By Rajdeep Sardesai
“Are you sure we are winning so comfortably?” the senior Congress leader’s voice on the other end of a midnight call sounded anxious. It was the night before counting day in Karnataka where an Axis My India exit poll for India Today predicted a big win for Congress. I asked the leader why he was so worried. “You know how Mr Modi has campaigned here in the last few days, maybe he has turned around the election,” was the nervous response. The reaction typifies how an aura of near-invincibility has been built around Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s persona, best typified in the 2019 BJP social media slogan, “aayega to Modi hi” (only Modi will return to power). But Karnataka 2023 has dented the belief over an inevitability of electoral outcomes, that a Modi-led BJP, a bit like the Clive Lloyd-led West Indian cricket team of the 1980s, is unbeatable.
It isn’t as if the BJP hasn’t lost elections before in the Modi years. Recall December 2018, the last time the Congress defeated the BJP in a direct fight in a major state election across three states: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Then there was excitement in the Congress ranks that the dominance of the BJP over the Hindi heartland was on the wane. Within six months, the general elections punctured the Congress euphoria. The BJP swept these states as the party did much of North and Central India in what became a more presidential-style contest in which national leadership became a central issue. So why should May 2023 be any different, especially as Karnataka has a history of voting differently in state and general elections?
Undoubtedly, Karnataka was a hyper-localised election in which the price of a gas cylinder mattered more than a Jai Bajrangbali battle-cry. But there are five important reasons why BJP should be concerned about Verdict Karnataka. Firstly, Mr Modi did invest his personal equity in the campaign: 19 rallies and six roadshows in a last week blitzkrieg suggests that Brand Modi was top of the mind in the political calculus. In the last few months, the prime minister was in Karnataka every other week, inaugurating airports, highway projects, even railway platforms. On voting day, the BJP advertisement splashed across major Kannada papers had a large picture of Mr Modi emerging out from a lotus symbol while all other leaders, including chief minister Basavraj Bommai, were almost invisible. It’s like a movie hoarding that focusses on a mega star and reduces the rest of the cast to anonymity: the much-publicized Karnataka ‘double engine’ only had a single driver.
Remember Brand Modi was built around his muscular leadership credentials where he claimed to have zero tolerance for corruption. And yet, in Karnataka, despite copious allegations of ‘40 per cent commission sarkara’, there was no sign of the Centre acting swiftly to end the perception of corruption being ‘normalised’ in a major BJP state. Where Enforcement agencies were hyper-active in opposition-ruled states, they were missing in action in Karnataka. If a BJP government is seen to be just as corrupt as any previous Congress regime, Brand Modi loses its sheen and unique selling point.
Secondly, the remarkably accurate Axis exit poll shows women voting for Congress in far larger numbers than BJP. Whereas the gap in voting preferences between the two main parties was 5 per cent among men, it was a whopping 11 % among women. A double digit gap amongst women voters should ring alarm bells for the BJP. Women have been a core constituency of prime minister Modi in the past decade. The last big state where BJP was on the wrong side of women voters by a wide margin was Bengal in 2021 where Mamata Banerjee’s presence as a woman chief minister did make a crucial difference. This time, the impact of price rise on household budgets was decisive.
Thirdly, the results map of Karnataka show that Congress out-performed BJP in relatively underdeveloped areas with lower per capita income. The Axis exit poll confirms this: those with a family monthly income spend of less than Rs 10,000 gave Congress a massive 11 % edge over BJP while the saffron party did much better amongst higher income groups. The BJP didn’t win a single of Karnataka’s 15 Scheduled Tribe reserved seats and only 12 of 36 Scheduled Caste reserved seats, Congress dominating both key blocs. This is in sharp contrast to recent trends where ‘Gareeb-Dalit-Adivasi’ voters have been at the heart of the BJP’s vast ‘labharti’ (beneficiary) constituency. When poorer voters start deserting a party in such large numbers, the warning signs cannot be ignored.
Fourthly, Karnataka has shown up the limits to politics of religious polarization. Right through 2022, the BJP in Karnataka consciously stoked Hindutva majoritarian politics: Muslims were routinely demonized through campaigns over hijab, halal and azaan. From castigating Tipu Sultan to venerating Savarkar, the BJP was hoping to stoke a Hindu-Muslim divide. Even Christians were not spared: anti-conversion laws were targeted at Christian missionaries. Not only did this shrill campaign consolidate minority votes, it also alienated numerous Hindu voters desirous of a more harmonious social climate. Home minister Amit Shah’s warning to voters that Karnataka would be ‘afflicted with riots’ if Congress came to power smacked of last minute desperation.
Finally, the Karnataka verdict has highlighted BJP’s geographical constraints: ‘BJP mukt Dakshin Bharat’ is a reality that exposes the narrow ‘Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan’ narrative once again. An all India political power map reveals the BJP now controls a lesser land area and population than non-BJP parties. A ‘one size fits all’ election strategy that doesn’t address regional sentiments and local sensitivities will struggle in states with distinctly robust cultural identities.
Which is why the BJP leadership may have to course correct in the lead up to 2024. A Modi-led BJP still remains an overwhelming favourite to win in a national election but the ‘Aayega to Modi hi’ swagger needs a dialing down. It is an age-old truism in politics and life that self-confidence can rapidly descend into self-defeating hubris. Lloyd’s all-conquering West Indians did lose, after all, to Kapil Dev’s rank outsiders in the 1983 World Cup!
Post-script: Since I started the column with a phone call from a Congress leader, let me end with a more pleasant call received from a senior BJP leader apologizing for remarks made by the party’s social media cell head Amit Malviya who accused me on air in a live counting day show of being a Congress propagandist who should ‘retire’. “I am sorry for what was said, we need to accept defeat more gracefully,” admitted the BJP leader. Touche.
(The writer is senior journalist and author. Mail:[email protected])