The Congress is trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Karnataka by trying to form a government in alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular). However, it is clear that it has not been able to defend its bastion in the face of the onslaught by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even though it may not have won a sweeping majority in Karnataka, the BJP has shown that it is still a superior fighting force than the others in the field. The party has developed an unbeatable election template to manipulate public sentiment and convert it to votes. This should worry the Congress as well as several other Opposition parties. Having honed the art of booth management over the years in elections in Gujarat, the BJP has now extended the model to the rest of India. Karnataka was the latest example of this. The second aspect of its election template is money power. In Karnataka, the BJP’s financial muscle was unmatched — as the ruling party at the Centre, it has an obvious advantage over others.
The third part of the BJP’s election template is to deliver the final body blow using its best pugilist, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His no-holds-barred abusive approach with massive crowds in attendance has proved extremely useful in changing the public perception. This is what the BJP did by marginalising its scam-tainted chief ministerial candidate B.S. Yeddyurappa, leaving Mr Modi to deliver the knockout punch. The Congress was less than a match for this strategy. The party has not expanded its social base in Karnataka since 2013. The sole attempt at this by declaring the Lingayats a minority community backfired as the community elite feared losing political weight in the state. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s dilemma was that he could not have left the campaigning entirely to the incumbent, now outgoing, chief minister Siddaramaiah. And at the same time, if he had done that, he would be seen running away from Mr Modi’s challenge.
In the event, he proved no match for Mr Modi’s public oratory, outright lies and willingness to abuse. In its over-confidence, the Congress did not seek a pre-electoral alliance with the JD(S). The latter tied up with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The Congress had assumed that the dalits would fall into its lap given their anger against the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. They went instead to the JD(S). Now, way short of a majority, the Congress has had to go in sackcloth and ashes to the JD(S). If there is one important lesson to be learnt from this for the Congress and the Opposition as a whole, it is that any consolidation of Opposition votes must be brought about before an election. Had the BJP been offered a one-to-one contest, the result might have been entirely different. The Karnataka elections, therefore, underline the urgent imperative of Opposition unity.
The electoral performance of the Congress also means that it can no longer demand and sit at the head of the Opposition table. Unable to hold the state that it ruled, henceforth its ability will be questioned even more by the other Opposition parties. They will see no a priori reasons for submitting themselves to a Congress-led alliance for 2019. If the Congress is sensible, it will settle for a lesser role and be a part of a larger anti-BJP alliance. Alternatively, the regional parties can form an anti-BJP front and then opt for seat adjustments with the Congress on a case-by-case basis. What will make things difficult for the Congress is the general perception that the party has been hollowed from within and its exoskeleton should not be mistaken for a muscular body within. The party leadership at all levels consists of nominated dandies and dynasts. None of them have the ability to lead people’s protests or movements.
The Karnataka results would also diminish the position of Mr Gandhi within the party and lower his morale. He may proceed on another holiday for recuperation and rejuvenation, but that is unlikely to have a similar effect on the party. A loss of confidence in himself may push him to rely more on the old guard, damaging his leadership further. A weakened Congress may then prove to be no match for the BJP even in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. One should be cautious, though, in seeing the electoral performance of the BJP and the Congress in Karnataka presaging the outcome of the 2019 general election. The factors that determined voter behaviour in Karnataka may not work in other states. One does not know how the simmering anger against the BJP on unemployment, communal polarisation, violence against dalits and other issues might manifest.
However, the Karnataka performance may not be sufficient for the BJP to hold its flock together in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Having left the NDA, the Telugu Desam Party would find it difficult to change its mind while the BJP’s overtures to its adversary, the YSR Congress, continue. The Shiv Sena will wait to assess the public mood before swallowing its pride to contest jointly with the BJP in 2019. The BJP may, however, gain some new allies south of the Vindhyas, such as a Rajinikanth in Tamil Nadu and a Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh. It could well be argued that this might have happened irrespective of Karnataka. The BJP’s allies in the cow belt will keep a close watch on the direction of the wind. Most of them are freelancers in search of power with no ideological consideration. Whether the BJP will keep some of them or not will depend on the nature of the anti-BJP alliances that will take shape. One thing is sure that in the run-up to 2019, unless the leaders of the anti-BJP parties start suppressing their individual egos and start cooperating to ensure a unified challenge to the BJP, they will come a cropper. They will then have to shoulder the blame for the continuing divisiveness and polarisation that politicians with a Savarkarite mindset have imposed on this country.