IN THE first half of next year India will notch up the usual array of superlatives when the world’s biggest democracy stages the largest voting event on the planet. The parliamentary polls will also be among the most expensive staged anywhere. The Centre for Media Studies in Delhi estimated that campaign spending in the elections that brought Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in 2014 was nearly $5bn, more than twice as much as in the previous general election and eclipsed only by the amounts involved in America.
In Karnataka, a southern state of 64m people (about as many as in France), parties have been loosening their purse strings for a crucial limbering-up. On May 12th voters there will vote in elections for the state legislature, which is currently controlled by Congress, the country’s main opposition party. If Congress wins in Karnataka, many analysts will conclude that it might have a chance of performing at least respectably in next year’s national polls, even if the odds remain in Mr Modi’s favour. Victory for the BJP in Karnataka would make Mr Modi a surer bet.
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A study by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-partisan group advocating transparency in campaign finance, has found that in the year to March 2017 the BJP has raised almost five times as much as Congress for the national campaign. And that is only the amount declared. Candidates commonly exceed official spending limits by ten to 100 times. Congress will find it all the more difficult to fill its campaign war-chest if it loses in Karnataka—the only big Congress-held state with a humming economy.
The BJP has a chance in Karnataka. It is the only one of the five southern states where the party has ever succeeded in capturing power (it did so in 2008, before losing again to Congress in 2013). The state’s unique mix of religions, castes and linguistic groups has proven surprisingly amenable to the appeal of the BJP, a Hindu-nationalist party which normally enjoys strongest support in the Hindu “cow belt” of western and northern India. In rural and coastal regions of Karnataka that have sizeable Muslim populations, the BJP’s local bosses have tried to rouse Hindus’ resentment against their “jihadi” neighbours. Mr Modi has asked them to desist and focus on his preferred themes: fighting corruption and boosting the economy.
But the BJP has nominated a controversial figure for the post of chief minister in Karnataka (the winner will be chosen by the new legislature). He is B.S. Yeddyurappa, who held the post during the last period of BJP control of the state. Mr Yeddyurappa’s government was accused of involvement in illegal mining operations that led to his criminal indictment and resignation in 2011. (He was acquitted in 2016.) Amit Shah, the party’s national head who is Mr Modi’s right-hand man, inadvertently reminded his audience of this at a rally. “If there were a competition of the most corrupt government then the Yeddyurappa government is number one,” he said. He had meant to say the government of Siddaramaiah, the current chief minister (who has only one name).
The BJP, however, believes Mr Yeddyurappa can win votes for the party. He is of the Lingayat faith, which accounts for about one-sixth of Karnataka’s electorate. But Mr Siddaramaiah, a non-Lingayat, has skilfully sided with a Lingayat faction that wants the tradition to be treated as separate from Hinduism. In recent polls Lingayats have mostly voted for the BJP. Some may now turn to Congress.
Whichever side emerges victorious when counting is finished on May 15th will claim that the outcome is a harbinger of the national fight to come. The barely concealed anti-Muslim rhetoric of some BJP candidates, and the hypocrisy of the party’s efforts to wage an anti-corruption campaign, may prove to be leading indicators of uglier battles ahead.