City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Karnataka Challenge?

Karnataka is poised for a tight finish, if current indications are correct. Of late, election results have been so unpredictable that making any statement about the eventual outcome has become both risky and meaningless.

But there is an aspect to this election that needs to be noted, regardless of the outcome- the emergence of Siddaramaiah as a credible force to counter the might of the BJP’s election machine. It might come to nothing, given the fact that in a crunch, the BJP is better placed to form the government with the help of the JD (S), but as things stand, it appears that the BJP is taking his challenge very seriously.

His campaign fuses many elements that come together with a certain amount of coherence. The ability to find emotionally resonant themes and communicate these in languages appropriate to the constituencies they are meant for, combativeness tinged with the shrewd appreciation of which issues to take up, the confidence to go up against the tallest leaders on the other side, placing big bets with self-assurance, playing the identity game but on his own terms, deploying the traditional tactics of large-scale welfare schemes as well as using new age tools like social media and doing so innovatively- these are some of the characteristics that have given his campaign a sense of heft and purpose.

The move to accede to the long-standing Lingayat demand to be recognised as a separate religion could play out either way, but it shows a willingness to play a high- risk game. The use of regional pride as a motif, and the use of the North-South fault-line to put the BJP on the defensive are gambits out of the BJP playbook which have been used to good effect. The labelling of the BJP as a North Indian party has more than an element of truth in it, and it does not help that the party has used Adityanath extensively as a face in its campaign.

The use of social media in particular has been quite striking, because this is an area in which the Congress virtually ceded victory to the BJP without the semblance of a fight in 2014. While it has made amends of late, the efforts have been slow and tentative. Rahul Gandhi shielded himself for a long time under the ‘office of RG’ handle on Twitter, and it is only of late that a more assertive approach is being followed.

Siddaramaiah has taken that strategy a couple of notches further; not only does he respond with great speed and force to virtually every message that the BJP leadership puts out, he has found the perfect tonality in his reactions.

The combination of aggression and wit, makes him a formidable force on social media, even against the mighty army on the other side. Apart from the specifics of the content, it communicates strength and confidence, traits not associated with the Congress of late.

To the outside observer, the image of a strong regional leader, self-sufficient and in touch with the needs of his state comes through quite effectively.

While that may not necessarily translate into a positive electoral outcome, nor does it take away the anti-incumbency factor that exists for a reason, it does present him as a credible option even when pitted against the likes of Modi and Shah. He has made his counterpart Yeddyurappa look quite pale by contrast.

For that matter, he has also highlighted what the problem with Rahul Gandhi is, when it comes to connecting with voters. Pitted against mass politicians that have a robust understanding of the minds of the voters, speak their language instinctively, and know how to practice politics the hard way, he comes through very often as a well-meaning lightweight.

To Gandhi’s credit, his political approach seems to be evolving; in Gujarat, he took the lead whereas in Karnataka he has taken a supporting role and has allowed Siddaramaiah to lead the way. But even so, as an individual, it is difficult to imagine his being able to inspire belief among voters at a mass level.

The fact that the BJP has been pushed into taking the Reddy brothers back into their fold, and has felt the need to deploy a lot of its well-worn rhetoric on Nehru, Pakistan and the Hindu sense of injury as well as make cooing sounds to Deve Gowda are signs that it is feeling the pressure.

Of course, it is commonplace for it to throw everything at every election, but the need to publicly woo JD (S) and that too by Modi himself is a pointer that there is some nervousness in the BJP camp.

For a national political party, the question of how much leeway to allow local regional leaders has always been a challenging one. From a time when the BJP boasted of CMs who were strong regional leaders, today it seems to have followed the old Congress model of High Command-appointed stand-ins.

The CMs that were once deemed to be powerful and self-sufficient, Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Shivraj Chouhan are pallid versions of their former selves, and the change has as much to do with anti-incumbency as it does with the way that they have been handled internally.

The newer CMs with the exception of Adityanath, have quite literally, been phoned in. This works as along as the Modi mystique does, but over time, the Centre may not hold and fragmentation is a real possibility.

Whatever happens on election day, the Karnataka elections will throw up as many answers as it will pose fresh questions. For the BJP, it will establish if its truncated promise (Hindutva + Modi, having almost given up on Vikas) resonates enough for it to win elections outside the Hindi heartland.

For the Congress, it will test if even with strong regional leadership, it has the ability to win against the BJP’s electoral machine. A decisive victory for either side could change the shape of the 2019 elections.

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