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  Opinion   Columnists  07 May 2023  Saeed Naqvi | Karnataka too close to call, but Congress has advantage

Saeed Naqvi | Karnataka too close to call, but Congress has advantage

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi
Published : May 8, 2023, 12:10 am IST
Updated : May 8, 2023, 12:10 am IST

The Assembly polls are just a few days away and Bajrangbali has been introduced into active electioneering by Congress whiz kid Surjewala

Congress leader DK Shivakumar. (Photo: ANI)
 Congress leader DK Shivakumar. (Photo: ANI)

Will I have egg on my face if, after a three-day trip to Karnataka, I follow my intuition and give the Congress a small advantage?

The Assembly polls are just a few days away and Bajrangbali has been introduced into active electioneering by Congress whiz kid Randeep Surjewala. He was taking a jibe at the Bajrang Dal’s hate-mongering, so he said the Congress will ban the Bajrang Dal should it come to power. He has a talent for blowing sky-high such issues that can be handled in undertones. Remember how, with a purohit’s self-confidence, he had declared Rahul Gandhi a “janeudhari” Brahmin, opening up a dubious caste debate. 

No sooner had Mr Surjewala mentioned the Bajrang Dal than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hovering over the state like an eagle (with 30 rallies and roadshows), swooped on the “anti-Hanuman tirade” by the Congress. “So, they want to imprison Lord Hanuman?” he said. A local journalist said “the Congress has handed them an issue on which Modi will go to town”.

Every Hanuman temple in the state echoed to the sound of kirtans. Not to be left behind, the Congress’ Vokkaliga mascot D.K. Shivakumar raised the stakes even further. Should he become CM, he would build Hanuman mandirs in every district. For the formidable builders’ lobby, this was honeyed music. 

The BJP’s expectation is that, in the last lap of the campaign, Mr Modi’s rhetorical talent plus Lord Hanuman will give them the tailwind to touch the finishing line. Seldom have I seen a major political party so totally dwarfed by a leader like Mr Modi. There may be disgust with the BJP across classes -- my taxi driver or a business executive but they had the same comment: “Modi will win it for them”.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee had a natural charisma. The charisma of MGR, Jayalalithaa and NTR derived from a combination of factors: cinematic glamour plus linguistic regionalism. That Amitabh Bachchan’s charisma never took off in the realm of politics was for a simple reason: his undoubted cinematic glamour didn’t have linguistic regionalism to boost it.

Mr Modi’s charisma has been choreographed by the media. Every TV channel, English or language newspaper, is captive to his persona. For a deeply religious country, Mr Modi’s omnipresence recalls “jidhar dekhta hoon, udhar tu hi tu hai” (Your glory permeates any direction I look).

This might imply that the BJP will romp home. And yet, that’s not the way it works. Mr Modi is an advantage no other party has. But the state’s BJP government has been extracting 40 per cent of all government contract payments from contractors, and the contractors have revealed this unchallenged truth on live TV. The burden becomes too heavy even for Mr Modi to carry through. And the 40 per cent scandal is only one of the negatives attached to the BJP in this campaign.

One is familiar with Congressmen’s exodus to the BJP. In Karnataka, however, the traffic is in the reverse direction: key leaders like Jagdish Shettar and Laxman Sarvadi have left the BJP for the Congress. This is a huge psychological setback.

All of this should give the Congress an advantage, even though observers suggest the party’s campaign suffered from an excessive focus on Mr Modi and his misdemeanours. What the Congress will do for the people was not persuasively put across. Even so, there is a certain bounce in the Congressmen’s tread.

There is another fly in the Congress ointment. The party has two aspirants for chief minister: Siddaramaiah, from the lower-caste Uruba community, and D.K. Shivakumar, an agriculturalist Vokkaliga.

The Assembly has 224 seats. Supposing the Congress’ tally is 80. Should the leadership confer the chief ministership on Mr Siddaramaiah in anticipation of a coalition, why would Mr Shivakumar and his supporters (if he has sufficient numbers) not be lured by the BJP in case the party is short of numbers. Such is the speculation in the ranks of a nervous BJP. BJP spokesman S. Prakash spoke to me with the brazenness of someone determined to create an impression of super self-confidence: “We are ruthless; we will splurge money to win over candidates. We have more money than all the other parties.” Such speech does not a victor make. To the contrary, it betrays weakness.  

There are figures galore, and any number of combinations, all pointing to a fierce election. A notable fact is this: there are many more people predicting a Congress victory than a BJP one. Yes, the third party (JD-S) could make for a thrilling entry should the numbers encourage lengthy coalition parleys.

No sooner did Mr Surjewala’s announcement on a Bajrang Dal ban break than Mr Shivakumar charged off to the Hanuman temple, cameramen in tow, to commit him to posterity as a bhakt. He said the Congress will create an Anjanadri Development Board to develop Lord Hanuman’s birthplace on the hills of Koppal in Karnataka.

The person who must be feeling left out of the excessive Hanuman bhakti must be AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal, who first started the tradition of reciting Hanuman Chalisa at the drop of a hat.

Credit must go to the BJP for hollowing out almost all political parties of their secular pretensions. Mr Surjewala’s anti-Bajrang Dal projection was aimed at luring Muslim votes away from the JD(S) which, if inflated, might play the monkey between quarrelling cats. No sooner had Mr Surjewala shot his bolt than the Congress was distancing itself from the controversial statement. At least since Indira Gandhi’s 1983 Jammu election, the Congress has learnt the lesson of shepherding Hindu votes with care and ignoring Muslim votes proportionately.


The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi

Tags: congress party, bharatiya janata party (bjp), karnataka elections, d k shivakumar, pm modi