Sunil Gatade | Karnataka 2023: Why Modi may face surprise this time

The problem which Mr Modi is facing this time is that he has not been able to make a splash

Narendra Modi is a tireless campaigner. It made him Prime Minister of India nine years ago. As he seeks a third term in 2024, he is trying to use the Karnataka Assembly polls to sharpen his skills for the “big battle” that is just ten months away.

But his firepower is not working as effectively as it used to. The problem which Mr Modi is facing this time is that he has not been able to make a splash. He is virtually the “monarch of all he surveys” as he campaigns in North India or in his native Gujarat. But not in Karnataka.

This is compounded by the fact that chief minister Basavaraj Bommai’s government is facing a lot of anti-incumbency. The BJP is finding it hard to shake thisoff. The issue of corruption through commissions refuses to die down.

In the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls last year, despite a dominant Yogi Adityanath being the chief minister, Mr Modi had carried the day in the most politically crucial state. It signalled he was the undisputed boss. There should be no doubt about that.

Against this, in Karnataka, Mr Modi’s campaign looks like ramming something down people’s throats. The absence of local issues and the focus on national matters, ridiculing the Congress and speaking on issues that polarise, is itself the first admission that something is wrong and that you want to camouflage that.

The strength and weaknesses of Mr Modi are unmistakably clear. They are remaining constantly in election mode. The perception that has grown is that it does not matter much to him how governance is carried out effectively. He is busy with his slogans, his song. His “Mann Ki Baat”, which just completed its hundredth edition.

As of now, the Aam Aadmi Party’s campaign against the PM over his lack of educational degrees, thereby implying that he is less educated, might not be having much of an impact. But a wounded Arvind Kejriwal is bound to heat it in the coming months, much to the Congress’ delight.

If Prime Minister Modi was serious about governance issues, he would have promptly called the agitating women wrestlers and doused the fires before it became a conflagration. A notorious Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has single-handedly pulled down his “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” plank.

Similarly, during the farmers’ agitation too, it was made known that the PM was only a phone call away. But the PM on his own never called up anybody. That ultimately led to his unilateral announcement on the withdrawal of the three controversial farm laws in November 2021. This was egg all over his face.

In Karnataka, the PM is being mocked. The Congress shrewdly latched on to his lament of facing “91 cases of abuse” from the Opposition party, which led to the unique sobriquet “CryPM”. He would be much better off without such an epithet, which shows that he is on slippery ground.

The “PayCM”, “CryPM” campaign shows that the Congress is back in its element after a long time. The slogan itself is the unadulterated message, delivered with a punch at a time when the issue of corruption in the BJP administration is the talk of the town.

Reports speak of a sense of unease among the powerful mutts that have a lot of influence on people. While the politics of control through Hindutva is best suited for Uttar Pradesh, whether it is equally true for the South is being hotly contested.

Whatever may be the result on Saturday, Karnataka is important because the Opposition has found the line and length during the campaign which is so crucial for staying on the pitch, so far the exclusive preserve of Mr Modi and the BJP.

May 13 will decide which way the wind is blowing when the results are out, but it looks like Rahul Gandhi will become the “man of the match” if the current trends continue. The world knows that in the Gujarat polls in 2017, Rahul became the “man of the match” despite the BJP retaining power on the home turf of Mr Modi and home minister Amit Shah, who were given a run for their money.

The Karnataka election should also be seen from the national angle. It is the first poll after Mr Modi handed the “victim card” to Rahul Gandhi, showing that he remained central to the mighty BJP’s ire day and night. He was projected as the villain of the piece. Rahul was not only not allowed to defend himself in Parliament despite being targeted by three senior Union ministers and others, but circumstances were created that he no longer remained an MP.

A further ignominy was that Rahul, who has now become the face of the Opposition, was forced to vacate his government bungalow soon after. Everything could be said to be according to the rules and procedures. But was it according to the spirit of the world’s largest democracy? This is for everyone to judge. The message that has gone out is that the powers that be will go to any length to undermine the Opposition and will attempt to use every institution for this purpose. The means don’t matter, only the ends do. Mr Modi had long ago proclaimed his desire for a “Congress-mukt Bharat”. There was nothing unofficial about it.

Karnataka may be the first election in recent years where the Opposition seems to be in the driver’s seat in a BJP-ruled state in the run-up despite the high-pitched campaign led by none other than the Prime Minister.

The BJP’s drum-beaters are insisting that the PM has campaigned in some of the difficult seats, giving the BJP a fighting chance there. “This is how a true leader fights in Opposition territory,” they feel.

What has become interesting is that in this hour of crisis, the PM as well as the state BJP leaders have started chanting the name of Bajrang Bali. The recitations of the Hanuman Chalisa have begun. The talk of “double- engine sarkar” is disappearing in thin air and “sankat mochak” is being looked upon as the only saviour as the pre-poll surveys start projecting a not-so-rosy picture.

The Prime Minister has little to offer on the development front and looks hell-bent on polarisation. May 13 will reveal how much people will bite the bait or will look for new promises and a new tomorrow. Karnataka has at times come up with surprises.

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