Poll observers in Karnataka seem to agree that the Congress might be in a better position than expected, as it looks to defend its tally in the coastal belt. The party had done rather well in the 2013 polls, winning 14 out of the 19 seats in the traditional saffron stronghold.
The potential advantage comes with the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) backing out from a fight in the region, this time around. This, the Congress believes will result in consolidation of Muslim votes. SDPI is the political offshoot of the controversial Popular Front of India (PFI), a Muslim organisation. SDPI started its political journey in Kerala and then spread to coastal Karnataka. And over the years, it has been slowly but surely expanding its reach. It has done well in recent local body polls damaging the traditional bipolar vote of the region.
In the 2013 polls, the party had contested in 23 seats and forfeited its deposits in all but one of them. The party garnered less than 4% of the votes in the seats they contested.
But the party won 39 and 13 seats in the Dakshina Kannada and Udupi district gram panchayat elections respectively, in 2015. The party achieved encouraging results at the Mangaluru urban local body polls as well.
In early April, SDPI had announced that it would contest in 50 seats across the state, including all the seats in the coastal region, after both the JD(S) and Congress declined to be an alliance partner. Instead, now the party will concentrate only in Chickpet in Bengaluru, Gulbarga Uttar and Narasimharaja, Mysuru.
The fear for the Congress, many believe, is that the SDPI with a chunk of Muslim votes might tilt the balance in favour of the BJP in tightly contested seats. Speculation was rife that the party has good prospects even against Dakshina Kannada-district-in-Charge Minister Ramnath Rai in Bantwal.
In fact, even Congressâ€™s own minister UT Khader from the region admitted that the BJPâ€™s Pratap Simha won in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Mysuru-Kodagu only because of cross-voting between the Congress and the SDPI.
There were even talks of Congress holding talks with the SDPI to dissuade them from contesting. On the other hand, the Congress has often attacked the party saying it was the B team of the BJP as it cuts Muslim votes which are traditionally with the Congress. And reportedly, the SDPI has decided to back out only on this account.
But an SDPI leader of the region, Mohammed Akram, from the district rubbished the theory. He said, â€śFrom day one, when we created the party, there are talks of us cutting the Muslim votes from the Congress. That is not true, it is not only Muslims but Christians, Dalits, the working class and other neglected sections also vote for us,â€ť he said.
He reasoned that in Bantwal, the party backed out because of lack of â€śmoney powerâ€ť. â€śThere is a lot of money being doled out by both the BJP and Congress. We cannot compete with them. So, we are utilising our resources to win in three seats. In other seats, where there are strong non-BJP, non-Congress candidates, we are helping them.â€ť
KPCC general secretary Nivedith Alva however, said that the Congress did not have anything to do with the decision.
He added, "They must have realised that they cannot make any significant impact and instead will cut votes. So, it's in everybody's interest that they withdrew from contrasting. We all know what parties like this and MEP (Mahila Empowerment Party) are trying to do."