Adani” inscribed on them. These are then taken to the offices of the Finance Minister, Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation.Week 3 of Parliament: Opposition MPs from over a dozen parties wear all black to Parliament, as a sign of protest. Some wear black masks.Why, you might well ask, are Members of Parliament, not belonging to the ruling party, indulging in such tactics? Cynics could even call these acts, gimmicks. But before rushing to any conclusion, let us examine what exactly is happening (or more correctly, not happening) at the altar of democracy — Parliament.Pictures beamed from Sansad TV (the channel that telecasts proceedings of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) are being selectively edited online before telecast. Protests by Opposition MPs are rarely, if ever, shown. The edited video output ensures the focus is on the Speaker, Chairperson and the Treasury Benches. Visuals of Opposition MPs protesting from their seats or in the well of the House are censored. Sansad TV is not the only culprit. Media outlets too have their “own priorities”. Here is one example from last week. The Prime Minister delivering a speech while inaugurating a sewage treatment plan in Varanasi at around 2 pm on March 24, got wall-to-wall live coverage. At around the same time, news of Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification as an MP broke. Opposition parties, like mine, did not wait for phone-ins from television channels. We were creating our own “Breaking News” by posting our reactions on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.Yes, there is no use being a cry baby. No use sitting around complaining about pro-establishment reportage. Political parties in the Opposition will have to overcome these challenges through innovative ways. I feel, besides professional journalists and citizen journalists, the time is now ripe for “politician journalists” who must set the narrative in a proactive manner by creating compelling communication (even if it means shooting on personal mobile phones) and then amplifying the same beyond the legacy media.The eight years I spent in my twenties in the creative department of that brilliant advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, come in handy today. Generating political content that cuts the clutter is a challenge. We are moving to an era where political parties fighting the good fight will not wait for a guest relation executive from Noida to call a spokesperson to appear on prime time television. Where choreographed conclaves and soporific summits will be called out as advertorials for the ruling party. Where those taking on the Union government will create more ingenious media spaces to directly engage with the citizen.Look at what has been happening in the ongoing Budget Session. A minacious precedent is being set. MPs from the Treasury Benches are shouting slogans. The Union Budget, totalling an amount of Rs 45 lakh crore, was passed in just nine minutes. The very next day, the Finance Bill 2023 was also passed without any discussion. Scrutiny of Bills by Parliamentary committees has come down from a healthy 60 per cent to a dismal 13 per cent. Out of every 10 Bills passed, as many as four are Ordinances. In contrast, this number was two Ordinances out of 10 bills, 20 years ago. Bills are also being passed in a hurry. In the 2022 budget session, Lok Sabha utilised only 62 per cent of the time allocated by the Business Advisory Committee (BAC) for discussion, and Rajya Sabha utilised just 48 per cent. The last eight consecutive sessions of Parliament have been adjourned sine die before the scheduled date of closure.These serious issues about Parliament are not getting many centimetres of coverage in newspapers and are most often ignored by news channels. I do believe it’s the MPs from the Opposition parties who are being compelled to play the role of content creator and amplifier aka “politician journalists”.Parliament must not be allowed to be turned into a deep, dark chamber.Scribes covering Parliament are slowly being made to play diminishing roles by a government that wants total control. Senior editors, who till not so long ago had access to Central Hall, are now not allowed into this sanctum sanctorum. No political party has conducted a formal press conference in Parliament House in at least a few years. Entry of journalists has also been restricted; lots are drawn and those whose names come up are given entry passes. In the last few weeks we have noticed groups of school children being taken around Parliament on conducted tours. Very good. If the Covid restrictions have been lifted, let us get back to pre-Covid rules when it comes to journalists.Last week, I attended the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in India, the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism awards. After the awards ceremony, I hung around for more than an hour casually interacting with many of the journalists who had been felicitated. They were young. They were fearless. They gave me hope.The writer is Member of Parliament and Leader, All India Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party (Rajya Sabha). Additional research by Pallavi Balakrishnan
The electoral battle in Karnataka has begun with the formal announcement of the poll schedule. In a little over 40 days from now, the political complexion of the state legislative assembly will be clear. Will the Karnataka voter usher in a new electoral trend or conform to past political traditions — is the question..In close to four decades, Karnataka has never voted back a ruling party with a majority. The last time this happened was in 1985 when the Ramakrishna Hegde-led Janata Party secured a clear majority. The BJP has never won a majority in the state’s assembly polls. It came close in 2008 and 2018. In 2008, it managed a majority with the help of independents and in 2018, the resignation of Congress and JDS MLAs secured the party a majority. The BJP hopes to reverse both these trends.Congress is banking on this trend to see it through beyond the majority mark. JDS, at a distant third position, hopes for an assembly with no party having secured a majority, thus having the chance to emerge as a king-maker and possibly the king once again.Having been in power for four years in Karnataka, the BJP is making an all-out effort to retain the state. Its strategy is four-fold. First, a clear focus on the central government and leadership. If the past three months are any indication, the party’s campaign will be directly led by its central leadership with a focus on what they would like to project as achievements of the central government. Any reference to the state government appears to be a belated afterthought. Second, the party is going into the election without declaring a chief ministerial candidate even though they have an incumbent chief minister. Former CM B S Yediyurappa will clearly be its star campaigner from among the state leaders. He is credited with having built up the party in the state and the BJP hopes to bank on his charisma. There is, of course, a difference this time around. He has announced his decision not to contest. In earlier elections, he was the chief ministerial face of the party. It would be interesting to see if this would make a difference.Third, the BJP will need to retain its traditional support in northern and coastal Karnataka and make inroads in the old Mysore region. In much of the latter, the traditional fight was between Congress and JDS. To secure a majority, the BJP needs to do well in old Mysore even as it retains its strong presence in north Karnataka. This explains the repeated tours of its national leaders to that part of the state. Lastly, the BJP is attempting to build a wider social coalition. While hoping that the Lingayats would continue to support the party, it is seeking to expand its support among the Vokkaligas, Other Backward Classes and Dalits. The reworking of the reservation quota was a step aimed at expanding this caste outreach. The backlash seen in the last week would need to be closely watched.Congress has always been a key player in the state. What has plagued the party is factionalism and lack of unity at crucial moments. The party, especially its state leadership, realises that without unity, the chance of becoming a majority party this time around would remain a dream. The two key leaders, Siddaramaiah and Shiva Kumar, have made their chief ministerial ambitions clear but have also not crossed the Lakshman Rekha, maintaining that this is a post-election decision. Whether the unity gets unstuck at the time of distribution of party tickets will be the litmus test. Till now, the party has focused on local issues, and on the BJP’s rule. Rahul Gandhi’s expulsion from the Lok Sabha has been added as a talking point in their campaign. The rainbow social coalition that Congress was traditionally known to draw its support from is being assiduously cultivated.The JDS remains a distant third force. It suffered a huge political setback in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls on account of its alliance with Congress. This allowed the BJP to make inroads into its traditional base in the old Mysore region. Its leader, Kumaraswamy, has stirred the political pot by claiming that both the Congress and BJP are in touch with it.Lokniti-CSDS post-poll surveys indicate that in recent years, most voters decide on whom they wish to vote for much before the announcement of the elections. This was true of Karnataka the last time around. To a certain extent, this reflects political polarisation. And given the committed voters of these parties, this does not appear surprising. The swing voter thus becomes important. The effort over the next 40 days will be to sway her. While many commentators are predicting a hung assembly, the vote in Karnataka could well be more decisive.The writer, a political analyst, is the national coordinator of Lokniti Network
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