The most productive and successful manufacturing unit established under the rubric of ‘Make in India’ must be the BJP’s election machinery. That much is obvious by now.
It comprises the BJP. It comprises the RSS. It comprises various sangh parivar outfits. It also comprises vast sections of mainstream media, especially the paid pipers in media and academia tasked with fabricating hava out of heavy weather.
So, after the victory in the “Northeast”, which The Times of India headlined as the “land of the rising sangh“, the ungainly sight of the BJP being lynched in by-polls in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh—and indeed in Meghalaya and Nagaland—have been swiftly swept under the carpet by the power of positive thinking.
Logic is being conveniently inverted and the discourse is being primed to ask if Karnataka is next after Tripura, if this may be a precursor to the way the general elections in 2019 may go. And this despite the BJP losing the equivalent of over 50 seats in 18 assembly elections since 2014.
The short answer is: no one knows.
That’s the beauty of elections, which “Scotty” Reston, the late New York Times executive editor, described as “a voter’s secret communion with democracy”. The mind of the people is a total mystery till the results come out, as Tripura was, even after visiting it three times in a year.
Still, that has never stopped politicians and pollsters and academics and media from gazing at the internal mechanisms of EVMs—and most times getting it wrong.
So far, in Karnataka, at least two opinion polls, one of them commissioned by a TV channel owned by a soon-to-join-BJP businessman-politician, have put the Congress ahead in the race.
And James Manor, the University of London professor who for 40 years has been the world’s keenest watcher of Karnataka politics, wrote in the Economic & Political Weekly recently that even Amit Shah does not believe BJP will achieve “Mission 150”, the target that he has set the party. It may end up around 80 or so.
But that was before the Tripura win and one mentions only Tripura because it was frankly a pyrrhic victory for the BJP in Meghalaya and Nagaland. Despite the so-called “Modi Magic“, a candidate who came third in 2013 in Meghalaya, came fourth in 2018, despite Narendra Modi campaigning for him.
Notwithstanding all that, there are at least nine factors which make Karnataka very different from Tripura for BJP.
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Karnataka is 18 times bigger than Tripura in size. Its electorate at 4.5 crore voters is 15 times bigger than Tripura’s 30 lakh. Also, the demographics are vastly different. Karnataka is a melting of all castes and communities—-Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, plus Dalits and tribals. Moreover, there are five different regions: Hyderabad-Karnataka, Bombay-Karnataka, coastal Karnataka, central Karnataka, and Old Mysore. Each responds differently to different impulses.
The Left in Tripura was in power in Tripura for 20 years running, for about 40 years in all. Anti-incumbency was big. Voters were bored, tired. Chalo Paltai (let’s flip it) had a nice ring to it. BJP with 1% of the vote in 2013 had never been in power in Tripura before. The Modi ballast from Delhi helped. In Karnataka, on the other hand, BJP has been tried, tested and rejected. It came to power by a distortion of democracy called ‘Operation Lotus’. Its tenure saw three chief ministers, infighting, scams and scandals. Chalo Paltai sounds like a PJ in Karnataka.
BJP is a two-trick electoral pony. It raises two issues wherever it goes: corruption and development. On corruption, the BJP’s record in Karnataka is dismal. Chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa went to jail as did several of his colleagues for a slew of reasons ranging from mining to molestation. The Reddy Brothers fetched it the magazine coverline “India’s Most Corrupt State“. So it cannot raise graft as an issue with the same force it does elsewhere. It has tried to make something out of Siddaramaiah’s Hublot watch; from diaries seized from an MLC; from IT raids on minister D.K. Shivakumar, but they haven’t stuck, and pale in front of Jay Amit Shah, Nirav Modi and Rafale, all three of which Siddaramaiah raises at rallies to applause.
Likewise, development. For whatever Narendra Modi and Amit Shah might say, Karnataka is among the top three big states in the country, alongside Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. It attracts tonnes of FDI, provides a 10th of income-tax. Bangalore’s IT industry and startups have facilitated more jobs than the Centre. And its other socio-economic indices are impressive if not middling. Modi and Shah are barking up the wrong tree if they think questioning Karnataka on misuse of funds is going go to take them anywhere. Siddaramaiah who has delivered a dozen state budgets knows a thing or twelve about resource allocation.
Unlike in Tripura, where Sunil Deodhar was cycling and riding the train for five years, and Biplab Deb was parachuted into the party presidency, the BJP in Karnataka is a divided outfit. It is riven with factions. Although Yeddyurappa (who at 75 is margadarshak material) has been announced as the CM candidate, there are at least half-a-dozen aspirants, including a couple of Union ministers, both bearing the same first name. Each wants the other/s to fail. And to make it worse, the names of at least two RSS leaders are heard frequently as being the haddi in the sanskari kabab. The Congress, though no home of love, is in slightly better shape.
Unlike Tripura, which was starved of attention and resources (Manik Sarkar said in a December meeting that there was not a single phone call from the Centre when the tiny state suffered floods), Siddaramaiah has led a reasonable government. The consensus is that he was asleep for the first three years but has been energised in recent months, especially after a couple of by-poll victories last year. Some of his so-called “pro-people” programmes—subsidised canteens, free rice, free milk, etc—have been well received. A Lokniti survey found that 96 per cent of respondents were aware of government programmes. There is greater peace, communal amity and social harmony compared to BJP-ruled states.
Siddaramaiah has stolen the kind of sub-nationalistic issues that BJP likes to rake up in the run-up to elections. For example, commissioning the design of a separate flag for the state. Or, the use of Hindi on Bangalore metro. Many BJP leaders privately concede that there is very little room for them in these matters. As of now, BJP-RSS seem vastly disconnected in Karnataka because of the language barrier. And crowds have walked away after Modi-Shah started speaking in Hindi.
“Hard Hindutva” which the Modi-Shah regime apparently prefers has its limits in Karnataka, says James Manor, except in a couple of pockets. Slogans claiming that Hindus are under threat have limited carry. And the arrest of a man with suspected Hindu links in the Gauri Lankesh assassination has the potential to be milked. The Siddaramaiah government has also adroitly attempted to divide the BJP’s traditional Lingayat vote, who are about 17% of the population.
And last but not least, in Tripura it was a head-on battle between the right and left ideologies. In Karnataka, the distinction between BJP and Congress is less sharp. In Tripura, the Left vote share stayed the same despite the loss, indicating that the BJP gains came from Congress and Trinamool Congress. That isn’t quite the case here, where there is also a third party, the JDS. JDS won 40 seats in the last election and is no walkover.
Then again, Siddaramaiah is up against the weight of history. No state government has been re-elected in Karnataka since 1985. Not Ramakrishna Hegde despite his pathbreaking Panchayat Raj experiments, not even S.M. Krishna, despite creating a brand out of Bangalore and IT.
On the flip side, since 1998, whichever party has won the assembly election in Karnataka has not come to power in Delhi.
So, the writing is on the wall!
“Karnataka is being positioned as a ‘PM vs CM’ battle,” said Prof V.K. Nataraj, the well-regarded former head of the Institute of Development Studies, at a panel discussion last week. The irony won’t be lost in a state that pioneered social reforms and decentralisation of power.