Congress adds new dimension to 2019 fight

Outmanoeuvred in the southern state, the BJP has to now contend with a strident Rahul Gandhi and a united Opposition

The dramatic resignation of B.S. Yeddyurappa as Chief Minister of Karnataka ahead of the crucial trust vote in the State Assembly is being seen in Delhi as tantamount to the defeat of the BJP and more crucially, its master strategist duo of Party President Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While it may be too premature to predict the fallout of this on the 2019 general elections, it has certainly boosted the Opposition and dampened spirits in the BJP. In fact, within the saffron party there is the realisation that Amit Shah and Modi, despite the might of the Central Government and its agencies behind them, are vulnerable and can be outsmarted.

That realisation, party insiders point out, is the sharpest punch delivered by the Karnataka verdict. And it comes immediately after the March Lok Sabha bye-election reversals in Uttar Pradesh, particularly Gorakhpur. If that exposed chinks in the BJP armour, Karnataka has shown that the dirty tricks department of the party failed to deliver. Its much-touted ability to buy legislators at will came a cropper and the BJP was finally forced to throw in the towel.

From here on the BJP will have to think afresh because it cannot take for granted splitting of parties and engineering defections. “The BJP will have to redraw its game plan after what has happened in Karnataka. Its great strategists who believe in political surgical strikes had taken victory for granted. They had become complacent and thought that the Congress would be caught napping when it was our party that was outmanoeuvred,” a party MP from Bihar told Southword.

According to him, the BJP was overconfident and thought it could pull off the old trick it had employed in Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya and win over MLAs with ease. However, this time the Congress had learnt from its past mistakes and had moved swiftly after the Karnataka results came in. It not only opened lines of communication with the JD (S) but also roped in Opposition leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu and Mayawati to persuade the JD (S) patriarch, Deve Gowda, to stand united against the BJP and join forces with the Congress.

It is this new-found bonding between Opposition leaders that the BJP perceives as a threat. Post Karnataka, the electoral map for 2019 presents a more challenging picture. In many states where the BJP hopes to ride piggy back on regional parties, it may find the going tricky. The party will now have to contend with competition not just from the Congress, but a united Opposition. And this unified combine will also woo the same regional parties and could checkmate the BJP. Given this scenario, it may be difficult for Amit Shah &Co to walk away with alliances in many states.

There is also the feedback from within the BJP that the party leadership had grossly underestimated the abilities of Rahul Gandhi to act decisively. Even his strident attack against the Prime Minister and the RSS at his press briefing after the BJP admitted defeat in Karnataka has taken many by surprise. So also has Rahul’s declaration that he is committed to fight the BJP by joining hands with any party or formation. In fact, many have begun to wonder if this will be the shape of Opposition unity to come.

By recasting it as a direct fight between “secular forces” and the BJP, Rahul Gandhi has added a new dimension to the battle of 2019. He has made it clear that it is a battle in which his party is willing to join forces with even those seen as rivals like the TMC, BSP, TDP and the JD (S). Whether these parties can forge a lasting bond is another matter. But for now, they are united by a common goal to end BJP domination and its communal agenda.

At a think session even as the Karnataka results came in last week, Rahul Gandhi consulted senior party leaders who indicated to him that the party’s focus must change from thinking of selfish gains to challenging the BJP even if it means yielding ground to secular regional forces. The Congress President, it is learnt, was all for that and acted swiftly and found that he was getting support from the entire Opposition. Incidentally, Sonia Gandhi was among the first to set the ball rolling by speaking to Deve Gowda. Senior Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ashok Gehlot were immediately rushed to Bengaluru to negotiate. This was a new proactive Congress in action.

Given that backdrop, it does not come as a surprise that party leaders from Rahul Gandhi downwards have been projecting Karnataka as a victory for “democracy and the Opposition.” The win has, no doubt, helped the anti-saffron forces to group together. Some observers feel that this was perhaps bound to happen ahead of 2019-- Karnataka has only hastened the process.

As for the saffron party, it had tried every trick in the book to lure Congress and JD (S) MLAs and failed. Some were even “kidnapped” as senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad alleged and “detained.” Others were offered financial inducements and cabinet posts. But it wasn’t enough. Even a supportive Governor who, on May 16, had given Yeddyurappa the luxury of 15 days to prove his majority was thwarted by the Supreme Court which advanced the trust vote to May 19.

The BJP was strapped for time and caught flat footed. By the morning of the trust vote it became clear that it would be difficult to buy or persuade Congress and JD (S) MLAs to break ranks. It was decided, reportedly by the RSS, that Yeddyurappa should deliver his farewell speech on the floor of the Assembly and quit. That was the first honourable and democratic act that BJP can be credited with in the sordid Karnataka saga.

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