New Delhi | Stakes are high for the BJP and higher still for the Congress as people vote to elect a new government in Karnataka on Wednesday following an intense and often bitter campaign that saw the 'entry' of Lord Hanuman in the last leg of the electoral battle fought as much on issues of governance as on ideology.
If the Congress appeared to take the fight to the rival by raising the pitch over alleged corruption under the BJP government headed first by B S Yediyurappa and then by Basavaraj Bommai with its high decibel "40 per cent sarkara" plank, the incumbent rode the "double engine" narrative to seek another term to push Karnataka higher up the development chart.
The opposition party has also offered five guarantees, a host of welfare measures and sops, and promised to raise the total reservation from the existing 50 per cent to 75 per cent, a nod to its recent turn to the social justice plank wielded so far by regional parties.
However, it is its two other manifesto promises - tough action including a ban on organisations like Bajrang Dal and already-proscribed radical Islamic body PFI, and restoring the 4 per cent quota for Muslims - that have been seized by the BJP to ramp up its Hindutva plank in the hope of consolidating votes.
After the Congress manifesto release on May 2, the BJP brought both issues to the centre stage with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself charging the opposition party with seeking to "lock up" Lord Hanuman and those who chant slogans to his glory after earlier "locking up" Lord Ram.
As the slogan "Bajrang Bali ki Jai" became ubiquitous in Modi's rallies, other top BJP leaders launched an all-out attack on the Congress, accusing it of "politics of appeasement".
Senior BJP leader B L Santhosh noted during the campaign that it is the Congress that introduced the issue and his party will surely raise it.
Congress leaders, however, believe that the BJP's war cry will not have much resonance in a state where Hindutva has not paid much electoral dividends outside the coastal region.
The view within the party is that its promise of action against Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of RSS-affiliated Vishwa Hindu Parishad, will help it win over those sections of Muslims who are favourably inclined to Janata Dal (Secular), which has maintained a robust presence in Old Mysuru region under the stewardship of former prime minister H D Deve Gowda.
The JD(S)'s strong presence in the region has been a key reason behind the state polls often throwing up a hung verdict.
Experts believe that the Congress' performance will have a big bearing on its heft in any likely opposition alliance as some regional satraps like West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Delhi counterpart Arvind Kejriwal have often aired their doubts about its strength in countering the BJP as the party lost one state after another to the saffron party.
The party also went all guns blazing in the poll campaign, unlike in many other state elections in the last several years, with Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra canvassing extensively for weeks in Karnataka and Sonia Gandhi too joining in by addressing a rare public meeting.
Its octogenarian party president Mallikarjun Kharge along with his two senior Karnataka colleagues, former chief minister Siddaramaiah and state chief DK Shivakumar, made other key components of aggressive electioneering.
A Congress win will be seen by the party as an endorsement of its turn to quota politics after its repeated failure to corner the BJP, boost its national leadership, especially Rahul Gandhi whose Bharat Jodo Yatra is on an electoral test, and bring it in charge of a resourceful big state like Karnataka.
For the BJP, experts believe, a win will add to the aura of invincibility around the party and especially Modi, who has been the front and centre of its campaign, as retaining Karnataka is seen as a challenging ask. The state has never voted the incumbent party to power since 1985.
The party has also taken the gambit of overlooking several senior leaders in its efforts to usher in a younger and more "disciplined" leadership and ease out entrenched veterans, with some like former chief minister Jagadish Shettar rebelling.
Voters' choice will decide if the gamble has worked or failed for the party.
A loss in the southern state may be a setback to the BJP which goes to every election with high stakes but it may be noted that the BJP had failed to get a majority in the 2018 polls and the Congress and the JD(S) joined hands to form the government.
It had also lost assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh in that year before sweeping all these states, including Karnataka, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Defections of opposition MLAs, mostly in the Congress, brought it to power later in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.