With 2019 Lok Sabha elections just a year away, the countdown has already begun for the big two parties - BJP and Congress. Karnataka is the first major assembly elections this year for both to test the waters.
While BJP is upbeat after its success in the assembly elections in the Northeast earlier this year, Congress will be looking to hold its ground where it is still ruling.
Here is a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the key parties in fray. Let's start with the ruling party, Congress.
Strength 1: Chief Minister Siddaramaiah
The incumbent Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is one of the biggest strengths of the party. In the last 40 years, he is the only chief minister who has been able to complete a full term in office. He joined Congress in 2006 after his expulsion from JD(S). Once considered an outsider in the party, Siddaramaiah has not only become almost indispensable for Congress in the state, but also one of its biggest regional leaders across the country.
Strength 2: Populist schemes
The Siddaramaiah government has taken several populist measures in the last few years. Apart from freebies like rice and milk to poor, the state government also offered laptops to SC/ST students and cash payments to women from minority communities. Siddaramaiah had also set up Indira canteens in the capital Bengaluru, something in line with the Amma canteens in Tamil Nadu. It offers food to the needy at subsidised rates.
Strength 3: The Lingayat strategy
The Lingayat community comprises a major chunk of BJP's vote base in Karnataka. Its chief ministerial candidate B S Yeddyurappa is one of the prominent leaders from the community. Ahead of the elections, the Siddaramaiah government approved the community's demand for a separate religious status. This could snatch away a good chunk of votes away from BJP.
While the party has a few strengths, there are certain factors that it needs to worry about too:
Weakness 1: Farmers' distress
More than 3,500 farmers have committed suicide in the state since Congress came to power in 2013. Most of these incidents happened due to two successive droughts. With rural seats constituting almost two-third of entire state, agrarian crisis will be one of the major poll issues that could haunt Congress. Though the Siddaramaiah government announced several measures like farm loan waivers, guaranteed income and cheap loans for farmers, it remains to be seen if they are enough to cut ice.
Weakness 2: Law and order
Two high profile murders in Karnataka rocked the nation. And both happened during Siddaramaiah's tenure. The murders of rationalist MM Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh became the subject of a raging debate across the country. BJP is also likely to raise the killing of pro-Hindu activists in the state during the election campaigns.
Weakness 3: Internal rift
Lack of coordination between the party and Siddaramaiah government could hurt Congress's prospects. The rift between Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and state Congress President G Parameswara became evident when the two leaders planned separate state-wide rallies in December without keeping each other in the loop. The party has also not been able to promote some of the welfare schemes initiated by the government.
Now let's focus on the BJP. The party is hoping to make a comeback in the state under the leadership of former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa, and is doing all it can to realise its dream. Let's have a look at some of its strengths and weaknesses.
Strength 1: B S Yeddyurappa
The former chief minister is easily the tallest leader for BJP in Karnataka. After briefly breaking away from the party, he has returned to boost BJP's chances in this southern state.
Strength 2: Lingayat community
He also represents the Lingayat community which has 15-17 per cent vote share in the state. It is likely to back Yeddyurappa because he is projected as the chief ministerial candidate.
Strength 3: Modi-Shah combine
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's campaigns and party chief Amit Shah's poll strategies have won BJP several states since it came to power in the Centre in 2014. Earlier this year, the party managed to gain further inroads in the northeast states by winning two out of three states, either on its own, or with shrewd selection of allies.
However, there are some factors that could dent BJP's chances in the elections:
Weakness 1: B S Yeddyurappa
While Yeddyurappa remains a strong factor for BJP in the state, he could still be a reason for its failure in the forthcoming polls because of his image. He was accused of corruption and was sent to jail before being acquitted. While BJP is busy highlighting corruption under Siddaramaiah, Congress will counter that with Yeddyurappa's track record.
Weakness 2: Factionalism
Difference between two key leaders - Yeddyurappa and Eshwarappa - remains a sore point for the BJP ahead of the elections. BJP chief Amit Shah tried to resolve the rift by taking strong actions against some of the office bearers belonging to the two factions. But it has not eased the tension between the two leaders.
Weakness 3: Hindutva agenda vs Kannada pride
Anti-Hindi sentiment or move to introduce separate flag for Karnataka are some of the strategies adopted by Congress to take on BJP's agenda in the state. Karnataka's move to keep Hindi out could unify the southern states, which have resisted BJP's plan to make Hindi the official language of the country.
There is also a third party who can be a gamechanger in Karnataka. However, no one is willing to stick the neck out and bet for Janata Dal (Secular) to win the election all by itself. Despite being the only regional party that could impact the assembly polls in Karnataka, pundits feel JD(S) is only worth a kingmaker's role in case of a hung verdict.
Here is what could be working for the party:
Strength 1: HD Kumaraswamy
He is easily the tallest leader JD(S) has right now to put up a challenge to the two national parties. The former chief minister is known to be an able administrator and has influence among the working class. He has been touring the state wooing farmers and promising loan waivers amid agrarian crisis.
Strength 2: Vokkaligas
This is one of the major vote bank for the party. With the community's strong backing, JD(S) had won 40 seats with a vote share of more than 20 per cent in the 2013 elections. While it may have lost some of its influence, it can still expect a strong backing from this community to enhance its chances, especially in the old Mysuru region.
Strength 3: Strategic alliances
The JD(S)'s alliance with BSP may help the party attract votes from the Dalit population in Karnataka. It is also trying to use actor Pavan Kalyan's popularity to attract young voters and consolidate its position.
But all these may not be enough, because JD(S) has more glaring weaknesses too.
Weakness 1: Lack of leaders
Apart from the father-son duo of HD Deve Gowda and HD Kumaraswamy, the party doesn't have a strong second line of leadership with a mass appeal. As many as seven of its legislators have deserted leaving the party in a vacuum.
Weakness 2: Limited influence
The JD(S) has its influence only in some of parts of Karnataka. Unlike BJP or Congress it does not have a pan-Karnataka presence. The party doesn't have leaders who can attract votes in the crucial north and coastal Karnataka. While it can hurt the prospects of the bigger parties by cutting into their votebanks, it doesn't stand a chance to win the elections on its own.
Weakness 3: Lack of funds
Limited resources will affect the party's chance in the elections. The candidates do not have enough funds for campaigning. It will be difficult for the party to match either BJP or Congress when it comes to grand political rallies to reach the mass. And this could also affect the morale of the party workers on ground.
But just like cricket, elections in India are also a game of uncertainty. It's never over, until the last vote is counted. We will have to wait and see who has the last laugh on May 15.