Skip to main content

Karnataka elections

May 12, 2018 | Expert Insights

On May 12th, state-wide Legislative Assembly elections will be held in Karnataka. It has been one of the most hotly contested and bitter campaigns fought in recent years. The election is also being viewed as crucial as its outcome could provide the roadmap to how the general elections will play out in 2019. 

In the modern Indian democracy, the Legislative Assembly elections are held every five years. The first ever assembly elections in the nation were held in 1952. The assembly elections are held to choose members of the Vidhan Sabha (legislative/state assembly). Those who get elected are then called MLAs. It should be noted that the assembly elections for all 29 states and 7 union territories of India are never held during the same year.  An MLA is a representative elected by the voters of an electoral district (constituency) to the legislature of the State government in the Indian system of government. Each state has between seven and nine MLAs for every Member of Parliament (MP) that it has in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's bicameral parliament. There are also members in two unicameral legislatures in Union Territories: the Delhi Legislative Assembly and Puducherry Legislative Assembly.

The first ever assembly election in Karnataka was held in 1952 and it resulted in a victory for the Indian National Congress. K. Chengalaraya Reddy became the first ever chief minister of the state. With regards to Karnataka, there are 224 seats in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly. For a party to declare majority and form a government, it has to win at least 113 seats either by itself or through a coalition.

Congress is traditionally known to have a strong-hold in Karnataka. However, it should be noted that in 2008, BJP came to power. B. S. Yeddyurappa led the party to victory in the state and became the first ever person from the Bharatiya Janata Party to become the Chief Minister of a South Indian state. During the 2013 elections, the INC once again took control of the state after winning 112 seats. On 10 May 2013, Siddaramaiah was chosen as Chief Minister and Leader of the House by the MLAs. He was sworn in as CM on 13 May 2013.

Meet the main players:

Siddaramaiah (Indian National Congress), B. S. Yeddyurappa (Bharatiya Janata Party) and H. D. Kumaraswamy (Janata Dal (Secular)) are the leading candidates to become the next Chief Minister of the state. Yeddyurappa is presently the president of Karnataka BJP. Siddaramaiah is the present Chief Minister of Karnataka and a leader within INC. Earlier, as a Janata Dal (Secular) leader, he was Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka on two occasions. Kumaraswamy served as the Chief Minister of the state between 2006 and 2007. His is the son of HD Deve Gowda, the former Prime Minister of India. He is now the President of Karnataka State Janata Dal (Secular).

The 2018 Karnataka elections have been extremely contentious. Over the course of the campaign, the candidates have engaged in charged rhetoric. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself campaigned vigorously in the state. He kicked off BJP’s campaign in the state on the first of this month and addressed at least 15 rallies over five days. Congress president Rahul Gandhi also emerged as an active voice through the campaign. The two leaders ended up in a war of words criticizing one another. “I think we have put down in front of Karnataka, a vision for Karnataka. Our opposition has restricted itself to making personal attacks on the chief minister, on [Mallikarjun] Khargeji and myself and other leaders. They have not really put down what they want to do for Karnataka,” said Rahul Gandhi during one of his speeches. PM Modi also took shots at Congress politicians by noting, “While people are wallowing in debt, the personal wealth of Congress ministers have been growing. The people of Bellary and the people of Karnataka want an account of all the funds from the ‘Sidda rupaiah’ government.”

Making matters complicated, the Jayanagar constituency elections have been postponed following the death of B.N. Vijay Kumar, MLA and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate.

Key issues


Corruption has been one of the main themes of the campaign. PM Modi mocked the Congress party during one of his rallies by noting that it was a party of "10 per cent commission sarkar". Congress hit back by noting that BJP’s Chief Ministerial candidate himself has been under scrutiny for corruption and thus the party does not have a moral standing.


Water has always been a key concern for the residents of Karnataka. The state is currently undergoing a water shortage crisis and is also battling it out with Tamil Nadu over Cauvery water sharing. However, neither BJP nor Congress party leaders have vocalized how they plan on addressing this problem if they are elected into power.

Kannada identity

Siddaramaiah government has long made the issue of a Kannada identity a core agenda. This could play against the BJP, which is seen as a party with its roots in North India. Siddaramaiah government introduced a separate flag for Karnataka and has given precedence to Kannada over Hindi. The government’s officials have also criticized the alleged imposition of Hindi in Southern states of India.

Lingayats and Veerashaivas

This is one of the most important issues that has become a battleground for BJP and Congress. The state government recently agreed to provide Lingayats and Veerashaivas the religious minority status. This move was vehemently opposed by the BJP government which deemed the development “divisive.” The proposal is now pending at the Centre.

Who has the upper hand?

Experts have noted that this will be a close race in Karnataka. Some believe that the outcome could even result in a hung assembly. Since 1985, no incumbent government has ever been re-elected in Karnataka, thus some believe this puts Congress at a disadvantage. Stakes are even higher for the INC as if Congress does manage to win the state, then it will be the first time the party would have retained a state since its historic defeat in 2014 general elections.

 “Karnataka is the last remaining bastion of the Congress party and so the stakes are very high. It is a make-or-break election for the Congress. The outcome of the Karnataka polls has the potential to change India’s political map, particularly with respect to BJP’s entry in southern India,” said Muzaffar Assadi, former professor at Mysore University.

“There is neither much anti-incumbency against Siddaramaiah nor is there an outright vocal support in his favour. But under Siddaramaiah, the state has been an experimental laboratory for populist schemes for the underprivileged and that can go in his favour,” Assadi added.

For BJP, these elections are important as they could act as the party’s entry into Southern India and continue consolidating power in the region. It would also be a precursor of how the party expects to perform in the 2019 general elections.

One should not discount JDS either as the party understands the regional flavour of the state and has produced two Chief Ministers in the past. However, it is being viewed upon as a dark horse in this race. We believe that given Siddaramaiah’s populist projects like the Anna Bhagya—a free rice scheme – Congress might retain its edge. However, it is too close to call.