The Karnataka Assembly election at the end of this week is being widely seen as a curtain-raiser for the unfolding electoral scenario in the country, which will climax in the gladiators’ contest for the next Lok Sabha. The incumbent Congress Party, the BJP’s principal challenger at the national level, is no write-off in Karnataka and may therefore have expectation of better things in the future.
Such a view might not have gained ground if the BJP did not have to huff and puff in the Gujarat Assembly election only a few months ago. The two men who are seen as directly running the country under the saffron dispensation — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah — conducted the election campaign in Gujarat, their home state, sidelining everyone else, including the chief minister. And yet the result, for them, was unedifying. That’s when the devaluation of Mr Modi began.
This came as a shock to the entire saffron family. The alarm bells got louder following the BJP’s dreadful performance in a string of byelections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, states run by the Hindutva party. The BJP suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the Congress, which it rightly sees as its main challenger on the national stage, rather than any of the regional parties or even a clutch of them.
The BJP’s recent byelection defeats in Uttar Pradesh at the hands of the combined force of the SP and BSP served to spread panic, not just despair, in the saffron ranks. The RSS-BJP’s tactics to draw in the backward castes and dalits, on whose were constructed the famous wins of 2014 (Lok Sabha) and early 2017 (UP Assembly), seemed to be coming apart. Ace communalist chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who is anything but a man of God, suddenly began to be seen as a loser in Lucknow. This coincided with the waning of the Modi electoral magic after the BJP’s near-defeat in Gujarat even among communally-inclined sections of the Hindu electorate.
This is the real setback for Messers Modi and Shah. Their words carry less weight than previously. Their promises no longer ring true. Their low-grade, street-level jibes at political opponents do not produce mirth any more.
Two separate factors have brought this about — the complete failure of the Modi government to cater to the economic well-being of Indians and the moral degradation that has set in under “India’s first-ever Hindu government”.
The state of the economy saps public morale on a daily basis. Farm sector woes and the plight of farmers are hitting the economy hard and throwing settled politics into turmoil. The creators of wealth and providers of employment — people who had rooted for Mr Modi in 2014 — are chafing. Private investment in the economy has been steadily shrinking. How can employment grow? A recent report of the well-regarded Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE) shows that it is not that employment hasn’t expanded (that would have been a sign of an economy in good health), but that, gloomily, it has decelerated and slipped into the negative zone.
Ordinary people don’t believe any more in the World Bank and the IMF data, which talk up the Indian economy. The sceptical view is that the data is sugar-coated, that the Western-controlled institutions are saying nice things about Mr Modi’s economic policies because these continue to privilege ultra-market prescriptions over public need even in a bad moment.
The sudden rise of diesel and petrol prices has begun to colour public perceptions all the more. This comes on top of the helplessness in the system caused by bad debts of the entire banking sector, not just public sector banks. People also worry about sporadic public discussion that suggests that banks plan to charge customers from withdrawing their own money through ATMs, or for issuing cheques.
The moral degradation — now being spoken of openly in public — straddles several domains. The callousness of leading BJP figures in Jammu and UP (the Kathua and Unnao cases) have produced revulsion among ordinary folk, although the BJP remains unconcerned and resorts to sophistry. The silence of the PM on the ghastly specifics, and his calculated failure to call a spade, have perturbed even supporters. The message to the accused is that the system will help them escape the rigours of the law.
The first signs of moral questioning came with the cases of cricket entrepreneur Lalit Modi and later diamond trader Nirav Modi. Their running away from the country is now being seen as assisted departure. The names of the Rajasthan CM and the external affairs minister were openly bandied about in the Lalit Modi case. In the case of Nirav Modi, only a mildly oblique connection is being sought to be drawn with the Prime Minister via a relative and close associate of the diamond trader. The PM’s refusal to speak up to defend his own honour has set tongues wagging.
Throw into the mix serious doubts raised publicly in connection with a business venture of the BJP president’s son, and the evidently improper use of a top law officer of the Modi government to argue that matter in court, and a starkly disturbing picture emerges of the misuse of power for personal aggrandisement and a show of arrogant disregard for public norms and ethics.
When Karnataka voters cast their ballots on May 12, they will weigh several questions. Has the Siddaramaiah government delivered on important promises? Has it taken steps to alleviate the lot of the poor? What has it done to cope with the serious water situation affecting farmers? How deep has the corruption factor been in the government? To what extent have infrastructure needs of Bengaluru and other centres been met? And, what about the dalit question?
There will of course also be the usual political noise — and the BJP are masters of that game — about minority status for Lingayats and the dredging up of potted history around a historical figure, Tipu Sultan.
But remember, it is Mr Modi and Mr Shah leading the BJP’s charge in Karnataka, not tainted former CM B.S. Yeddyurappa and the infamous, mines-looting Bellary brothers. The PM has, in fact, had to extend his campaigning.
Clearly, it’s not the CM versus BSY; it’s the CM versus PM. It’s also Mr Modi versus Congress president Rahul Gandhi, exactly as it had been in the Gujarat election, where the PM was nearly bested.
Over four years, Mr Modi has centralised all authority that flows from political power around himself and his old-time acolyte through thick and thin, Amit Shah, as though he were a latter-day potentate. Should there be a hard landing, the familiar clapper-boys and praise-singers will melt into the shadows.