Will Karnataka change the national narrative again?

The state has affected the narrative of national politics over half a dozen times in the past. Will Siddaramaiah change the Congress’ fortunes this time and correct the BJP’s ‘invincibility’ story?

Why are polls to the Karnataka legislature so important, and why is it being said that its outcome will be of interest nationally? In the last few weeks, we have seen political attaches in foreign missions crisscross the state to make definitive assessments; and we have also seen journalists land in droves from all over with breathless queries.

The dominant narrative on the significance of this election, expectedly, is being led by the BJP. Their spin suggests that this is the last big bastion of the Congress party, and if breached, the party of our Independence would reach a comatose state. As this view gets bombarded and amplified, what is being cleverly disguised is the anxiety of the BJP and its affiliates. If the BJP loses this election, then the story of their ‘invincibility’ would get corrected and reversed as they enter poll mode later this year in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. This would have an impact on Parliamentary polls in 2019, which will put to test Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to beat the Vajpayee jinx of a second successive term. Therefore, this election is arguably a bigger challenge to Modi than it is to the Congress.

Even if one assumes Congress will not perform to expected levels in Karnataka, hope for the party in three poll-bound states will remain open. But, per chance the BJP wins Karnataka, it will still be an uphill climb in the three states where they face acute anti-incumbency. Consequentially, the chances of those polls negatively impacting BJP’s prospects in the Parliamentary battle will also continue to remain high. In the Congress’ scheme of things, success is measured on a reasonable scale, and with multiple grades, but Modi has made it a binary for himself and his party. It is either a win or a loss. As clear wins start eluding him, as it is predicted to happen either which way in Karnataka and later in 2018, the disruption in 2019 looks greater for him.

However, people who feel confident about Congress’ performance under Siddaramaiah, borrow crutches of history to firmly implant a positive story for themselves and their leader. They argue that the state has altered the national narrative at least half-a-dozen times in the last 50 years and it is likely to repeat it this time. They point out that Indira Gandhi found her footing as a leader after the 1969 split via Karnataka and Devaraj Urs. Incidentally, one of her main challengers nationally at the time was another Karnataka Congressman S Nijalingappa. Again, post-Emergency, Indira Gandhi won the Chikmagalur parliamentary seat and took back control of Delhi. Ramakrishna Hegde plotted Janata Dal and the United Front in Karnataka, which installed VP Singh as prime minister. Sonia Gandhi’s credentials were established after she won her Bellary seat in 1999. HD Deve Gowda became the first formal coalition experiment for the Congress. In the same breath, and as a logical extension, it is argued that Siddaramaiah will spur a change in Modi’s fortunes by winning Karnataka this time.

In the Congress’ scheme of things, success is measured on a reasonable scale, and with multiple grades, but Modi has made it a binary for himself and his party. It is either a win or a loss. As clear wins start eluding him, as it is predicted to happen either which way in Karnataka and later in 2018, the disruption in 2019 looks greater for him

Caught on the back foot
What prompts such a positive assembly of historical events in Siddaramaiah’s favour is his political cunning and strategy. He set a sub-nationalist trap for Modi months before he could think of a nationalist rhetoric for the Karnataka polls. As a result, for the first time in recent years, the BJP has been caught responding and reacting to the Congress than the other way round.

The local issues raised by Siddaramaiah have caught BJP in a bind. They can’t ignore them, yet can’t explicitly state their position. Be it the Lingayat issue, the caste census, the issue of sharing the Mahadayi and Cauvery river waters, the distribution of federal taxes, a separate state flag, the imposition of Hindi or the return of the mining lobby back into the Saffron party, the BJP had lost the moral argument even before Modi began campaigning. Now, for everything that Modi has been saying in his rallies, there is already a strong counter narrative built over months in the local language.

Over and above this, the BJP state leadership looks fatigued, divided and rudderless. The party’s central leadership was trying to forcefully implant certain issues like corruption, murder of activists etc., but the local leadership did not demonstrate conviction to carry it to the intended corners simply because they know they’ll be challenged locally. Modi has been brought in as a messiah with an elevating message, but the communication chain appears broken. One gets a feeling that he is lost in translation. There is too much history to the five years of BJP rule between 2008-13, which perhaps the BJP central leadership underestimated. The lackadaisical impulse of BJP’s local leadership was visible in the manifesto they put out recently. In small parts it was a reaction to the Congress’ manifesto, and in most parts an appropriation of the Siddaramaiah government’s schemes and policies. Their lack of imagination was astonishing.

Other than political reasons, this election also assumes significance at the level of democratic principle too. While Siddaramaiah by constantly raising issues of federal autonomy has emerged as a champion of decentralised thinking, Modi with his centralising impulse appears rather absolute. Culturally translated, this would mean a battle between plurality and a monolith.

(This opinion article was first published in Mint on May 9 2018)

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