In terms of crowd turnout, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally in Bengaluru on February 4, was impressive. But if one were to assess the message that was being sent out by his speech which marked the grand finale of the 85-day Nava Karnataka Nirmanakkagi Parivartana Yatre (Rally for Change to Transform Karnataka) campaign, then there was precious little that was new on offer for the two-lakh strong crowd.
In fact, the PM’s speech was peppered by the usual rhetoric that punctuates his speeches anywhere else in the country. The one strand that ran through his speech was that the Congress government in the State must be shown the door. But there was nothing concrete spelt out about the change that a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government would usher in.
Modi came, he spoke, but said nothing new. He unloaded a bagful of statistics to prove that Karnataka was under-developed but left the crowd confused, not enlightened. His litany of allegations against the State government were along expected lines – the Karnataka government under Chief Minister Siddaramiah’s stewardship had not spent the monies allocated by the Centre under various schemes; it was a corrupt dispensation that doled out favours and contracts for “10% commission”; what was bothering the people of Karnataka was the “ease of committing murders” as against “ease of conducting business and “ease of living”.
Into this mix he added his trademark bit about dynastic politics and the divide and rule policy of the Congress and some communal flavouring. But what impact did Modi’s hour-long speech in Hindi have on his Kannada-speaking audience which had waited all day to hear him finally speak in the evening? An objective analysis of his speech would suggest that it was certainly not the best oratorical performance of the PM.
Too much data, too little connect?
So, what went wrong? Modi started out by wooing the audience by dishing out a few words in Kannada, while hailing the cultural and historical icons of Karnataka. That done, he launched into statistics almost as if he was nursing a hangover from the Union Budget 2018 presented on February 1. The PM seemed to have forgotten that his audience were ordinary folk and not members of a trade association or students of economics. The result: his facts and figures failed to enthuse or make sense to them.
For many in the audience it seemed as if the PM was responding to questions raised by the state unit of the Congress about insufficient funds allocated to Karnataka by the Centre. This was because the core of Modi’s speech was a breakdown of monies allocated to the state and its poor management and use. But there was very little focus on what the BJP would do if it came to power.
According to many in the audience, the detour into tedious economic data was where the script went wrong. The PM had, perhaps unwittingly, entered a domain that local Congressmen hoped he would since they feel confident that they can counter the PM and the BJP in the rest of the campaign when it comes to articulation of facts and figures.
Their confidence stems from the fact that the Siddaramiah is someone who has a track record of presenting 13 State Budgets, including five as CM, since he holds the additional portfolio of Finance. He is also known to be a past master with statistics. He not only has all the numbers on his fingertips but also has an earthy rustic touch when he speaks on economics. He thus manages to engage with the public and communicates complexities of funds, its deployment and use in a language they can comprehend.
The Nava Karnataka Sadhana Samavesha, a series of rallies conducted to celebrate the achievements of the Karnataka government in more than 100 Assembly constituencies is an example of this. Siddaramiah spearheaded the campaign and took center stage and regaled the crowds with speeches peppered with statistics.
People never felt bored with his narration although he repeated himself at several rallies which were telecast by Kannada news channels. Some say it is his style of speaking, his diction and the fact that he speaks in Kannada that helps.
Very clearly Modi and his team will have to campaign hard in the days to come. Unless Modi sees a formidable opponent in Siddaramiah and reworks his script for Karnataka, he may fail to reach out to audiences in this southern state. Also, he cannot remain silent on key local issues like the Mahadayi river water dispute between Goa – a BJP-ruled state – and Karnataka.
In terms of content, Modi’s Bengaluru rally was quite similar to the Parivartan rallies of BJP’s chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa. The latter’s tour of 85 days, covering all 224 Assembly constituencies in the state was an exhaustive one but failed to connect with the masses. The Lingayat leader simply failed to spell out his plans for “building a new Karnataka through transformation and change.”
The rallies often made headlines for the venom spewed out by BJP leaders against the Congress. Time and again the Saffron party tried to construct a communal narrative by accusing the state government of failing to nab the culprits who, they alleged, were responsible for the murders of BJP workers. It also accused the government of being hand in glove with fringe organisations on whose behest, it was said, the murders were carried out.
As of now, the Karnataka battleground seems one where the Congress is setting the agenda and the BJP is reacting to it. Caught on the back foot, the Saffron party has stepped up its Hindutva rhetoric in the last few weeks. But this has faced stiff opposition from not just the ruling Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) but also from progressive groups across the state.
The BJP, many observers feel, has to rethink its campaign. For a start it must subject the Parivartan campaign, including Modi’s speech in Bengaluru, to an objective analysis. Was the message that went out forceful enough? Was it focussed? And did it spell out a plan that the party had for a better Karnataka?