Pavan K. Varma | Karnataka's lesson for BJP: Divisiveness has limits
The results in Karnataka may or may not influence the final outcome in the parliamentary elections next year, but they hold important takeaways for all parties, especially the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The first, and the most important one, is that there are limits, if not diminishing returns, from the overused policy of divisive politics. The constant, cynical and dangerous politics of seeking electoral dividends on the basis of accentuating the Hindu-Muslim divide, has increasingly been seen by voters for what it is, and they are developing a certain immunity to its vitriolic rhetoric, arbitrary violence, and endemic instability.
For a national party like the BJP, to base its electoral strategy singularly on issues such as quotas for Muslims, halal, hijab, azaan, Bajrangbali, and directly or indirectly demonising the minority community, is an embarrassment. The Congress need not have equated the Popular Front of India (PFI), which is a terrorist organisation, with the Bajrang Dal, which is a collective of rowdy lumpen elements. But for the Prime Minister, no less, to take up this matter, and reiterate in speech after speech, that the Congress was trying to “imprison” Bajrangbali, like they did with Shri Ram, was political immaturity that hardly edified his desired stature as a statesman, focused on development and economic progress, and a leader for all Indians.
Second, the people are not in a mood to reward bad governance. The BJP government is Karnataka was, to say the least, a deep disappointment. It was corrupt — dubbed the 40 per cent commission government — incompetent, divided and led by a lacklustre chief minister. Bengaluru, the knowledge capital of India, had a crumbling infrastructure, with an alarming number of deaths due to potholes on the roads, repeated cases of flooding, polluted lakes, and traffic snarls. The farmers were hurting, and unemployment was a potent issue. The people were disappointed, and they showed their opinion through the ballot box.
Third, the BJP cannot expect Prime Minister Narendra Modi to shore up badly-run state governments on every occasion. There is no doubt that the PM enjoys a great deal of personal popularity, and his personal charisma is unmatched, but it does not necessarily work in state elections where local issues dominate. The PM spoke about what he had achieved nationally, while the Congress focused on local angsts, which was the right strategy. Also, it is hardly edifying to see the PM descending to the level of blatant religious polarisation, as a substitute for burning issues of governance troubling the ordinary citizen.
Fourth, this entire hype of “double engine sarkar” has lost its sheen. It did not work in Himachal Pradesh earlier. And, it has not worked in Karnataka. Quite apart from the fact that in Assembly elections people vote for the government they think can work for them directly, there is also something unacceptable in the logic of the “double engine” argument, because it insults the pride and self-respect of the people of the state. To them it appears like a threat, that either vote for us, or you will suffer, since the Central government will not work in your interest. It also goes against the federal principle, which matters to people in states.
Fifth, the people are by and large disapproving of unethical practices like Operation Lotus, which the BJP has turned into a fine art. There are innumerable occasions when the BJP even in a minority has cobbled together a government through allegedly money power or other inducements, thereby vitiating the actual mandate of the people. To counter this, the people now are inclined to vote in governments of their choice with a mandate large enough to prevent the BJP from fishing in troubled waters. I am personally aware that the statement made by a minister in the Karnataka government after the polling, where he spoke about a “Plan B”, had created a general sense of revulsion in many Kannadigas. The people are getting rather tired of this kind of cynical politics, which reflects poorly on the claims of the BJP itself that it is a party with a difference.
Seventh, there are lessons for the Congress too. The foremost of these is to focus on local issues in Assembly elections, which they did. The other important takeaway is to avoid euphoria. The Congress won in Karnataka not because it has suddenly become organisationally strong, but because of the poor performance of the BJP government. Nor should the Congress think that a win in Karnataka is an endorsement for the party nationally. It is more than likely that in the coming parliamentary elections, the same voter will vote for Narendra Modi and the BJP.
The Congress’ victory in Karnataka also does not imply a win in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan, where elections are due soon. The Bharat Jodo Yatra was a good initiative, but it is no substitute for the hard grind of building a strong organisation at the grassroots, which the Congress sorely lacks in most places, and continues not to pay attention to.
Eighth, when a government is unpopular, money power has limitations. The BJP is not short — to put it mildly — of financial resources. But money is not enough to beat anti-incumbency when it is pervasive. In fact, when the voter has made up her mind, inducements or display of money power can backfire.
Last of all, regional outfits such as the JD(S) cannot always hope to play the role of a kingmaker. Too often in Karnataka politics, we have seen “jod-tod” sarkars, where in a fractured mandate, horse-trading is the norm, and parties like the JD(S) have prospered. This time the voter was resolved to give a definitive mandate, eliminating the revolting spectacle of legislators being bought, or locked up in resorts, or money changing hands to somehow form a government that has the least interest in good governance.
The Congress deserves to be congratulated for this emphatic win. It is also a timely reminder to the BJP to rein in its hubris, and think of strategies beyond religious polarisation. For the Congress too, the simple lesson is that one Karnataka does not imply a victory for it in the Assembly and parliamentary elections to follow, unless it shapes up organisationally.