Modi's rallies got BJP the numbers in Karnataka

If the regional parties manage to work with each other, then Modi will face a real threat.

By Aditya Sinha (Going Viral)

Published: Tue 15 May 2018, 10:15 PM

Last updated: Wed 16 May 2018, 12:19 AM

No matter who finally forms the government in the south Indian state of Karnataka, the results of the assembly election tallied on Tuesday showed that the big winner of the day was Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is to his credit considering how, before Modi's arrival for the final week of the campaign, his Bharatiya Janata Party was in disarray and how the chief ministerial candidate BS Yeddyurappa was sulking and campaigning listlessly. Because of Yeddyurappa's presence, Modi was unable to use the most trusted arrow in his quiver - that of anti-corruption. And yet he pulled it off.
Well, with some caveats. Modi's cacophonous rallies in Mysore didn't work - the Janata Dal-Secular (JD(S)) and the Congress did well there. Modi's campaign in Bangalore also yielded little dividend. The BJP swept their old bastion of coastal Karnataka, so all that Modi's rallies accomplished was to seal the deal. In Mumbai-Karnataka, the BJP did amazingly well only because the outgoing chief minister Siddaramaiah's strategy to wean away the Lingayat community - he announced they be categorised as a minority community - backfired badly on the Congress; the Lingayats stuck to the BJP. The BJP's acquiescence in Yeddyurappa's allotting tickets in the Hyderabad-Karnataka belt to the Reddy brothers (known as the Bellary brothers for their illegal mining of iron ore) backfired on the party - to the extent that the JD(S) won three seats in the region, an unexpected result.
Yet Modi still proved himself to be the most popular politician in India, and though no one seriously thinks he will advance the parliamentary election from May 2019 to this November-December - when Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram hold assembly elections - he has shown he has a template to combat anti-incumbency in those states: turning what are local contests into a national referendum on himself.
He did this in Karnataka and it led to the one moment that sank Congress President Rahul Gandhi, who otherwise ran a good campaign and gave a credible account of himself. It was at this time that Rahul took his eye off the local issues and off-handedly told a reporter that why not, he could be prime minister in 2019 depending on how the Congress did in the parliamentary election. It was not something voters wanted to hear.
Despite the distance he has travelled from 2004, when he first entered Parliament and the BJP's propaganda about him stuck in people's ears, he is still not ready to openly announce himself for the top job. In Karnataka, the only job he had was to stick to local issues, and for a moment he lost focus, to ruinous effect.
The regional parties should be heartened that they are in with a chance in 2019 if they can get their act together. The JD(S)'s strong showing sweeping their stronghold in the Mysore region is evidence of Modi's weak points: jobs for youth and rural distress. This is clearly the result of demonetisation which broke rural supply chains and sent surplus agricultural labour back to their villages; it is evident in last year's deflation of agricultural produce prices and in the farmer's suicides. Demonetisation was Modi's idea, and voters blame him. Yet they are not ready to hand the reins over to Rahul; as in the UP by-election earlier this year, they prefer the regional parties.
If regional parties manage to work with each other, Modi will face a real threat. He will try to undermine any possible third front by questioning individual parties on who their prime ministerial candidate will be. They too recognise this weakness of squabbling over who will lead them, and unlike Rahul will steadfastly refuse to take the bait for the sake of opposition unity.
The worst fallout from Karnataka is for Rahul Gandhi. He faces problems within the party that he can no longer blame on his predecessor and mother. How does he reconcile a new team with the old guard? How does he persuade regional parties of his leadership capability? How does he fix his party's organisation in the face of Amit Shah's awesome election machine? Perhaps the answer lies in Rahul Gandhi finding his own Amit Shah. Former CMs Ashok Gehlot and Ghulam Nabi Azad don't measure up. Rahul must hurry because time is running out.
Aditya Sinha is a senior journlist based in India. His book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, written with former spy chiefs of India and Pakistan, is out next week

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