There are lessons from Karnataka for both parties ahead of the 2024 General Election
Rajeev Deshpande Rajeev Deshpande | 19 May, 2023
DK Shivakumar, Mallikarjun Kharge and Siddaramaiah at a press conference in Bengaluru after Congress’ victory in the Assembly election, May 13, 2023 (Photo: Jithendra M)
THE CHANGE OF GUARD in the Karnataka BJP in mid-2021 was not an easy decision. BS Yediyurappa (BSY), the party’s tallest leader, had begun to slow down as age caught up with him. There were, worryingly, concerns about the emergence of power centres and distracted governance. It was time for a new leadership to prepare the party for the next election and a time when BSY’s banyan-like presence could no longer be taken for granted. The choice of succession was, however, limited. Unlike in other states where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) broke the mould in promoting leaders who defied traditional caste and seniority calculations—Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana, Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra, Raghubar Das in Jharkhand, and Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh (UP) to name a few—BSY’s replacement had to be a Lingayat. If BSY were to step down, BJP could not risk the wrath of the influential Lingayat community by choosing a leader from another social denomination. The search for a new chief minister stopped at Basavaraj S Bommai, son of Janata Dal stalwart and a former Chief Minister SR Bommai, who had joined BJP in 2008.
In the wake of BJP’s dizzying fall to 66 seats—and Congress’ impressive winning tally of 135 in the Assembly election—the decision to replace BSY is being questioned. Leaders of Lingayat maths claimed the leader’s “sidelining” as a reason for BJP’s defeat. But the decision had been taken with due care, ensuring the leader did not feel slighted. BSY campaigned hard for the party and was repeatedly sought out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah during the election. The scale of BJP’s defeat unambiguously points to serious governance deficits, which cannot be wished away or shrouded by claims about a certain caste or leader being aggrieved. The 7 per cent vote difference between BJP and Congress, and the former’s losses in key battlefields like Bombay-Karnataka, make it evident that the result would not have been much different even if some prominent rebels who switched sides had been appeased. The question whether Bommai failed to deliver is twinned with another: Did the government do enough to speak about its achievements and plans? The outgoing chief minister had close to two years to consolidate and though this was a tricky exercise that involved catering to Congress and Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), rebel MLAs whose resignations helped BJP form the government in 2019, the focus had to be on key development, welfare, and economic initiatives. Though the rollout of schemes was patchy, it was not absent. The last state budget, a revenue-surplus exercise, was replete with specific initiatives for various sections, but there was poor dissemination of the decisions. The public seemed quite oblivious to the government’s efforts, with even relatively successful projects like the KC Valley lift irrigation scheme failing to make a mark in the dry regions adjoining Bengaluru. The chief minister and his party failed to “talk up” the government’s achievements even as gaps in execution on the ground level disillusioned voters.
There were other errors too. BJP could not effectively counter the “PayCM” campaign against Bommai based on charges levelled by the president of an association of state contractors that fuelled the political debate. The association head, D Kempanna, said local contractors were not finding work in addition to alleging that a 40 per cent commission was being demanded for all government works. Ahead of polling, he practically issued an appeal in favour of Congress, calling on people to vote in accordance with their conscience. He said corruption had reached frightening proportions and the commission demand had cost several contractors their lives. His appeal was promptly posted by Congress on its Twitter account. The association’s claims could not be countered by the government despite scanty evidence. As a party functionary pointed out, BJP failed to even ask what a contractor’s margin was if 40 per cent was to be paid as commission. Corruption, however, was not much of a talking point in the hinterland, perhaps because all parties in the fray were dogged by controversies. Yet, BJP lagged in countering the slogan that occupied considerable media space. Modi did attack Congress, telling voters that Karnataka would become an “ATM” for the party should it win. But the aggressive response needed from the Bommai government was just not forthcoming.
Congress managed to bury its intense factional feuds during the campaign with Mallikarjun Kharge, the new party chief, providing the elder-statesman presence to keep rivals at bay. The jousting for the chief minister’s chair between state party chief DK Shivakumar and former chief minister Siddaramaiah after the results were out only highlights Congress’ success in keeping egos and claims under the lid
The Congress campaign focused on local issues, exploiting the incumbency against the Bommai government, and addressing dissatisfaction about higher costs of LPG cooking gas and farm inputs by promising direct dole. Where BJP promised three free cooking gas cylinders to the poor, Congress’ pledges were more direct by way of direct transfers to unemployed educated youth and women heads of households, and more. It would seem, as some commentators like Open contributor Anil Padmanabhan pointed out, the wide availability of LPG connections under the Ujjwala scheme has led to higher expectations. As cooking gas became more expensive due to the impact of the Ukraine war, households were not ready to return to wood and coal fires. Rather, they expected the `1,000 per cylinder cost would be further compensated. Below Poverty Line (BPL) voters, too, felt the Central subsidy of `200 to be inadequate. Farmers in the state were up in arms over poor rates for non-cereal crops, and demanded higher support prices. The choice for policymakers between investment-driven approaches to increasing incomes and direct handouts has become more acute. The aftermath of the election underlines the need for some kind of direct support to rural populations. The lament that the government had done ‘nothing’ will disappoint BJP leaders but serves to highlight the serious lack of communication about the government’s efforts.
Congress managed to bury its intense factional feuds during the campaign with Mallikarjun Kharge, the new party chief, providing the elder-statesman presence to keep rivals at bay. The jousting for the chief minister’s chair between state party chief DK Shivakumar and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah after the results were out only highlights Congress’ success in keeping egos and claims under the lid. Congress made its share of errors with Kharge referring to the prime minister as a “poisonous snake”, and while this did not go down well with people, the election was about the next chief minister and not who would be in office in Delhi. Congress’ manifesto pledge to ban Bajrang Dal was swiftly diluted but again, given the extent of discontent against BJP, it did not hurt the challenger. The main opposition also did not dwell much on the Bommai government’s decision to scrap the 4 per cent quotas for Muslims under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, and Muslim religious leaders were urged not to rake it up. Muslim community leaders seemed to have understood that not raising the issue could prevent any polarisation that might benefit BJP. And, finally, despite the infirmities of the allegations, Congress leaders harped on the “PayCM” and 40 per cent commission theme, keeping the issue alive.
THE TRAJECTORY OF the Karnataka election clearly surprised BJP campaign planners as the lower limit of the party’s performance was well below the 75-80-seat mark. In fact, given the final tally, it may well have been 40-45 seats but for Modi’s campaign in Bengaluru and some other parts of the state and his strong appeals to voters to back BJP. The flaccid feedback meant the prime minister was often forced to dwell on very local projects and initiatives in much more detail than he might have liked. The view that Modi and other Central leaders spoke only of ‘national’ issues is quite inaccurate. The prime minister inevitably refers to larger or national themes during campaigns but for the most part his speeches were an elaboration of how BJP would make Karnataka the “No 1” state in manufacturing, agri-industries, and investments. His micro-detailing was an effort to compensate for the poor awareness of the state government’s policies that had schemes for various rural sectors. While BJP failed to garner necessary support from most sections of society, the failure of its attempt to rejig Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) quotas and increase the share of Lingayats and Vokkaligas in the OBC category to move voters points to both a delay in considering such measures and an inability to convey in concrete terms what the benefits would be. The fiddling within the ST quotas ended up annoying tribal communities who felt their share had been reduced without adding any new support. Vokkaligas were not impressed by BJP’s move to woo them, and chose to stick to JD(S) or shift allegiance to Congress. The quota fusillade, intended to breach the caste strongholds of rival parties, turned out to be a dud as it suffered from lack of specificity. Similarly, the effort and resources poured into the Oly Mysuru region provided poor returns as BJP failed to gain from voters switching from JD(S).
Congress made some sharp calls in Karnataka in contrast to the bumbling in Punjab. Though Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra’s passage through Karnataka has been linked to Congress’ success in the seats it touched, the leader played a minimal role in this election
The desertion of backward voters, who rediscovered their fondness for Siddaramaiah, and the inevitable references to Kharge for Dalits backing Congress are being discussed in the context of possible implications beyond Karnataka. Do state elections, even one as significant as Karnataka’s, have a bearing on national politics? State elections are in the main a discussion of and a window to regional issues and aspirations. Voters increasingly make the differentiation. BJP’s pitch for a “double-engine” sarkar works well if the soil is receptive. Either the incumbent BJP government has done well or an opposition regime has become unpopular. The double-engine plea can help swing fence-sitters and strengthen the resolve of committed voters but not if anti-incumbency has reached the point of no return. This is not, as some commentators claim, a set pattern of “Modi-for-Centre and others in states”. BJP has, after all, returned to office emphatically in UP and Gujarat defying incumbency and sticky caste loyalties on the basis of a good governance record. Post-poll segmented analysis shows that while some Lingayat vote drifted from the party, it remained largely loyal to BJP. But the party clearly lagged in other demographics except among the more educated, urban voters. Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, BJP lost major states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where it had incumbent governments. Barring Rajasthan, BJP had won multiple terms in the other two states. Again, the factors were overwhelmingly local. In Rajasthan, it was Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s inability to carry factions. In Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan seemed to have lost his common touch and in Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh got bogged down in bureaucratic coteries. Yet, there were some issues that needed urgent redress. The upper-caste anger over Parliament reversing a Supreme Court ruling diluting some of the strict provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act cost the party, particularly in Madhya Pradesh. BJP moved fast to bring a 10 per cent Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota, which has since passed muster in the Supreme Court. The correctives were in place by the time the General Election was held a few months later.
Congress’ success in a large state after a long gap sets the stage for renewed claims to being the lead challenger to BJP. The bounce will benefit the party even as other opposition satraps will not cede space unquestioningly. The initial reactions to the Karnataka results indicate as much as some regional parties suggest they would get out of Congress’ way if the party returned the favour in their states, which would mean the Grand Old Party either not contesting or becoming a junior partner. As things stand, Congress is a junior partner already in states like Bihar and Maharashtra. Opposition unity moves will continue in a start-stop mode with the next round of big state elections slated only for the end of the year. The encouraging part of the story for Congress is that it made some sharp calls in Karnataka in contrast to the bumbling in Punjab where a sitting party chief minister was humiliated, a rival encouraged but not rewarded and, ultimately, a poor compromise installed in office. The result was the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) winning 92 seats and a three-fourths majority in the 117-seat Punjab Assembly. Though Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra’s passage through Karnataka has been linked to Congress’ success in the seats it touched, the leader had a minimal role in the election. Rather, the issues he has been highlighting, such as the Adani shares controversy, were absent from the party campaign. Discussions with various sections of voters during the election barely threw up any reference to the Congress leader as local aspirants were debated and assessed. The big gain for Congress—the backing of Dalits, tribals and backwards—is something it would like to build on. This is where BJP can be expected to respond, as the support of OBCs has been key to its rise under Modi and its success in winning two consecutive Lok Sabha majorities.
The public seemed oblivious to the government’s efforts, with even relatively successful projects like the KC Valley Lift Irrigation Scheme failing to make a mark. The chief minister and his party failed to ‘talk up’ their achievements even as gaps in execution on the ground level disillusioned voters
THE CHALLENGE FOR BJP is twofold. There are, as evident from the resonance of populist promises, rising levels of voter expectations. On the other hand, there is still a need for a deeper spread and coverage of Central welfare schemes. Modi’s ability to weld a development-plus-Hindutva constituency rested on visualising overarching and ambitious schemes, such as cooking gas, housing, banking, and MUDRA loans for the poor and delivering at scale. This determined effort to reach those at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid is complemented by reforms to reduce frictions in the economy and a massive, capital-intensive infrastructure push. All this is topped by emotive cultural and identity battles, intended to counter BJP’s ideological adversaries on issues like the content and form of nationalism. The support of OBCs and realisation of development benefits are key to BJP’s electoral strategy, linked as the two goals are. The view from Delhi is that initiatives like housing subsidies and MUDRA loans lead to the creation of assets that support and increase incomes. In the weeks and months ahead, the Modi government can be expected to double down on these efforts, seeking what the prime minister has defined as “saturation” coverage of all eligible beneficiaries. Despite the criticism that it invites, references to cultural issues, even polarising ones, are likely to be a regular feature along with other electoral approaches. Modi’s reference to the film The Kerala Story as an exposé of terrorist plots against India that seek to sow divisions is not a random comment.
The efficacy of the Centre’s plans, including any tweaks and fine-tuning that are incorporated, depend to a considerable extent on the ability and capacity of the BJP organisation to carry the message and actively assist in indentifying missing beneficiaries, such as sections of the migrant population in cities. Governance is the primary task of governments but the party has an important role to play in conveying and managing popular feedback. The picture in this regard is rather patchy and suffers from obvious weaknesses. The role and performance of Central party officials and leaders deputed at election time have been below par. The party organisation works well in states where the leadership is effective and proactive but otherwise comes across as fragmented as was the case in Karnataka. Accounts trickling out of the BJP central office point to a certain complacency and slothfulness associated with stagnation. Central functionaries put in charge of states lack heft and expertise and seem unable to strike a chord with cadres, resulting in a lack of credibility. The task of focusing the organisation in a state on the basics of voter connect has often enough taken a beating and this is evident in a growing tendency to put up large, expensive posters hailing leaders rather than doing the hard yards of door-to-door contact and understanding the needs of the electorate. The agility that was associated with the BJP organisation, and which has helped the party become India’s premier political outfit, has atrophied. In 2014, Rajnath Singh was BJP president and Amit Shah was put in charge of UP, a decision that yielded instant results. In 2019, Shah was party chief, and worked relentlessly to ensure the organisation complemented the Central government and state units were aligned to the objectives set out by the leadership.
The prime minister was often forced to dwell on very local projects and initiatives in much more detail than he might have liked. His micro-detailing was an effort to compensate for the poor awareness of the state government’s policies that had schemes for various rural sectors
The forthcoming state elections later in the year are tough matches for BJP and Congress. In Telangana, Congress has receded as the main opposition. In Rajasthan, infighting shows no signs of pausing and the party faces a new situation in Chhattisgarh where the assertiveness of tribals has given rise to fresh tensions over the old faultline of religious conversions. Its leadership in Madhya Pradesh is ageing. BJP, for its part, has a difficult leadership call to take in Rajasthan while governance in Madhya Pradesh has been average. In Chhattisgarh, it needs to discover a credible leader in time for the election. As is fairly evident, the next set of state polls will also be regional affairs fought on local issues. But they will, as in the case of Karnataka, test the ability of BJP and Congress to rally troops and, most importantly, not miss the straws in the wind that point to the public mood.
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