BJP's individuality vs Congress' collective show

Bangalore, Jan 19 (IANS) For the first time, Karnataka is set to see an assembly poll battle spearheaded by sharply contrasting leaderships.

The ruling BJP is going to the people under Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar's leadership while the main challenger, the Congress, is sticking to its traditional wisdom of collective leadership.

Elections to the 225-member assembly, which includes one nominated member, are due in May.

The Bharatiya Janata Party too was intent on trying out the collective leadership strategy but was forced to change track following its former chief minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa, quitting to form the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP).

In the 2008 elections, which brought the BJP to power for the first time in the state on its own, the party had not projected anyone as its chief ministerial candidate though it was generally assumed that Yeddyurappa would be the party's choice.

That was because he had masterminded the alliance with H. D. Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal-Secular to form a coalition government in 2006 with the JD-S leader as chief minister and himself as deputy chief minister.

In the previous elections, the battle was between the Congress and the Janata Dal, which too was not projecting any chief ministerial candidate in the polls - though when stalwarts like the late Ramakrishna Hegde led it, it was assumed that he would be chief minister if the party came to power.

The BJP projecting Shettar as its chief ministerial candidate was almost inevitable as the party is banking heavily on north Karnataka to drive it to power again.

Shettar is from north Karnataka town of Hubli, about 400 km from Bangalore, and is the first chief minister from the region in the last 20 years.

It was on the support of north Karnataka voters that the BJP rode to power for the first time in the state in the May 2008 polls.

The BJP bagged 55 of the 90 seats at stake in the 11 north Karnataka districts, which is exactly half of the 110 seats the party won.

The party's show in southern Karnataka, which is a JD-S stronghold, was very poor as it won just 28 of the 89 seats in 10 districts. Of the 28, the Bangalore urban district alone contributed 17. The district sends 28 members to the assembly.

In the three coastal and four central Karnataka districts, the BJP's performance was average as it bagged 27 out of the 45 seats in the region.

In contrast, the Congress show was even in all the regions, giving it 80 seats. The JD-S bagged 28 seats, 18 of which came from the southern districts.

The remaining six were taken by Independents, five of whom supported the BJP to help it cross the halfway mark of 113.

The BJP has to continue to bank heavily on northern Karnataka and to some extent on the coastal and central parts to again see it through to power.

The party's hopes of improving its tally in the southern districts have been hit hard by the row over Cauvery water supply to Tamil Nadu.

Even in Bangalore urban district, the BJP doubts, privately, that it might not retain the 17 it won the last time as the civic body ruled by the party has failed to resolve the massive garbage mess that has continued to dog the capital since last July.

Hence, the BJP believes that going to the polls projecting Shettar as chief minister would be more beneficial as he is not only from north Karnataka but enjoys a clean image and there has been no scam after he took over the reins last July.

The Congress, as has been its tradition for long, has stuck to the "collective leadership" plank, leaving it to the party high command to pick the chief minister if it comes to power.

The party prefers this strategy as its state units are almost always divided houses and there are several contenders for the plum post, including state Congress chief G. Parameshwara and party leader in assembly Siddaramaiah.

State Congress veteran S. M. Krishna, who recently quit as foreign minister ostensibly to play a major role in the state unit, has virtually ruled himself out as a contender for the chief minister's post as he is past 80 years.

Though recently made a permanent invitee to the Congress Working Committee, he skipped the party's ongoing 'Chintan Shivir' at Jaipur on the ground that he had a prior commitment to attend a meeting in Vietnam.

The party continues to be caught in a wrangle over continuation of Parameshwara, a Dalit, as the 81-year-old Shamanur Shivashankarappa, who belongs to the politically influential Lingayat community, persists with his demand to be made state unit chief.

Lingayats account for around 17 percent of the state's 65 million population and the community leaders often complain that large sections from it are backing the BJP because the Congress has neglected them.

(V. S. Karnic can be contacted at vs.karnic@ians.in)

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