Why are polls to the Karnataka legislature so important, and why is it being said that its outcome will be of interest nationally?
The dominant narrative on the significance of this election, expectedly, is being led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Their spin suggests that this is the last big bastion of the Congress party and, if breached, the party of our Independence would reach a comatose state. As this view gets bombarded and amplified, what is being cleverly disguised is the anxiety of the BJP and its affiliates. If the BJP loses this election, then the story of their “invincibility" would get corrected and reversed as they enter poll mode later this year in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. This would have an impact on parliamentary polls in 2019, which will put to test Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to beat the Vajpayee jinx of a second successive term. Therefore, this election is arguably a bigger challenge to Modi than it is to the Congress.
Even if one assumes the Congress will not perform to expected levels in Karnataka, hope for the party in three poll-bound states will remain open. But if per chance the BJP wins Karnataka it will still be an uphill climb in the three states where they face acute anti-incumbency. Consequentially, the chances of those polls negatively impacting the BJP’s prospects in the parliamentary battle will also continue to remain high. In the Congress’ scheme of things success is measured on a reasonable scale, and with multiple grades, but Modi has made it a binary for himself and his party. It is either a win or a loss. As clear wins start eluding him, as it is predicted to happen either which way in Karnataka and later in 2018, the disruption in 2019 looks greater for him.
However, people who feel confident about the Congress’ performance under Siddaramaiah, borrow crutches of history to firmly implant a positive story for themselves and their leader. They argue that the state has altered the national narrative at least half-a-dozen times in the last 50 years and it is likely to repeat it this time. They point out that Indira Gandhi found her footing as a leader after the 1969 split via Karnataka and Devaraj Urs. Incidentally, one of her main challengers nationally at the time was another Karnataka Congressman, S. Nijalingappa. Again, post-Emergency, Indira Gandhi won the Chikmagalur parliamentary seat and took back control of Delhi. Ramakrishna Hegde plotted the Janata Dal and the United Front in Karnataka, which installed V.P. Singh as prime minister. Sonia Gandhi’s credentials were established after she won her Bellary seat in 1999. H.D. Deve Gowda became the first formal coalition experiment for the Congress. In the same breath, and as a logical extension, it is argued that Siddaramaiah will spur a change in Modi’s fortunes by winning Karnataka this time.
What prompts such a positive assembly of historical events in favour of Siddaramaiah is his political cunning and strategy. He set a sub-nationalist trap for Modi months before he could think of a nationalist rhetoric for the Karnataka polls. As a result, for the first time in recent years, the BJP has been caught responding and reacting to the Congress rather than the other way round.
The local issues raised by Siddaramaiah have caught the BJP in a bind. They can’t ignore them, yet can’t explicitly state their position. Be it the Lingayat issue, the caste census, the issue of sharing the Mahadayi and Cauvery river waters, the distribution of federal taxes, a separate state flag, the imposition of Hindi or the return of the mining lobby, the BJP had lost the moral argument even before Modi began campaigning. Now, for everything that Modi has been saying in his rallies there is already a strong counter-narrative built over months in the local language.
Over and above this, the BJP state leadership looks fatigued, divided and rudderless. The central leadership of the BJP was trying to forcefully implant certain issues like corruption, murder of activists etc., but the local leadership did not show conviction to carry it to the intended corners. Simply because they know they’ll be challenged locally. Modi has been brought in as a messiah with an elevating message, but the communication chain appears broken. One gets the feeling that he is lost in translation.
Other than political reasons, this election also assumes significance at the level of democratic principles too. While Siddaramaiah by constantly raising issues of federal autonomy has emerged as a champion of decentralized thinking, Modi with his centralizing impulse appears rather absolute. Culturally translated, this would mean a battle between plurality and a monolith.
Sugata Srinivasaraju is editorial director of digital platforms The State and SouthWord.