As India’s general elections loom, individual states are emerging as crucial electoral battlefields. Today’s by-election in the the southern state of Karnataka, is as crucial as they get, as it provides a political weather vane ahead of the 2019 general election.

While no date has yet been set for the national election, it must take place before the current parliamentary term expires on May 19 next year.

Just months ago, in May this year, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, emerged as the single-largest party in the state in the state elections. But the ruling Congress Party, which did not have the numbers,  displayed great alacrity in setting up an alliance with the regional party, the Janta Dal-Secular, or JD-S.

That edged the BJP out of power in Karnataka and returned the Congress – albeit, in an alliance with the JD-S. Naturally, the Congress agreed to play second fiddle to JD-S to keep the BJP dis-empowered.

A political weather vane ahead of 2019

However, Karnataka today holds by-elections for seats that were vacated. Three seats for the federal Parliament and two for the state assembly are up for grabs. The by-elections for the parliamentary seats have been necessitated by the death of one sitting member, and by several seats being vacated by the incumbent law makers.

The five candidates fielded by the three principal parties are all next of kin of political heavyweights in Karnataka. As such, they provide textbook cases in nepotism.

Current chief minister HD Kumaraswamy’s wife Anitha contests from Ramanagara, on a JD-S ticket. The state assembly’s designated opposition leader from the BJP, BS Yeddyurappa’s son BY Raghavendra, is the candidate from Shivamogga. Senior BJP leader B Sriramulu’s sister J Shanta has been fielded in Ballari. After Jamkhandi MLA Siddu Nyamagouda of the Congress died in a car accident, the ticket was passed on to his son Anand Nyamagouda while former Karnataka chief minister S Bangarappa’s son Madhu Bangarappa is the JD-S candidate against Yeddyurappa’s son.

All this means Saturday’s contest provide a political weather vane ahead of the crucial 2019 general election.

Marriage of (in)convenience?

The by-elections are far more important for the ruling state alliance of Congress and JD-S than they are for the BJP.

The two parties jumped into a marriage of convenience to keep the BJP out, but it has not proven a smooth ride. Much of the last five months has been spent fire fighting and soothing the feathers of disgruntled elements from both parties.

This is not surprising. Both the Congress and the JD-S see the old Mysore region of southern Karnataka as their key catchment area. Neither is likely to cede political turf for short-term gains. The fact that the JD-S is contesting both the Mandya parliamentary and the Ramnagara state assembly seats  seats in this region has not gone down well with the local Congress leaders, who feel their interests are being compromised.

On test will be whether the chemistry between the Congress and JD-S clicks with the electorate to trump the BJP. This explains the attempts by the coalition to assure the public that the alliance is in good shape. Bitter rivals former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda from the JD-S and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah from the Congress are sharing a stage for the first time in 12 years. The two have history: Siddaramaiah was Gowda’s protege before he walked out of the JD-S in 2006.

There is another reason why the Congress and JD-S wants to put their best foot forward. During the election campaign, the BJP’s Yeddyurappa was projected as the party’s chief ministerial face, while Sriramulu was spoken of as a possible deputy if the BJP won in the assembly elections. Neither can afford a defeat on Saturday. Hence, what is at stake is less the BJP’s prestige, more the personal credibility of the party’s tallest leaders.

“Siddaramaiah is likely to see the by elections as payback time,” a senior party source told Asia Times. “When he decided to contest in north Karnataka in May this year, the BJP fielded Sriramulu against him to make the going difficult. He managed to scrape through with a margin of less than 1,700 votes. His aggressive campaign for VS Ugrappa,  the Congress candidate in Ballari,  is an attempt to extract revenge.”

Such is the bitter nature of relationships between the principal players that the level of discourse has plummeted.

Tainted mining baron, Gali Janardhana Reddy – Sriramulu’s political godfather – referred to the death of Siddaramaiah’s son Rakesh in 2016 as “a punishment from God.” The BJP distanced itself from the ugly remark, with Yeddyurappa asking Reddy to apologize to Siddaramaiah.

Gateway to the south

For decades, Karnataka has been viewed as the BJP’s gateway to the South. Mostly known as a North Indian party, the only province in the southern states that it managed to capture was Karnataka. Keeping the BJP flag flying in the south will be critical if the party wants be seen as a national force that can unseat Modi in 2019

The state has not been short of political drama. L Chandrasekhar, who was imported from the Congress and fielded by the BJP, embarrassed the latter party when he decided to return to the Congress’ fold on November 1. That left the BJP with no candidate – offering a virtual walkover to the JD(S).

The Ramanagara region, famed nationwide after being depicted in the mega-hit Hindi film of the 1970s, Sholay (“Flame”), is a political exception in the state.  By ceding the entire opposition space to the BJP, the Congress and the JD(S) will find their base shrinking over a period of time while the BJP looks to expand.

So, Karnataka provides the BJP with a bridgehead for further southern conquests. For the Congress, how it fares in the state could hold the key to the nation.

Internally, the result of these elections are also critical for Congress President Rahul Gandhi. For months, Congress players left out of the cabinet have been awaiting their moment to strike, though some were pacified by the party’s central command. Gandhi’s key message is that Karnataka is a benchmark national experiment showing that the Congress can, truly, work with smaller allies – even ceding some power to them.

Only electoral success today will enable Gandhi to showcase that mathematical formula, pan-India.