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Karnataka Elections: BJP Fell To Anti-Incumbency But Congress Kept To Local Issues

While the Congress remained singularly focused on the target right from the start, the BJP was busy digging its own grave, hurtling from one misadventure to another.

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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has none but itself to blame for its rout in Karnataka. While the Congress remained singularly focused on the target right from the start, the BJP was busy digging its own grave, hurtling from one misadventure to another. It remained perched on its high horse and refused to read the writing on the wall, even as a groundswell of support was building for the Congress. When the results of the assembly elections were announced on May 13, BJP could manage to win only 66 seats, that is, less than half of the 135 that the Congress had bagged in the 224-member assembly. The Janata Dal (Secular) which hoped to be the king or at least the kingmaker had to remain content with 19 seats, while others got 4 seats.

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In a way, the BJP’s downslide began in 2019 itself when its Lingayat strongman BS Yediyurappa became the chief minister after engineering defections from the JD (S)-Congress coalition government. The BJP bent over backwards to reward defectors and their supporters with ministerships and plum postings, leading to acute resentment among original party men who were left in the cold.

However, what dented the credibility of the government the most were charges of corruption which flew with unfailing regularity from various quarters. Yediyurappa and his family were accused of various misdeeds, not by the Opposition, but by a few BJP legislators themselves.  When Yediyurappa was replaced by Basavaraj Bommai, the Karnataka State Contractors Association went public with their charge that a 40 per cent commission had to be paid to politicians and bureaucrats for sanctioning civil works. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi remained silent over written complaints by the contractors and others, several other scams began to tumble out, including the alleged large-scale corruption in the recruitment of police sub-inspectors and teachers. The government, instead of nipping the issue in the bud, contemptuously demanding proof for bribes paid and received.

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But the icing on the cake would be the arrest of Prashanth Madal, son of BJP MLA and Chairman of the state-owned Karnataka State Soaps and Detergents, Madal Virupakshappa, while accepting a bribe of Rs 45 lakh allegedly on behalf his father, just when the elections were round the corner. The opposition would ask: Is this proof enough?

While Yediyurappa, a mass leader, took everybody along, Bommai, a political lightweight comparatively, sought to consolidate his position by playing the communal card to the hilt. The controversy over hijab, halal and azan; the Anti-Conversion Act which put spokes in inter-religious marriages; the ban on Muslim traders setting shop in temple fairs—a practice that was followed for decades; and attacks on Christian prayer houses, came to be the hallmarks of the Bommai government, rather than developmental milestones.

The BJP once again misjudged the mood of the voters when it sought to polarise the electorate on issues like Savarkar, Tipu Sultan and the Uniform Civil Code. When the Congress, in its manifesto, announced that communal outfits like the Bajrang Dal and the Popular Front of India (PFI) would be banned if the party came to power, the Prime Minister himself gave it a religious twist by invoking the name of Hanuman. (But it looks like Hanuman decided to gift Sanjeevini, the herb of life, so to speak, to the Congress, instead.)

While Congress capitalised on the tailwinds which were in its favour, the BJP was caught napping because it simply failed to see which way the wind was blowing.

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The BJP also failed to realise that, unlike in parts of the Northern states, rabid Hindutva does not strike a chord with the people of Karnataka who consider themselves more progressive. The state was aptly described by poet laureate Kuvempu as ‘Sarva Janaganda Shanthiya Thota’ (a garden where all communities live in harmony). Evidently, the people were fed up with the social unrest that marked most of Bommai’s term.

The BJP was deserted not just by the minorities but also by various Hindu sub-sects. The party’s poor performance in North Karnataka indicates that the dominant Lingayat community which traditionally stood by the BJP, moved away this time. The removal of Yediyurappa as chief minister and the denial of tickets to senior leaders like Jagadish Shettar and Laxman Savadi, was effectively exploited by the Congress to paint the BJP as ‘anti-Lingayat’. A perception had begun to build over the last few months that the Brahmin lobby within the RSS, led by BJP national general secretary BL Santosh, was out to cut the Lingayat brigade to size. Pervasive rumours that a Brahmin, and not a Lingayat, would be the chief minister if the BJP was voted to power, also did not help matters.

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In the Vokkaliga heartland of Mandya and in Old Mysuru region, too, the BJP failed to consolidate its position in spite of the several public meetings and roadshows held by PM Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and party president JP Nadda.

On election eve, the incumbent government hurriedly reworked the reservation matrix to increase the quota for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Vokkaligas and Lingayats, while removing Muslims from the list. This would, however, backfire on the BJP with the Supreme Court describing the new policy as “highly shaky and flawed”, forcing the government to submit an affidavit that it would not be implemented. The Congress seized the opportunity and announced that it would increase the quota to 75 per cent.

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The BJP approached the elections with over-confidence, and arrogance, that the sins of its government would be washed away by ‘Modi magic’, which unfortunately, for the party, was a trick that failed to deliver. The over-reliance on the prime minister and the sidelining of local leaders and issues, cost the party dearly. The mess in the distribution of tickets would only add to the BJP’s woes.

The Congress, on the other hand, adopted a two-pronged approach by exposing the shortcomings of the BJP government and highlighting its own promises to the electorate. The party also refused to be drawn into a debate on Hindutva and other emotive issues, despite the BJP’s best efforts, thereby ensuring that their development agenda did not get hijacked. The party first put to rest all speculation about the leadership tussle between Siddaramaiah and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee President DK Shivakumar, thereby encouraging the rank and file to work as one team. The Congress also went hammer and tongs against the BJP government’s corruption with its ‘PayCM’ and ‘40 per cent  Sarkara’ campaigns which evidently made a big impact on the voters.

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But the clincher came in the form of a signed guarantee card issued to voters by the party promising to implement five main assurances if elected: 10 kg food grains to every BPL (Below Poverty Line) family, Rs 2,000 monthly allowance for a woman head of family, free bus travel for women, 200 units of free electricity and an unemployment dole to graduates and diploma holders.

The party also embarked on a bold media campaign hitting the BJP where it hurt the most, by publishing a rate card of bribes charged by the government for different services and for posting of bureaucrats. While Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ helped invigorate and enthuse the cadres, the large number of public meetings held by state leaders across the state, in contrast to the BJP’s dependence on national leaders, also helped the Congress.

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At the end of the day, it was not just a question of anti-incumbency or a vote for the Congress, but a mandate against corruption, maladministration, communal polarisation, hate and price rise. While Congress capitalised on the tailwinds which were in its favour, the BJP was caught napping because it simply failed to see which way the wind was blowing.

(Views expressed are personal)
 

(This appeared in the print as 'Missing the Beat')

M Gautham Machaiah is a senior journalist and political commentator based in Bengaluru

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