Bengaluru is Not Lost, Delhi is Not Invincible
May 16, 2018
While the drama in Bengaluru unfolds slowly over the next few days, we are left with a sense of watching a live thriller playing before our eyes. Of course, like an art film, one is free to see the hero and the villain of this political saga in their own ways. Even the outcome of the play is open to interpretation.
Is it a victory for the BJP? Did Congress really lose? Has Rahul Gandhi proved to be incapable once again to ensure victory for the party?
On the face of it, BJP is the obvious gainer in the Karnataka elections. It improved its tally from about 40 seats in 2013 to 104/105 in 2018. There is no doubt that it is a credible performance by the BJP. However, there are a few disturbing factors that should worry the BJP.
Compared to the 2013 assembly elections, the BJP improved its vote share by roughly 3 percent but lost around 7 percent of the vote share it had got in the 2014 parliamentary elections. This despite the fact that like every other election, BJP invested all its energy, manpower and financial resources, in these elections.
In the last leg of the election process, dozens of Union Ministers, Chief Ministers from BJP ruled states and other top leaders of BJP converged on Karnataka to run the grand election machine of Amit Shah. Prime Minister himself addressed more than 15 rallies across Karnataka. Despite such concerted effort, BJP could only marginally sway voters in its favour. It also failed to come any closer to its performance during the 2014 parliamentary elections. This trend of a falling vote share compared to 2014 parliamentary elections is being repeated across most of the larger states which have gone for polls in the last one year. If BJP is looking to win the 2019 elections, it should be a matter of concern for it.
How about the Congress? Of course, it suffered a jolt as it lost 43 seats compared to the 2013 assembly elections. However, its vote share showed an increase of roughly 1.5 percent over the last assembly elections. In fact, he BJP got a lower percentage of votes as compared to the Congress but got far more seats.
On the one hand, this discrepancy points to the inadequacy and distortions in the first past the post system of voting, on the other it should make us cautious in interpreting the election results. Election after election, it is becoming abundantly clear that victory in the elections is often reflective of the arithmetic of polling rather than the true barometer of the public mood.
Under the shrewd leadership of Amit Shah, the BJP has mastered the art of solving the arithmetic puzzle of elections even while the public mood may be neutral or against it. Indeed, RSS with its presence on the ground proves to be a great boon for the BJP to create, consolidate and effectively utilise its ideological support base. With strategies like Panna-Pramukh (a person designated as the leader for the people whose names appear on one page of the voter list for any area) working to bring voters to the booth, BJP has been successful in micro-management of its electoral strategy.
For the larger cities, it is also working with the idea of ‘apartment pramukh’ to rope in people who are ideologically close to it. They will be responsible to mobilise and inspire the people of the apartment for various programs and activities of the BJP. Working tirelessly on the ground among local influencers, enthusiastic youngsters or seniors from smaller castes, BJP has been able to expand its base effectively.
Other political parties have not been able to think of a parallel strategy to deepen their support base at the micro level. They have remained stuck in the old model of mobilisation working mostly on larger groupings based on caste and community. Except for the Trinamool Congress (TMC) which has usurped the support base of the Left parties in West Bengal, no other party has shown the hunger or energy to work among people at the micro level as is being done by the BJP.
But the arithmetic victory of the BJP has its flip side too. Since it is based on very thin and volatile ground, it is liable to be snatched away by the opposition using the same tools as is used by the BJP. Recent by-elections in Gorakhpur and Phulpur in UP have shown that opposition parties can easily turn the tables on the BJP if they are able to turn the arithmetic key in their favour. As time passes and BJP notches up victory after victory, the opposition parties too are becoming more acutely aware of the need to look for the arithmetic key to their advantage. The arithmetic key is as successful as it is fragile to be copied by the opposition in its favour.
Many commentators have argued that the Karnataka elections have conclusively proved that Rahul Gandhi is not capable of leading Congress to an electoral victory. It is a little strange to hear this since during the elections, the refrain of the political pundits was that the Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is the face of the election. It was argued that he has been given the command of the elections in Karnataka. His quick and effective repost on social media to Prime Minister Modi’s barbs during rallies was widely appreciated. Rahul Gandhi was seen as a benevolent presence that provided national legitimacy and support to Chief Minister Siddaramaiah in the Karnataka elections. Once the Congress lost seats in Karnataka all fire was turned to Rahul Gandhi which is unjustified.
There is no doubt that during the Karnataka assembly campaigns, Rahul Gandhi came up as a mature political leader who could take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in terms of setting the agenda of the elections. Rahul Gandhi did not fall into the BJP trap of communal polarisation and astutely highlighted issues of development and corruption at the central level. It is immaterial to debate whether this was successful in influencing the voters or not as there is no way to know this objectively as election results are ultimately decided by a number of factors. Not winning the seats reflected the inability of the Congress organisation in Karnataka to work out the micro level adjustment which are vital for victory. His press conference just before the campaigning ended in Karnataka was widely appreciated for his measured, dignified and effective responses to tough questions. It also brought in the inevitable comparison with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has not faced a single Press Conference since he took over as PM in 2014. It is rather hasty and wrong to write off Rahul Gandhi who remains one of the best bets for Congress for the future.
The Karnataka elections are also remarkable as Congress displayed great agility and political foresight just before the results came out and the exit polls indicated a hung assembly. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah took the lead in announcing that he would be happy to clear the way for a Dalit Chief Minister thus signalling to the JD (S) that Congress would not insist on making him the CM again, in case some alliance between the two parties is worked out. Sonia Gandhi herself sought to engage JD(S) leadership in working out an alliance after the results started coming in.
Clearly, the Congress has learnt the right lessons from its experiences in Goa and Manipur. BJP, on the other hand was so deeply caught in its own hubris of winning 130 seats that it kept on announcing the date on which its Chief Ministerial candidate B.S. Yeddyurappa would take oath. Apparently, this hubris of BJP has proved quite costly to it, though it is not clear as yet if BJP would be able to form government in Karnataka with the support of the Governor or not. Whatever, the final outcome about who rules Karnataka, it would be wrong to leave out Rahul Gandhi from claiming his share of credit for the swiftness and astuteness with which Congress has played its card since exit-polls started indicating hung assembly for Karnataka.
Another thing that should worry BJP is the growing feeling among smaller regional parties that BJP is a bad coalition leader. Over a period of time, BJP has been slowly losing its allies. While parties like TDP have walked out of the alliance, others like Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and many other smaller parties are deeply aggrieved even while they may remain part of the NDA. It should worry BJP as it is also a key element of its political arithmetic of winning elections. In contrast, Congress has shown willingness to accommodate allies or partners prior to polls or afterwards. For instance, even though Congress, especially Siddaramaiah and JD (S) harbour bitterness for each other for historic reasons, Congress was able to bring JD (S) quickly on-board immediately after elections were over in the state.
Realisation is growing among opposition parties that they need to come together forgetting their past if they want BJP to be defeated. It is becoming clear with every election now that BJP enjoys a significant advantage wherever it is pitted in a triangular fight. BSP Supremo Mayawati is reported to have called the JD (S) patriarch H.D.Devegowda to accept Congress support and not go to BJP for post poll alliance in Karnataka.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee also said that Congress committed a mistake by not entering into a pre-poll alliance with JD(S). For the upcoming Lok Sabha by-poll at Kairana in Uttar Pradesh, Congress has not fielded any candidate against RLD which has been supported by both SP and BSP, even though there is no formal alliance announced. In Noorpur assembly byelections in UP, similar possibility of opposition coming together is likely.
These may be the beginnings of a wider understanding between opposition parties as 2019 draws nearer. Vindictiveness of the BJP and brazen misuse of investigative agencies like CBI has also created a deep sense of vulnerability among opposition parties against the BJP.
The possibilities for the 2019 parliamentary elections are still wide open. Even if BJP is able to form the government with the support of the Governor or by horse trading, the portents for the future remain a matter for concern for the BJP. It is anybody’s guess about what is going to happen. However, as things unfold, it is the BJP which should worry more for it has much more at stake than any other political party in India.
The assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, if the parliament elections are not advanced, is likely to further consolidate the trend which is emerging across the country. Coming together of opposition in pre-poll or post poll alliances, working out well defined or loose arrangements for elections, growing distrust of the major alliance partner i.e. BJP among its regional, smaller allies, maturity of response displayed by the Congress and its willingness to let go its ego and desire for immediate power and growing awareness of the arithmetic aspect of elections are some of the buds which may show up in full bloom by 2019.
Till then, we should all wait and watch the exciting drama unfold slowly.
First published in The Citizen.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.