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Message From Karnataka: Opposition Should Swim Together Or Sink

Karnataka: BJP’s stealth operation in spreading fake news also apparently helped.

Living up to its reputation as a ruthless election-winning machine, the BJP emerged Tuesday as the single-largest party in Karnataka trouncing the Congress, its principal rival. If it is able to split the Janata Dal (Secular), which is the third largest party, and form a government, BJP will be ruling in 21 out of 29 states with the Congress confined to Punjab and two tiny states of Mizoram and Puducherry. The message from Bengaluru is grim for the Opposition and the Congress in particular.

The only silver lining in this defeat is that the saffron party’s unprecedented electoral growth will force the Opposition to close ranks ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and form a broad anti-BJP coalition. The signal from Karnataka is loud and clear: swim together or sink.

The Congress also has the consolation that it secured over 38 per cent of votes compared to BJP’s 36 plus. The JDS recorded 18 plus. [perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Had the Congress and JDS joined hands, their votes share would have been an unassailable 56 plus and BJP would have been decimated. [/perfectpullquote]

The results from the southern state could further cement the bonhomie between major opposition parties – BSP, SP, RLD in Uttar Pradesh making it difficult for BJP to repeat its 2014 performance of winning 71 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats.

With the Congress shedding one more state, its claim to lead the third front or the federal front or any broad anti-BJP coalition stands diminished and this denouement will enthuse other prime ministerial aspirants like Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Navin Patnaik, Deve Gowda, Chandrababu Naidu and K. Chandrashekhar Rao to play a more active role in effecting Opposition unity.

However, the fault lines within the Opposition, like the prospect of the CPM never reconciling itself to supporting the Trinamool Congress chief, could work in favour of the BJP.

The Karnataka victory could tempt the BJP to advance the Lok Sabha polls to December this year and hold it with the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh simultaneously. BJP insiders feel that concurrent polls may help the party neutralise local anti-incumbency in these states.

In Karnataka also, the BJP benefitted from the split in the secular, anti-BJP votes between Congress and JDS while the saffron party closed ranks bringing back dissenters like former chief minister S. Yeddyurappa, who had quit BJP and floated his own party Karnataka Janata Paksha.

The KJP had polled roughly 10 percent votes in 2013 winning six assembly seats. Likewise, the BJP facilitated the merger of BSRCP party of the mining barons and Reddy brothers.

The BJP made inroads even into the Mysuru region, a bastion of the Congress and JDS, where the two secular parties were pitted against each other in 60-odd seats.

Between 2013 and 2014, the BJP managed to regain its lost ground in Karnataka as is evident from the Lok Sabha results when it secured 17 out of the 28 seats and doubled its vote share from 19.9% (2013) to 43% in 2014. Going by the Lok Sabha arithmetic, 17 LS seats roughly works out to between 102 and 119 assembly seats for BJP and between 54 and 63 for the Congress.

It appears that the Congress planning and strategy was heavily based on BJP’s dismal 2013 performance which was misleading as the political ecosystem had vastly changed by 2014.

The Congress also underestimated the return of Yeddy and Reddy brothers to the BJP fold as it overestimated the support from the Lingayat caste constituting 17% of the population. The Congress calculated that the grant of minority status to the Lingayats (not yet sanctioned by the Centre) would swing 10 to 15 per cent of the community’s vote to its favour. That did not happen.

BJP’s projection of Yeddyurappa, a Lingayat, as the chief ministerial candidate, defused the Lingayat bomb.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]BJP’s stealth operation in spreading fake news also apparently helped. A forged email implying that the Catholic Church had a role in the Congress government’s grant of minority status to the Lingayats was circulated in the run-up to the campaign although the Catholic Church trashed the purported email saying it was a ploy to polarise voters on communal lines.[/perfectpullquote]

Undoubtedly, the BJP adopted a multi-pronged strategy to make inroads into the southern state. It ran an aggressive campaign in Congress strongholds while going soft on JDS in latter’s bastion (save some token attack), so as to limit Congress seats and help JDS retain its 2013 tally, if not increase.

Booth-level micromanagement by RSS foot soldiers, money power, playing communal card especially in the coastal region and anti-incumbency against Siddaramaiah government also helped.

Modi himself addressed 20-odd rallies, a record for any Prime Minister in Karnataka, BJP president Amit Shah camped in Bengaluru micro-managing and marshalling resources, three chief ministers and senior cabinet ministers also campaigned vigorously. As media hyped a slight edge for the Congress half-way through electioneering with Siddaramaiah playing the Kannadiga pride card, Modi deftly tried to puncture it by alleging that the Congress government had “insulted” sons of soil General K. S. Thimayya and Field Marshal K. M. Cariappa. Timely controversies like Tipu Sultan and Jinnah also helped the saffron party to bolster its divisive narrative.

Like in Bihar and Gujarat elections, Amit Shah tried to drag Pakistan into the Karnataka elections seizing on a tweet by Islamabad that praised Tipu Sultan. The BJP sees Tipu Sultan as “anti- Hindu”. Mani Shankar Aiyar admires Jinnah.“Be it Gujarat or Karnataka polls, I fail to understand why Congress involves Pakistan!” Shah had tweeted last week.

While BJP worked in complete synergy, Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah betrayed streaks of arrogance. The state unit was marred by infighting till Rahul Gandhi stepped in six months ago. The campaign was spearheaded by Siddaramaiah and Rahul Gandhi, while other state leaders were less visible. The lesson Congress should learn is that by merely banking on the pro-poor measures and social welfare-ism will not fetch the party enough seats unless backed by sound strategy and strong logistics especially when the opponent has superior firepower.

Kay Benedict is a Delhi-based journalist and political commentator.

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