Congress braces for parliamentary by-poll test

Bangalore, Aug 3 (IANS) Political parties in Karnataka are facing the piquant situation of fighting two byelections to the Lok Sabha later this month though they are really not keen to, as general elections are due in about 10 months.

However, winning the Aug 21 bypolls to the Bangalore Rural and Mandya Lok Sabha seats is a matter of prestige for two of the three major political parties in the state - the ruling Congress and the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S).

The stakes are high for the Congress as it recaptured power in the state on its own after seven years, defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party in the assembly poll held just about three months ago.

For the JD-S, the stakes are higher as former chief minister and state president H.D. Kumaraswamy held the Bangalore Rural seat while N. Cheluvarayaswamy, another prominent leader of the party, the Mandya seat. Mandya is about 80 km from Bangalore.

Kumaraswamy and Cheluvarayaswamy quit the Lok Sabha after winning the assembly elections, necessitating the by-polls.

The BJP has little presence in these two seats, considered strongholds of the JD-S and indications are it may not field candidates. Likewise, the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP) of former BJP leader B.S. Yeddyurappa, also does not have any presence in the two constituencies.

Hence, the battle will be between the Congress and the JD-S.

Political parties in Karnataka did not expect the by-polls as the term of the Lok Sabha was due to end in less than a year and were surprised when the Election Commission of India announced the schedule.

Karnataka Janata Dal-United (JDU) leader M.P. Nadagouda even filed a petition in the high court seeking cancellation of the by-polls as the elected members will serve less than a year's term.

The high court, however, dismissed the petition and the by-polls will be held Aug 21 as scheduled by the Election Commission.

Though largely unwanted, the by-polls are being used as a testing ground by the political parties, mainly the Congress, the JD-S and the BJP.

The Congress hopes to win both the seats because of its schemes like up to 30 kg of rice at Re.1 a kg for poor families and 150 ml of milk for children in 'Anganwadis' and for students of first to 10th standard in government and government-aided schools for three days a week.

The cheap rice scheme took off July 10 and the free milk programme Aug 1. While the cheap rice scheme will help around 10 million poor families, the milk scheme will benefit over 10 million pre-school (children going to Anganwadis) and school goers.

Besides these two programmes, the Congress has also come out with populist programmes like interest-free loans up to Rs. 200,000 for farmers and higher subsidies for milk producers.

The JD-S and the BJP are seeing the by-polls as an opportunity to test a possible understanding between them to defeat the Congress in the general elections due early next year.

Though JD-S president Deve Gowda often mouths his "no-truck with the BJP" slogan, his son Kumaraswamy again seems ready for an alliance with that party.

Kumaraswamy had toppled the Congress-JD-S coalition government in the state in 2006 by forging alliance with Yeddyurappa, who was then in the BJP, and formed a JD-S-BJP government with himself as chief minister.

The arrangement collapsed after 20 months as Kumaraswamy failed to hand over the chief ministership to Yeddyurappa as had been agreed to.

"If I had handed over power to the BJP then as agreed, the Congress would have had no future in Karnataka," Kumaraswamy thundered in the assembly earlier this week.

"I have no regrets about forming the coalition with the BJP," he asserted, contrary to claims by his father that the alliance with the BJP was a big mistake the JD-S made.

These statements of Kumaraswamy follow feelers from the BJP that it is willing to support the JD-S in the Aug 21 by-polls as a testing ground for an understanding for the general elections to defeat the Congress, the common political foe of both the parties.

Thus, the by-polls, though not wanted by the two parties, are turning out to be a platform to not only test the popularity of Congress programmes but explore the ground for a possible JD-S-BJP seat adjustment for the general elections.

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

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