Sanjaya Baru | Karnataka helps breach a psychological barrier

The Asian Age.  | Sanjaya Baru

Opinion, Columnists

There is no better evidence of this change than the response of the Bengaluru voter to Mr Modi’s heavily garlanded roadshow

Congress workers holding the party flag celebrate the party's win in Karnataka Assembly elections, outside Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru, Sunday, May 14, 2023. (PTI Photo)

Elections to the Karnataka Assembly became the first important battleground on which Rahul Gandhi directly confronted Narendra Modi. Mr Gandhi won. Mr Modi lost.

That about sums up the first important significance of the Karnataka electoral verdict. Ever since he entered active politics, Rahul Gandhi has not been credited with any decisive victory for his party. His inability to convincingly lead the Congress Party to electoral victory became his Achilles’ heel. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his rambunctious acolytes could easily make fun of him, dubbing him “Pappu”.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra changed all that. It helped Rahul Gandhi acquire a wholly new image as a down to earth, principled, idealistic, earnest, “boy-next-door”. He clicked as much with family elders as with idealistic and aspirational young people. While Mr Modi has retained his appeal to his core support base, the middle class that enthusiastically voted for him in 2014 and in 2019 has become increasingly disillusioned. Barring the communalised sections of the middle class that have become diehard supporters of the Hindutva project of asserting Hindu majoritarianism, most others are no longer impressed by Mr Modi’s bombastic oratory or his obsessive self-projection of himself.

There is no better evidence of this change than the response of the Bengaluru voter to Mr Modi’s heavily garlanded roadshow on a carpet of marigolds and rose petals. Maybe he tried to project himself as a later day Wodeyar Maharajah. Short of sitting atop an elephant, Mr Modi did everything to look like one. Rahul Gandhi travelled around the city on public transport engaging young people, while Mr Modi merely smiled at children on the other side of a barbed wire, refusing to touch extended hands.

Karnataka’s Bharatiya Janata Party leadership could not bridge this gap. The Karnataka result is, without doubt, a huge morale booster for the Congress Party and its leadership. While the task ahead is humungous and Mr Modi remains ahead of any available political challenger, he no longer appears invincible. If the final numbers had been closer, say 114 to 100, many explanations would have been trotted out to protect the Prime Minister’s image and not allow the defeat to besmirch it. However, a result like the one we have is nothing less than a resounding defeat that directly impacts Prime Minister Modi’s image.

The second important implication of the Karnataka result is that it will help breach an important psychological barrier that has largely held back overt criticism of the Prime Minister. The incarceration of many journalists and a variety of other critics, and the official hounding of individuals and institutions critical of the Narendra Modi government had generated fear of regime leadership both within the institutions of the State and in the media. While the government corrupted the media with huge advertisement spends and the pampering of the faithful, self-censorship on the part of many editors and journalists became a larger problem. Journalists, especially in television media, have been willing to crawl when asked to bend.

It is interesting to see the reception on the social media over the past few days to Parakala Prabhakar’s recently published collection of essays, The Crooked Timber of New India, with many admiring his “courage” for “speaking truth to power” and calling a spade a spade. Prabhakar went on the social media to assert that the “Modi regime is staggeringly incompetent”. Suddenly, many have woken up to the fact that Mr Modi can be challenged and criticised openly. Journalists who have reduced

themselves to propagandists must introspect as to how much damage they have done to their own reputation and to that of the profession. It remains to be seen if professionalism will assert itself over partisanship within the media.

A third important outcome is the failure of Mr Modi and the Sangh Parivar to benefit from their cynical deployment of an appeal to religion and the religious beliefs of ordinary people to secure political power. Not only was history distorted to malign Tipu Sultan and Hindu priests invited to endorse candidates, the Prime Minister made a wholly objectionable statement asking Karnataka’s voters to say “Jai Bajrang Bali” while pressing the button on the voting machine. This was perhaps the lowest depth to

which the communalisation of the electoral process had reached. That the Karnataka voter ignored such cynical manipulation of their faith is testimony to the essentially secular character of most Hindus, especially in Southern India.

We are seeing the long-term social and economic consequences of the cynical mixing of religion and politics in Pakistan. Few recall that the Pakistani economy was ahead of India’s for close to three decades, from the 1950s till the 1980s. India took off in the 1990s, leaving an increasingly Islamised Pakistan far behind.

On the other hand, Bangladesh has taken off as an economy, overtaking India on per capita income, as a country now constitutionally wedded to secularism.

Removing religion out of politics is a good way of keeping the focus on equitable development, treating all citizens as equals.

Many economists have argued that mixing politics with religion has a debilitating impact on governance and economic development. While the Modi BJP has often been critical of Atal Behari Vajpayee and his leadership of the party, as a country India performed well during Vajpayee’s tenure because he opted for more liberal politics, eschewing hardline Hindutva. Mr Modi’s decade has not been a particularly impressive one in terms of governance and development despite the leadership being more assertive and authoritarian. It remains to be seen if the Modi BJP draws any such lessons from the Karnataka verdict or ends up blaming the state leadership, absolving the national leadership of all responsibility.

Finally, a more self-confident Congress Party will have to tread the ground carefully over the next year if it wishes to regain its national support base. Its performance in the states where it governs will be one leg of its claim to power in 2024. The other leg would be pursuing imaginative policies and politics that restore hope to a sullen middle class, improve the social and economic prospects of the poor, revive the so-called “animal spirits” of Indian private enterprise and regain India’s global stature as a secular, liberal, plural democracy.


The writer is an author, a former newspaper editor and adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. His latest book is Journey of a Nation: 75 Years of Indian Economy.