As the voting date nears for the Karnataka Assembly elections, there is a lot at stake for some prominent players across the three principal political parties — the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress, and the regional Janata Dal (Secular).
Here is a look at the key politicians in this election:
Bharatiya Janata Party
The incumbent chief minister has been under pressure from the moment he was chosen to replace party stalwart, former chief minister and fellow Lingayat leader BS Yediyurappa.
From the outset, Bommai did not enjoy the confidence of state-level leaders because he was seen as an outsider, having joined the BJP only in 2008 from the Janata Dal (United), heading a government that owed its existence to party hoppers from the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) or JDS, who were rewarded with plum ministerial posts.
The Opposition parties cornered the Bommai government multiple times over allegations of corruption. Notably, the BJP has not committed to retaining Bommai as the CM if it wins.
However, months before the elections, the Bommai government decided to increase quotas in educational institutions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from 15 per cent and 3 per cent to 17 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively. The proposal is pending with the Centre as accepting it would breach the 50 per cent quota ceiling set by the Supreme Court.
The government also scrapped the 4 per cent quota for minorities and redistributed it to the dominant communities of Lingayats and Vokkaligas, who will now be eligible for 7 per cent and 6 per cent of reservations, respectively. This move has been put on hold after it was challenged in the apex court.
The 80-year-old former chief minister has blown hot and cold this election, not shying away from publicly expressing his displeasure over certain decisions taken by the party.
Yediyurappa is busy ensuring the victory of his younger son BY Vijayendra, who the BJP has fielded from Shikaripura, the seat previously occupied by his father.
Differences have cropped up between Yediyurappa and other party leaders, especially at the state level, over his demand that the party accord Vijayendra the same respect it has given him. Many local leaders have been uneasy with the continued clout Yediyurappa enjoys in the party, even forcing the national leadership to overlook its 75-year retirement rule when he became CM for three days in 2018 and for a year in 2019. Party leaders also say that it was at his insistence that the BJP ignored that rule again this time, fielding 75-year-old GH Thippareddy from the Chitradurga seat.
In fact, resentment has built up against Yediyurappa for that second stint and how it was achieved, with the defection of 17 MLAs from the then-ruling Congress-JDS combine. It was during that defection crisis that allegations of horse-trading and monetary inducements offered to MLAs to switch sides cropped up — there were even some audio leaks of the negotiations, including some involving Yediyurappa himself, which he did not deny.
Besides, the party has identified him as the primary hurdle to its bid to reorient towards a hard Hindutva line, with his steadfast insistence on Lingayat support and refusal to follow some of the more polarising policies that Bommai willingly endorsed — Yediyurappa stated at a public meeting last month that he had personally never discriminated against Muslims, a veiled reference to the reservation rejig.
Perhaps no leader from Karnataka has more at stake in this election than the BJP's national general secretary (organisation).
He has been credited as the architect of the BJP's strategy to bring in generational change in the state, easing out many senior leaders. In all, the party replaced 23 incumbent MLAs and two others who passed away before the polls. This was done to offset any possible sentiment of anti-incumbency against the BJP.
However, this decision has not gone down well with many incumbents, most famously with former CM and Lingayat leader Jagadish Shettar, who decided to contest the polls on a Congress ticket and criticised Santhosh, a Brahmin, for showing a lack of respect. Some others, too, have switched parties, and a few are contesting as Independents.
The Congress has portrayed this transition strategy, including replacing Yediyurappa as CM, as an attempt to sideline the Lingayats, the dominant community in northern Karnataka, in favour of a caste-agnostic Hindutva approach. However, Santhosh has stuck by the strategy, arguing about the potential long-term benefits of such a move.
Indian National Congress
In many ways, this is a seminal battle for Kharge, recently elected the All India Congress Committee president. A lot rides on his ability to deliver a decisive electoral victory in his home turf Karnataka, ahead of the big state battles in the north later this year and the Lok Sabha elections next year.
To his credit, Kharge, a grassroots Dalit leader with vast electoral experience, already appears to have changed the Congress campaign's focus to the state level as opposed to the 2018 election, which insiders say the then-incumbent Congress lost despite providing a stable, welfarist government in part because it converted a state election into a semi-final ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, pitting Rahul Gandhi against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
This is also a battle for prestige for Kharge, who was undefeated for nearly four decades till the 2019 LS polls when he lost in the Gulbarga seat to a former Congress leader who moved to the BJP. Kharge is looking to reclaim lost ground in his district apart from helping his son Priyank win the Chittapur seat in the district. Unsurprisingly, there have also been calls to name him the state's first Dalit CM if the party gets a majority.
The former chief minister, only the second person to complete a full five-year term in the top office in the state, is chasing a record in this election as he hopes to become the first CM to complete two full terms in Karnataka. He is also looking to better Devraj Urs' record of having been CM for a total of 8 years.
Siddaramaiah, 75, already has the record of presenting the highest number of Budgets in the state at 13 and enjoys goodwill for having delivered the only stable administration in almost two decades.
He has had to keep his ambition in check, at least in public, as the Congress has decided against projecting him as the CM choice and has insisted that if it wins, it will let the legislative party elect the leader.
Siddaramaiah, a leader from the Kuruba caste that is classified among Other Backward Classes, faces a formidable challenge in the perceived displeasure of the dominant Lingayat and Vokkaliga castes, who are wary of a challenge to their hold over the state — 15 of the 23 CMs in the state's history have hailed from the two communities.
Often called a strongman, the Vokkaliga leader is looking to stake a claim to become a dominant force in the party's state unit and the CM in the process.
Shivakumar has never hidden his ambition, and the party has turned to him whenever it has faced a crisis. For instance, he was not just charged with safeguarding its local MLAs in the aftermath of the hung verdict in 2018 but was also tasked with "protecting" 44 MLAs from Gujarat in 2017 ahead of a Rajya Sabha poll to ensure the victory of Ahmed Patel.
Shivakumar, though, is not considered the biggest leader of his caste; that title goes to the former prime minister HD Deve Gowda. This has been used against Shivakumar within the Congress party to show that he does not command the absolute loyalty of any community.
Janata Dal (Secular)
Two-time CM Kumaraswamy has appeared upbeat about his chances in this election. He has pointed to history to argue that the two decisive verdicts in the last 25 years – in 1999 and 2013 – resulted from a split in the Congress's principal opponents in those respective opponents — the Janata Dal in 1999 and the BJP in 2013.
Since that 1999 split to the Gowda redoubt of southern Karnataka, the party has maintained a steady showing over the years, with its vote share relatively stable at around 20 per cent and seat share in the last two elections at about 40.
But the challenge for Kumaraswamy could be as internal as external this time. Before the election, the Gowda family had a major blowout with elder brother HD Revanna insisting that the party field his wife in the Hassan seat, which is the family's home district, and Kumaraswamy insisting on picking a diligent party worker. This does not mean the first family's influence has diminished. Apart from Revanna and Kumaraswamy, there is the latter's son Nikhil, whose defeat in the Mandya seat in the 2019 LS polls was one of the shocking results of that poll in which the BJP won 26 of the 28 seats on offer.