Whoever has lamented the BJP losing the chance to rule Karnataka despite being the ‘single-largest party’ do not know the nation’s political past over the decades – or, they do not want to remember. Among them, whoever believes that the party leadership should not have rushed through ministry-formation without the numbers, do not also know that it is in the BJP’s monolithic RSS DNA to commit political hara-kiri of the kind.
The problem over the years is that the BJP leadership, now and in the past, has ended up believing in their propaganda – and acting on it, too. Karnataka and the Modi-Shah leadership are no different from the Vajpayee-Advani duo – successful when possibly not wholly prepared, hence as callous at victory as their Congress rivals at the national-level in terms of taking things for granted.
It should have occurred to the BJP strategists at all levels when the Karnataka voters did precisely what they did, despite all the pre-poll surveys, real and surreal, telling them for weeks that it could well be a ‘hung Assembly’. They wanted the incumbent Congress out, but would not give the Opposition BJP a clear mandate. If they wanted a ‘coalition government’ of whatever kind, they were only taking a leaf out of the national mandate, way back in 1996. At the time again, the infancy of pre-poll surveys had predicted a ‘hung Parliament’, but the larger Indian electorate did not care. H. D. Deve Gowda became Prime Minister, though he could retain the job only for months.
Later in 2004, like everyone else, including the BJP’s worst critics, the party strategists too came to believe in their “Buddha aa jayegaa” campaign (meaning, the ‘old man is coming back’, a reference to the then BJP PM Vajpayee. Like everyone else, they also fell for their ‘Indian Shining’ slogan. However, the figures from the ground never ever added up. Their simple solution was not to do the arithmetic until the election results were actually out.
In Karnataka-2018, by the time Yeddyurappa staked claims to form a government, he knew the voters had thrown out 18 incumbent Congress ministers and humiliated Chief Minister Sidarammaiah with a 37,000-vote defeat in Chamundaswari – and yet did not give the BJP a clear victory. Between the last election and this, Yediyurappa had returned to the parent party, and it was thus possibly the best the party could have had. It was also why the party’s seat share shot up from 40 to 104.
Learning from gaffes
Post-poll, BJP’s Amit Shah explained that they got power in Goa and elsewhere only because the Congress rival did not make a move. The Congress was lax and relaxed, and paid for it. Learning obviously from the earlier gaffes, Sonia Gandhi came back from self-imposed semi-retirement for Karnataka, called up HD Deve Gowda before the results were out, and tied up a post-poll alliance even as votes were being counted – and Kumaraswamy acknowledged it in public, before long.
Here again, the BJP forgot trends in larger States for wholesale alliance-deals than individual legislators jumping the boat mid-stream. Where alliances are broken, either they had led to fresh elections (2004, when the Tamil Nadu partners of the BJP quit the NDA), or before or after the elections, as in 1996 and 1998. Having lived on a dose of self-exhilaration for too long, the Modi-Shah duo committed the same errors of the Vajpayee-Advani leadership in their time.
Be it in terms of campaign style, electoral strategy or manifesto, Karnataka should have now taught them that after their hairline victory in the Assembly polls Modi-Shah duo’s native Gujarat, they needed to think afresh, here and now, if they have to win in Elections-2019. Pre-poll Karnataka was an opportunity for them to go back to the drawing-board, but their own cooked-up victories in Goa and elsewhere blurred their vision.
‘Aam aadmi’ and ‘Achhe din’
For instance, the BJP cannot continue to keep making fun of Rahul Gandhi and still believe that voters other than hard-core ‘Modi bhakts’ want to hear more of it. If nothing else, the bhakts are anyway going to be with them, cow, Ayodhya or other Hindutva issues or not. It is the across-the-board ranks of non-committed voters who need to be heard, and who need to hear something new, and see it, even more, and on the ground. They voted for Modi in 2014, they have to be made to vote for Modi again.
Here again there was nothing original in creating a ‘Modi vs Rahul’ imagery and hoping for that to work all the time. Nor would corruption charges from the past and fresh raids against Opposition leaders interest the voter any more. The BJP followed a similar tactic in 2004. They retained the ‘Vajpayee-Sonia Gandhi’ imagery in 2004, continued with the ‘Bofors’ charge, and lost both 2004 and 2009 in a row. When they aped Sonia’s ‘aam adhmi’ in 2004 with Modi’s ‘achche din’ a decade later, they won.
It is to the BJP’s advantage that their rivals, whether united or not, cannot hope to throw up a prime ministerial candidate as tall as Modi for 2019. Faced with such a predicament, the anti-BJP camp focussed on the RSS and Hindutva in the past. When the Congress was in power, as in the elections of 1989, 1996 and 2014, ‘corruption’ helped alienate the party first from prospective allies, and then defeat it, too.
The ‘Sonia factor’
A forgotten aspect of the Sonia strategy in the past was to give a long rope to friends and followers alike. Barring a rare occasion or two, Congress Party under Sonia Gandhi did not change State unit leaderships (whether party presidents or chief ministers) mid-stream. It meant a great difference from the Indira-Rajiv past. By the same token, Sonia also ensured for the DMK ally in Tamil Nadu, a full five-year run of the Karunanidhi Government (2006-11), when the latter did not have an absolute majority in the State Assembly and depended entirely on the ‘outside support’ of the Congress leader of the UPA-2 at the Centre.
Translated, it could well mean that despite the heavy odds facing the Congress in two-party duels in the western States, where the ruling BJP is the lone electoral rival, the Sonia-Rahul duo may go down to accept whatever seats that the existing ‘regional players’ who have formed alliances between themselves, would give the Congress, if only to put up an image of ‘national unity’ against the BJP and the Modi leadership.
If in the process, Sonia-Rahul duo is able to talk, for instance, the CPM and the ruling TMC in West Bengal, into some kind of an alliance pre-poll (say, ‘friendly contests), that could be a strong message against the BJP. It would be more so, considering that the communists are near-nonexistent in the State, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had nothing to fear from them.
Replace the ‘Congress’ from the past to the ‘BJP’ of the present, and the rest of the anti-BJP strategy for 2019 could automatically fall in place. Whether it will work or not, it is at least workable. For, in 1977 (Janata Party, post-Emergency) and 1989 (V P Singh), ideologically different BJP and the communists worked together to keep the Congress at bay. In turn, in 1996 and 2004, the Congress replaced the BJP in a common combine to keep the party out of power.
This is what the desperate and dispirited Opposition parties are attempting now. Karnataka was the first round, which they believe they have won, but it is only a beginning for them, too. For Karnataka to make an impression on all regional parties that lined up at Bengaluru for Kumaraswamy’s swearing in, Sonia and Gowda have to make it work at least for the upcoming months. That is easier said than done. The JD-S has no compulsion in the matter, but it is everything or none for the Congress and the rest of the non-existing anti-BJP combine, and at the national-level.
N Sathiya Moorthy Asian Age 27 May 2018
The writer is Director, Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, a leading Indian think-tank.