The likelihood of the trend continuing is possibly the first challenge for the Congress as it has to prevent the emergence of Mr Modi as “the issue”.
The outcome of the last 10 days of campaigning for the Karnataka Assembly elections will cast considerable light on how the Lok Sabha polls may play out whenever they are held, in April-May 2019 or earlier. As in every relay race, where the anchor leg is reserved for the fastest or the most experienced team member, the BJP has once again handed the baton to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Hereafter, his performance alone will decide if yet another state can be snatched from the Congress.
Whether his adversaries like it or not, till campaigning ends next week, the Prime Minister’s every utterance carries the possibility of triggering multiple strands of political narrative. In almost every election since 2014, issues which dominated the political discourse till he entered the arena paled into insignificance after Mr Modi’s blitzkrieg. The likelihood of the trend continuing is possibly the first challenge for the Congress as it has to prevent the emergence of Mr Modi as “the issue”.
So far, the Congress in Karnataka has disallowed any “nationalisation” of the election, contesting it on local issues. Mr Modi’s decision to stick to the proven formula of delegitimising the Congress and its leaders is indication of anti-incumbency against the Siddaramaiah government not being high. The Prime Minister attacked Rahul Gandhi for his Italian heritage, indicating a lack of confidence in ousting the Congress on the basis of poll issues and thereby an old line of attack has been revived.
The verdict in Karnataka will demonstrate if Indian voters are still handing out decisive mandates or if the outcome in Gujarat was not an aberration, instead marking the return of closer contests even in bipolar states. Since 2014, state after state provided landslide mandates except Gujarat, where the BJP’s margin of victory was too close for comfort, and previously in Maharashtra, where the BJP contested polls on its own for the first time. The Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka has potential to play kingmaker and Mr Modi’s kind words for H.D. Deve Gowda — and a similar response — must be read against this backdrop. The moot question is whether voters continue viewing elections as a “referendum” of sorts on Mr Modi and his claims/promises or if they are willing to return to the era of “non-national” polls. Karnataka will determine if 2019 will be fought as a “single poll” as in 2014, or as an “aggregation” of state elections.
Karnataka’s voters are presented with two clear choices. On the one hand, the BJP’s poll plank showcases a type of nationalist politics fought under a overtly centralising leader and managed by a party machinery not shy of prioritising wining elections over anything else. The BJP treats every election uniformly, merely adding regional variants to its nationalistic spiel. In Karnataka, this was attempted over two years on the legacy of Tipu Sultan, but sensing the state icon’s religious identity not having the capacity to whip up prejudice towards Muslims, the issue has been underplayed during elections. Consequently, Mr Modi is still groping for an issue that can decisively sway voters. The BJP’s campaign has been two-pronged — in the pre-Modi phase the emphasis was on local issues and the performance of the Siddaramaiah government, accusations of corruption, failure to generate jobs, control rising prices and the Lingayat conundrum. But the second phase, now unfolding, will see state issues being relegated to the background and there is no knowing if this will play out for the BJP’s benefit or not.
The Congress is not hamstrung by this duality as its campaign remains state-specific. When Rahul Gandhi campaigns and introduces “national” elements criticising the Centre’s policies, he is yet to lose sight of the need to allow local issue to retain primacy. He referred to “Karnataka’s voice” as a metaphor for state-specific programmes on which the BJP is a shade short. State and national leaders of the Congress are aware of the necessity to retain Karnataka. A defeat here will not just stop the “drift” that envelops the BJP post-Gujarat, but push the Congress deeper into the crevice it fell into in 2014. The chief minister, after providing a reasonably efficient government over the past five years which gave Karnataka a much-needed sense of political stability, has so far shown himself smarter than most incumbents facing the BJP onslaught. Siddaramaiah’s ploy of announcing minority status for Lingayats has also added an element of mystery for there is no knowing at this stage how this will go down with the community and with others.
The JD(S) remains the elephant in the room, clinging to its relevance thanks to backing from the numerically significant Vokkaliga community. A decent performance, which may keep the Congress out of power, will paradoxically point towards the rising limitations of Mr Modi’s charisma. A virtual decimation of the JD(S) — which will fashion a decisive mandate in favour of either of the two national parties — will indicate continuance of a single-issue poll. In the present situation it may indicate if the people want to give Mr Modi another term or not. Already, its wooing of Mr Deve Gowda stands in sharp contrast to the BJP’s deteriorating ties with its allies. Being nice to other parties is not among Mr Modi’s core strengths and he would rather continue to be in the Ekla Chalo Re mould.
Karnataka’s six regions have so far not reverberated in unison on a single issue so far. The state was not kind to Mr Modi in 2013 for when the state polls were held last, he had already been endorsed as the BJP’s de facto supremo and campaigned extensively. Additionally, despite the Modi wave, the BJP won two seats less in 2014 than its tally in 2009. This showed Mr Modi’s relatively poorer popularity in the South. The five southern states and the Union territory of Puducherry account for 131 Lok Sabha seats. Karnataka has been the BJP’s gateway to the South since 1991 and it cannot afford the door being shut on it. The stakes for the two parties are indeed very high. Voters will decide if the polls are transitional or decisive.