SM Krishna
In picture: SM Krishna.Press Information Bureau

Poll fervor has gripped Karnataka, where Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is fighting tooth and nail to oust Congress from its last bastion in South India. However, a former Congress stalwart who could have offered tremendous boost to BJP's chances in Karnataka is missing in action.

SM Krishna, former chief minister and external affairs minister, joined the party in 2017, giving its dream of recapturing power in Karnataka a shot in the arm. However, the powerful Vokkaliga leader is missing on the campaign front. And that's going to hurt BJP.

Krishna has been missing in action so much so that he himself had to brush aside rumors that he was calling it quits on the BJP as well. There have been equally strong rumors that the 85-year-old is playing the waiting game to see if the party would give his daughter a ticket in the election.

How can Krishna help BJP?

Krishna is an ageing war horse but he still has huge electoral utility. He quit Congress complaining that the state leadership treated him as a spent force. He's eager to prove them wrong, and BJP is perhaps a tad slow in utilizing his unique strengths. Here's how Krishna can turn out to be a valuable campaign card for the BJP:

Caste balance: Up front, SM Krishna fills out the caste puzzle for the BJP handsomely. He is the most influential Vokkaliga leader in the state with huge support base in the Mandya-Mysuru-Tumakuru region. This belt is the stronghold of the Vokkaliga community which has traditionally voted for the Congress and the Janata Dal. BJP's chief ministerial candidate BS Yedyurappa is from the Lingayat community, which has traditionally supported the BJP. The electoral utility of a hard-boiled Vokkaliga leader like Krishna for the BJP cannot be over-emphasized.

BJP has no major Vokkaliga leaders: The current leadership of the state BJP doesn't have strong Vokkaliga leaders. Former chief minister DV Sadananda Gowda is a Vokkaliga but he hails from the coastal belt where the community isn't the primary vote base. BJP won the 2008 election owing to the strong support from the Lingayat community. However, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has made deep dents on that support base with his move to give special religion status to the community. If a significant section of the Lingyats shifts allegiance to the Congress, that can hurt BJP deeply. In 2008, Congress and Janata Dal (S) carved up the lion's share of Vokkaliga votes, leaving less than 20 percent votes for the BJP. If the party can capitalize on the strengths of Krishna, it can recapture a part of the Vokkaliga vote bank.

Strong influence in urban areas: As chief minister from 1999 to 2004, Krishna cultivated the image of a suave, progressive leader and garnered huge support base in the urban pockets. Krishna's vision and policies helped Bengaluru edge out Hyderabad in the race to become the IT capital of India at the turn of the century. He epitomized the image of a modern democratic ruler who addressed the needs of a burgeoning global city with a cosmopolitan character. He still retains a part of the influence in the sprawling city, which has 24 Assembly seats. BJP would stand to gain immensely if Krishna were to make stump speeches across the city supporting its candidates.

How was Krishna's one year with BJP?

When Krishna joined BJP in 2017, party president Amit Shah was euphoric about the value he would bring to the party's state unit. "He will increase our strength in Karnataka and his entry is also a signal that leaders with clean image are joining the BJP. We will honour Krishna's seniority". However, it seems BJP hasn't accorded him the respect he was promised. But it's not too late for BJP.

Congress heavyweights did not follow in his footsteps and defect to the BJP. DK Shivakumar, currently minister in the Siddaramaiah cabinet, was the staunchest of his followers, but chose not to side with him. However, scores of local leaders from the Mysuru-Manyda belt quit the party with Krishna.

What is Krishna looking for?

At 85, Krishna doesn't nurse any more ambitions to become the chief minister. He quit the Congress last year, after years of neglect by the high command and cold-shouldering at the state level. Krishna's grouse with the party leadership can be traced back to his exit from the Union cabinet in 2012. Then 80, Krishna was allegedly forced to resign even as rising star Rahul Gandhi wanted to infuse fresh blood into the rusty top in Manmohan Singh-led government.

However, Krishna loyalists spun the story to make it look like the state leadership in Karnataka wanted his services back. Krishna nursed ambitions of donning the mantle of Karnataka's chief minister yet again, what with the assembly elections scheduled to take place in just six months. In the end, the Congress stalwart lost out in the packed race and had been marginalized since then.

Will daughter Shambhavi get Assembly seat?

There were rumors last year that he was probably hoping to be considered for the post of President or Vice-President. This time around, he doesn't have electoral ambitions. However, rumor mills say he is angling for a seat for daughter Shambhavi in the upcoming elections. The chatter was about Shambhavi, who is married to the half-brother of Vijay Mallya, eying to contest from Muaddur in Mandya or Rajarajeshwarinagar in Bengaluru.

However, Krishna quashed the rumors and decried dynastic politics. "That was one of the main reasons why I quit the Congress and joined the BJP," he said in February, according to the Indian Express.

Can Krishna swing Vokkaliga votes for BJP?

Krishna is far from being active on the campaign trail. If he were -- and it's hypothetical -- he could have caused a swing in the community votes in favor of BJP. Siddaramaiah's efforts to appease the Lingayats and his rock hard focus on the Ahinda vote bank might persuade the Vokkaligas to look for alternatives. They might also reckon the fact that the Janata Dal (S) under HD Kumaraswamy is not likely to retain the seats it had in the 2013 election, let alone winning power.