There are lessons for the Congress to learn from the Karnataka elections of how burying the hatchet among top leaders and not washing dirty linen in public can help, says Ramesh Menon.
The Congress win in the Karnataka elections was hardly a surprise. The reality of it happening was blowing in the wind even before the elections were announced.
The BJP government had little to show the electorate. It was riddled with corruption charges, inflation, unemployment, caste and communal tensions, poor governance, and lack-lustre leadership.
That is why Narendra D Modi took over the reins of the campaign addressing 19 meetings and taking part in half-a-dozen road shows when he should have been more invested in running the country’s affairs that were bogged down with serious issues like the Manipur disturbances that had paralysed the state.
The party heavily banked on him to turn the tide and fight anti-incumbency. It did not jell.
The BJP aggressively fought this election with all their might. Home Minister Amit A Shah also spent considerable time campaigning in the state along with other central leaders and chief ministers of BJP-ruled states.
After a high-decibel communally charged campaign, 42.88 per cent of voters chose to give an opportunity to the Congress, hoping for some change.
The vote share of the BJP was 36 per cent, and Janata Dal-Secular was just 13.39 per cent.
The Congress swept into power with an absolute majority after 24 years.
What made it nationally significant was that Karnataka was billed to be BJP’s gateway to the south.
Today, the party has no significant presence in any southern state.
The win boosted the Congress morale more than anything else. It made them relevant for the 2024 national elections.
The Opposition also sat up realising that Modi was not invincible.
A sense of the mood of voters was apparent in October last year during Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra.
He attracted considerable crowds in Raichur, Mysuru, Chitradurga, Tumkur, Chamarajanagara, Mandya and Bellary, which means they were the ones who were rejecting the narrow politics of hatred that was dividing an otherwise peaceful society.
He covered 500 km in 22 days, meeting and listening to the people’s woes.
60-year-old businessman D K Shivakumar, president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee, who has declared assets of Rs 1,214 crore (Rs 12.14 billion) and has been embroiled in ED and CBI investigations on tax evasion, was one of the principal architects of the Congress victory.
Shivakumar goaded the party to focus on real hyper-local issues and not get entangled into copying the communal politics of the BJP.
He exploited the public anger against inflation and rising living costs.
This was another election in India that showed us how the ruling BJP skirted real issues and tried to whip support using caste and communal planks.
Home Minister Amit Shah, a star campaigner, said that the state would witness riots if the Congress came to power.
Though Modi and his ministers toured throughout the state, they were silent on national issues.
Like the carnage in Manipur. The Adani scam. Chinese incursions into India. Rising communalism and polarisation. Erosion of various pillars of democracy. Challenges of the G20 presidency.
Instead, the BJP spoke of love jihad, appeasement of Muslims, reservations for specific Hindu communities, and so on.
The most ridiculous one which even Modi mouthed was that Lord Hanuman was insulted by the Congress as it said that the Bajrang Dal has to be banned.
Modi at his election rallies, gave credence to the film, The Kerala Story, which claimed that 32,000 Hindu women from Kerala were victims of love jihad and were forced to join ISIS, the terrorist outfit.
None of the speeches, however, said that the producers had retracted, saying it was just a notional figure. The figure was then corrected to a mere three girls.
The highlight of this election was that the BJP’s communally oriented campaign backfired.
Communal campaigns of the BJP may have produced dividends as in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, but did not work in Karnataka.
Here is a telling example: School education minister B C Nagesh was a well-known headline hunter as he was aggressively pushing for ‘saffronising’ textbooks, ensuring that students did not wear hijabs, and making communally tinged statements.
Nagesh lost from Tiptur to K Shadakshari of the Congress by 17,652 votes.
Is this a lesson for the party in 2024?
Certainly. One of the most critical lessons from this election is that the electorate worries about poor governance.
While the Congress kept stressing that 40 per cent of any project allocation in the state had to be set aside to pay bribes, Modi lamely said that the Congress was an ’85 per cent cent Commission Party’. It did not stick.
What voters remembered was that Santosh Patil, a contractor, had died by suicide, leaving behind a note saying that he was forced to do it as K S Eashwarappa, a minister, was demanding a 40 per cent commission from the contract he was given that was not even paid for and that loan sharks were after him.
Eshwarappa had to resign. The BJP did not give him a ticket this time. He was a former deputy chief minister.
The Karnataka Contractors Association claimed that officials demanded 40 per cent of the tender amount when awarded any state-funded project.
The Congress picked it up and made ’40 per cent Sarkara’ as a slogan in their campaign.
Hoping to pander to the Hindutva constituency, chief minister Basavaraj S Bommai, at his last cabinet meeting, removed Muslims from the quota of other Backward Classes, hoping to reap electoral benefits as it would be perceived as a reversal of what the BJP calls appeasement politics.
The BJP had argued that the OBC quota that helped Muslims get government jobs and admissions in educational institutions was unconstitutional as reservations cannot be based on religion.
However, the State Backward Classes Commission in many states recommends the names of socially and educationally backward Muslims because that is the criteria for such a reservation.
From the 32 per cent reservation quota for the OBCs in Karnataka, 4 per cent was reserved for Muslims since 1994.
The BJP government wanted to transfer it to the Vokkaligas and Lingayats.
Vokkaligas constitute 15 per cent of the population while Lingayats constitute 17 per cent.
Both these communities can influence around 150 of the 224 seats.
In December last year, the BJP government recategorised both communities as ‘backward; to increase their reservation quota.
Amit Shah said at election meetings that an earlier government introduced the quota for Muslims to appease them, and all that the BJP had done was to end it.
However, it is likely to be legally challenged by the Karnataka Sunni Ulema Board.
While the Congress relied on its state leaders to drive the campaign, talking of local issues and the importance of federalism, the BJP pushed local leaders aside, allowing the campaign to revolve around Modi.
It was ironic when Modi said the Congress was running scared as it was getting leaders from outside the state, alluding to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi to campaign as it feared losing the election.
The Congress put up strong candidates against those who had defected to the BJP camp collapsing the Siddaramaiah government.
To reward the defectors that helped them seize power, the BJP gave them tickets while denying it to numerous sitting MLAs of the party who had been with them for years.
Modi campaigned for the defectors.
Remember how in 2014, the BJP said that it was a party with a difference and would bring in change?
In 2018, the BJP was the single largest party with 104 seats, but the Congress, with 78 and Janata Dal-Secular, with 37 seats, formed a coalition government with H D Kumaraswamy of the JD-S as chief minister.
It survived for just two years as the BJP top brass sculpted a series of defections from both these partners to form a government with Basvaraj S Bommai as chief minister.
This was crass in terms of grabbing power.
However, it was a golden opportunity for the BJP to showcase how it could bring in a clean government in a state ridden with corruption charges.
But, little was done, and three years later, there was little to show the electorate.
This is also why the party kept sharpening a communal campaign hoping to garner votes.
Narendar Pani, professor at the Bengaluru-based National Institute of Advanced Studies, says that the Congress emphasised issues that resonate at the local level and has realised that the party’s future depends on building local leaders.
Jagadish Shettar, a former CM, was denied a ticket, though he had won six assembly elections and was with the BJP during the last 30 years.
As soon as he announced quitting the party, the Congress offered him a ticket.
But he lost by a large margin. But, the Congress will rehabilitate him as he is one of the most powerful Lingayat leaders.
One view is that the BJP wanted to build a new set of younger leaders thinking of the future, but the plausible reason is that they had to be cut down to size.
The younger newbies would also be more docile and amenable to the dictates of the party’s high command.
Why else would an established Lingayat leader like former deputy chief minister Laxman Savadi be denied a ticket? It is not that the BJP was on such sure ground that they could afford to lose seats.
Savadi won the Belagavi seat for the Congress by 76,122 votes.
It is a fact that the BJP leadership in Delhi could not force the hand of leaders like B S Yediyurappa, who insisted on a say in ticket distribution in certain constituencies like Shikaripura, where his son B Y Vijayendra was finally allowed to contest.
With four more state elections this year, a win in Karnataka was crucial for both the BJP and Congress.
In the coming elections, the BJP will have to talk hard on issues and not whip up communal passions, as it will not work in election after election.
The JD-S, which had 32 seats in the last assembly, managed to mop up just 19 seats.
Ironically, it had fancied itself as a kingmaker and hoped to drive a hard bargain if there was a hung assembly.
A five per cent drop in its vote share indicated its waning influence.
Will the recent Congress win in a mainline state boost its image as a party that can lead a fractured Opposition to form a joint front to take on the BJP next year?
Even a shared vision of goals and commitments by the Opposition parties would be a glue that could bind them together.
Still, given the current leadership of various parties, this will not happen if they are riding personal ego-chariots, dreaming they would be the king.
The Opposition knows it is cornered by the BJP’s financial might, which is crucial as elections in India soak in millions of rupees and every party, including the Congress, faces the reality of diminishing finances.
But it will still not unite the parties, as we have seen how Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, Naveen Patnaik, M K Stalin, Sharad Pawar, Nitish Kumar, Mayawati, and others are all pulling in different directions.
Some of them cannot even stand each other as they have soaring ambitions where only their ascent matters.
Naveen Patnaik has already clarified that his party, the Biju Janata Dal, will fight it alone and will not have any truck with an Opposition conglomerate.
State elections in Rajasthan, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are scheduled later this year.
If they play their cards right, the Congress has a fair chance of winning Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
One of the challenges is to keep Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar in good humour as both are today leaders of influence.
As the Lok Sabha polls are a year away, they would want to avoid rock the boat wanting to ensure that the BJP do not do a repeat of securing 25 out of 28 Lok Sabha seats.
There are lessons for the Congress to learn from the Karnataka elections of how burying the hatchet among top leaders and not washing dirty linen in public can help.
In Rajasthan, it would do well to get Sachin Pilot and Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot on the same platform to take on the BJP if it wants to win it.
Pilot is presently publicly agitating against the Gehlot government, accusing it of not cracking down on corruption or doing enough for the electorate.
If the Congress earnestly starts delivering on its promises in Karnataka, it will signal that it is the harbinger of change and will gain both in the state and national elections that are not too far away.
- ‘Congress has to sort out Shivakumar-Siddaramaiah tensions’
- ‘Shivakumar is yet to grow as mass leader’
Ramesh Menon, award-winning journalist, educator, documentary film-maker and corporate trainer, is the author of Modi Demystified: The Making Of A Prime Minister.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com
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