By re-emerging as a leading party in Karnataka, the BJP has again underscored that it has a firm foot in South India. Symbolically, the Karnataka victory signifies the national spread of the party though it is yet to penetrate other southern states as also the two key eastern states, Odisha and West Bengal. Detailed analyses of vote share and immediate intrigues like post-election alliances may capture the headlines for a while but the fact remains that in the game of winning elections, the BJP is currently quite formidable. This larger message is something that will weigh heavily when any calculations about the parliamentary elections begin.
The Karnataka government was certainly not an unpopular government. The chief minister had shown considerable aggression in dealing with the BJP during the campaign. The state government had not ignored to publicise its many welfare schemes. Yet, all this could not stop the BJP from emerging as the single-largest party. Nor could all this stop the JDS from retaining its hold. The Karnataka story, then, has two sub-texts. One is about the success of the BJP and the other is about the inability of the Congress to revive itself.
All single-line explanations of electoral outcomes are bound to be grotesque, and yet, there is no escaping the point that once again, the victory in Karnataka has come through the prime minister’s popularity. Barring Delhi and Bihar, all state elections since 2014 have only confirmed the reach and acceptance of Modi. He could pull off a victory in Gujarat despite all odds stacked against his party’s incumbent government and now, in Karnataka, he has managed to defeat the Congress in spite of a somewhat tame image of his party there — and many cracks notwithstanding. The good news of its success also carries a twin liability for the BJP — something that has implications beyond the party.
First, the overdependence on Modi can slowly become a limitation for the BJP. So far, despite all disappointments thrown at the electorate by his government, Modi has managed to retain popularity of a cross-section of the voters. Should that popularity only slightly dwindle, the party would be in deep trouble. Two, Modi’s electoral successes have often come with a heavy price in terms of steady degeneration of the public discourse. From attacking past Congress leaders and raking up avoidable social conflicts, the recent campaign saw him indulge in diatribe and innuendo unbecoming of a prime minister and not befitting a truly popular leader. It was once said of him by many observers that he tapped the aspiration of the voters. Now it seems that he keeps tapping their baser prejudices. This trait, while winning him elections, undermines the quality of democracy.
All this is closely connected to the other subtext of the Karnataka outcome: The inability of the Congress to revive itself. This inability is exposed on three fronts. Organisationally, the party is nowhere close to revival and a defeat in a state where it was in power brings to the forefront this failure even more starkly. Two, the inability of the Congress is apparent in formulating a narrative and communicating it through its cadres. In Karnataka, the party’s message — either about welfare or about communalism — simply did not reach its lower cadres. But perhaps the most disturbing inability is connected with Rahul Gandhi.
One might probably say that Rahul Gandhi did all that he could. But the fact remains that despite a mild acceptability that he has generated since Gujarat elections his leadership does not seem to be exciting enough for the electorate to bring about a critical swing in favour of the Congress. He is indeed winning hearts, getting a somewhat favourable media attention, but ultimately, in order to challenge Modi, what he needs is a much stronger ability to excite the voters. That is eluding him. This is bad news for Congress particularly in the backdrop of its organisational and ideological bankruptcy. But the problem is not merely about Rahul Gandhi’s limited popularity.
The results, in Gujarat and now Karnataka, raise a serious question about the strategy he has adopted. Both in Gujarat and in Karnataka, Rahul Gandhi went out of his way to showcase his Hindu identity. This strategy obviously seeks to address the criticism that Congress is apathetic to Hindu interests. However, the claim that Congress seeks to counter the BJP version of “Hindutva” remains weak and almost unaddressed.
This is so for two reasons. One, the Congress has not been able to communicate on the ground what exactly is the difference between “being a religious Hindu” and being a Hindu politically. This will require a frontal attack on BJP’s version of Hindutva. This is a long-term task requiring participation of local workers and state leadership. Rahul Gandhi will need to educate his party much more systematically for such a message to percolate and become convincing. Two, in the rush to exhibit a close relation with the “Hindus”, the party has failed to allay the legitimate fears of the minorities, and even dissenting Hindus, about the homogenising designs of BJP’s Hindutva. With its top leader visiting maths and seeking blessings from Swamis, it would be difficult for the Congress to explain how it can handle India’s diversity. True, Rahul Gandhi keeps mentioning the divisive tendencies of BJP’s Hindutva, but his party fails to convince how it can allow Hindus a fair space along with allowing other religious persuasions an equally fair space.
While commentators still believe that the BJP represents an aspirational India, they often miss the fact that aspirations tend to include a sense of community assertion also. Rahul Gandhi’s consistent attack on the RSS indicates that he understands this key feature correctly. But he and his party do not seem to have a measure of how to handle this feature of the electorate. Economy notwithstanding, the BJP would certainly aim to pitch the next electoral competition as a cultural battle. It is here that the Congress does not have a clear policy. It is torn between an instinctive exhibition of being “Hindu” and being religious and at the same time, a short-term vision of handling socio-cultural aspirations. In Gujarat, it took the easy route of roping in Hardik Patel and giving the message that it was ready to admit the demand of the Patels for reservations. That did not help split Patel votes adequately. In Karnataka, giving minority status to Lingayats has probably not helped it win Lingayat votes; but might have contributed to the efforts of Hindu consolidation.
The lesson in the run up to the Lok Sabha election is that framing the electoral competition in terms of identities and symbolic aspirations would only feed into the cultural majoritarian discourse with which the BJP is quite comfortable. The uncertainties associated with the non-performing economy can only strengthen voters’ cultural anxieties even further.