Karnataka takeaways: BJP no longer party of north, Rahul Gandhi's faux humility and shaping up of third front

As the focus in Karnataka shifts to Raj Bhavan, it is worth taking a look at the takeaways from one of the most fiercely fought state elections in recent times. A defeat for the incumbent Congress, it was said, would put the party straight into the ICCU while a BJP loss would expose the vulnerabilities of the Narendra Modi juggernaut. Now that Karnataka has bared its hands, the result is inconclusive yet interesting.

It is neither a validation of Congress's demise, nor a sniff at Modi's Achilles heel. Yet it also shows us the reasons why Congress is all but dead as a pan-Indian party and why the BJP has replaced it as the centrifugal force in national politics. BJP, Congress and JD(S) would do well to take some lessons from the Karnataka verdict. Each of the three parties — who also represent three distinct political forces — emerge with some gains and losses, though Congress has more to be worried about than the other two.

A four-member delegation of BJP leaders led by state unit President BS Yeddyurappa meet Governor Vajubhai Vala. Image courtesy: BJP

A four-member delegation of BJP leaders led by state unit President BS Yeddyurappa meet Governor Vajubhai Vala. Image courtesy: BJP

BJP: Gains and losses

The BJP is a clear winner and has much to be happy about. Though it failed to gain simple majority (for reasons that we shall presently explore), the importance cannot be overstated of its emergence as the single-largest party with 104 seats in an election where it was painted as a "north Indian party" and reviled as representative of a regressive culture that feeds on the affluence of a "more progressive south". A huge part of Congress' campaign, led by outgoing chief minister Siddaramaiah, was focused on coloring BJP as a hegemonic force of "outsiders" who must not be allowed to "breach" the "sacred" Kannadiga land at any cost.

The Congress campaign was also underwritten by a divisive strategy that sought to capitalise on the fault lines of religion (announcing separate religion status for Lingayats to split BJP's core voter base), identity (clamoring for a state flag), language (campaigning against so-called imposition of Hindi), community (celebration of Tipu Sultan's birth anniversary, move to withdraw cases against law-breakers from the minority community or an ostensible 'deal' with the controversial PFI which has been accused of harboring terror links.

In this context, BJP's win is a validation of two important points. One, its ideological calling card of 'nationalism' had greater acceptability among voters in Karnataka than the divisive issues that Congress had raised. Two, it can no longer be painted as a 'north Indian party'. A win in Karnataka (even if it fails to form the government) provides BJP the chance to expand and consolidate its base in south.

Much has been made of BJP's vote share, which at 36.2 percent, is nearly two percentage points less than Congress. To extrapolate this data into building a narrative against BJP is misleading. First, we should note that BJP's vote share in 2018 is a quantum leap from its performance in 2013 where it cornered 19.9 percent of polled votes. Even if we add the share that BS Yeddyurappa (9.8 percent) and Sriramulu (2.7 percent) had taken away in 2013, the tally still shows a four percentage jump this year. Therefore, while BJP's vote share has risen by over four percentage points (in real terms), Congress has been able to push it up by less than two percentage points (it had polled 36.5 percent in 2013).

While its overall vote share went up, the BJP also made important inroads into the Old Mysuru region among the Vokkaliga community where it has traditionally been weak. BJP's better showing in this region, coupled with a strong performance from JD(S), pushed down Congress's tally to a historic low.

As Valerian Rodrigues writes in The Hindu, "the BJP has made significant advances in the Hyderabad-Karnataka region, except Ballari. Moreover, it has emerged as the rival to the JD(S) in the southern belt dominated by Vokkaliga".

BJP's other significant gain has been busting the Opposition narrative that it is an "anti-Dalit" party. This is a clear indication that Narendra Modi's investment of political capital and different outreach initiatives are blunting the edge of Opposition's shrill campaign. The Congress had betted heavily on a consolidation of AHINDA (Kannada for Dalits), minority and OBC votes but results prove that voters have been attracted more towards Modi's campaign for development than fall for Congress's fear-mongering.

As The Times of India reported, "of the seats reserved for scheduled castes (SCs), BJP won 16, Congress 12 and JD(S) five. In the Scheduled Tribe (ST) seats, BJP had a tally of eight, Congress six and JD(S) one. There were a total of 36 seats reserved for SCs and 15 for STs." Not just seats, BJP's vote share, too, was greater than the Congress. BJP's win also indicates a greater acceptance for Modi's leadership among the youth and female voters who exercised their franchise in large numbers this election.

Where the BJP should worry is its inability to inspire urban residents to cast their votes (many of whom the party counts among its backers) which seems to have cost it a simple majority. In metropolitan Bengaluru, Congress won 15 seats, BJP 11 while 5 went to the JD(S).

Interestingly, as columnist Aashish Chandorkar points out on Twitter, while the BJP won many of its Bengaluru seats comfortably, of the 15 where it lost, at least in six the party was defeated by a margin of less than eight per cent votes. This wouldn't have happened had voting percentage been higher.

The IT city had a measly voting percentage at 51, down from 57.33 in 2013, but Bangalore Rural witnessed 78.25 percent voting, according to a report in Hindustan Times, indicating that the apathy is restricted to mainly urban voters. As the report states, "Dakshina Kannada, where there is an intense battle between the BJP and the Congress, the polling percentage was 72 percent, down from the 74.48 percent in 2013. The fear here could be that the traditional BJP supporters might not have come out to vote."

This seems to be a chronic problem for BJP which failed to get its voters out by large numbers to the booths resulting in its loss in the recent Phulpur and Gorakhpur by-elections in UP (see here and here).

Congress: Gains and losses

Congress's biggest takeaway is the nimbleness and hunger that it has shown post results in forming a government which is a welcome change from the laissez faire politics that also marked the nature of its leadership. Reports indicate that the Gandhis directed the party to "leave no stone unturned" to woo the JD(S) and somehow keep the BJP away from power.

While seizing the narrative reflects a much-needed change in Congress's behavior, certain things have not changed. In giving a carte blanche to the JD(S) — including the chief minister's post — the Congress may have been able to rope in the JD(S) in a post-poll alliance but had this alliance been in place when the parties went to polls, Congress would have been in a much stronger position.

If the argument is that in such a case the party would have had to sacrifice Siddaramaiah because of the bad blood between him and JD(S) chief HD Deve Gowda, it turns out that that is exactly the treatment that Congress meted out to Karnataka's former chief minister who was its 'poster boy' during the campaign stage. The way Congress unceremoniously dumped a strong regional satrap just because he didn't fit into the altered scheme of things speaks volumes of Congress's myopic politics.

It is also interesting to note that Congress president Rahul Gandhi dispatched senior leaders to Deve Gowda's residence to coax and cajole the senior JD(S) leader into forming an alliance but did not fly down personally to the state to launch negotiations, though he may have placed a call or two. At a time when Rahul needed Deve Gowda more than the JD(S) leader needed him, the Congress president was conspicuous by his absence at the scene of action. This would be unthinkable in Amit Shah's case.

This isn't incompetence, but a barely disguised arrogance which the Gandhis cannot shed even though they have been thoroughly disempowered by the electorate. The Congress might show a greater willingness to cede ground to other Opposition forces in stopping the BJP but this "deference" is skin deep. A slightly better showing in upcoming elections would see a return of the Gandhi arrogance. For that matter, Rahul may have already damaged his chances of leading an Opposition coalition by airing his prime ministerial ambitions.

The loss also ought to raise question marks against Rahul's leadership strategy since he seems completely bereft of ideas to tackle BJP except lapse into frequent vituperative monologues against the prime minister. During a recent rally at Delhi's Talkatora stadium, for instance, the Gandhi scion quoted the prime minister 17 times during a 30-minute speech. Voters don't want to hear about his obsessions. They are more interested in knowing whether he has a better idea than Modi.

JD(S): Gains and losses

As a representative of the third front, the JD(S) has shown how smaller political forces can maximise their gains by playing off the bigger ones against each other. If Congress-JD(S) alliance manages to form a government in Karnataka and Kumaraswamy becomes the chief minister, this would present a model for Opposition unity that holds far-reaching portends for the future.

JD(S) went into the election with support from Mayawati's BSP and Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM and it seems to have benefitted from this alliance. Notably, Mamata Banerjee had been hard at work to make the Congess-JD(S) alliance work on the ground because she is convinced that this could be the only way to arrest the Modi juggernaut.

While this represents a workable solution, there are some problems inbuilt in such an arrangement. As we have seen during the Indira Gandhi years, when members of the Opposition (who come from different ideological and socio-cultural milieu) have nothing else but hatred towards one dominant leader as the glue, such a coalition tends to implode under the weight of its inherent contradictions. Will such a grand coalition work against Modi? Will it trigger a counter-consolidation? While providing some answers, Karnataka has also thrown up some questions.


Updated Date: May 16, 2018 22:26 PM

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