By Harihar Swarup
The BJP began its campaign in Karnataka on an embarrassing note, which pollsters say, is inauspicious. It was a day of embarrassment for the BJP when usually sharp party President Amit Shah committed a gaffe. Interacting with the media during a tour of Lingayat and Dalit mutt in central Karnataka, he began making allegation against the Siddaramaiah government but inadvertently stated what was the truth. “Recently a retired Supreme Court judge observed if ever there was a competition for the most corrupt government, then the Yeddyurappa government will get number one…”. Yeddyurappa, who was sitting on the dais, was stunned. Shah immediately corrected the faux pas, saying “arre re…. Siddaramaiah government is number one in corruption” but the damage was done.
It is an undeniable fact that when in power, the Yeddyurappa government was dubbed as most corrupt; so much so that he had to resign, go to jail and even left the BJP to form his own party. Incidentally, Yeddyurappa, who has since returned to the BJP, is the party’s chief ministerial candidate.
After Shah, it was the turn of party MP Prahlad Joshi, who ended up wrongly translating Shah’s speech from Hindi into Kannada. After Shah launched an attack on CM for not doing anything for SC and ST community in the state, Joshi translated it as “PM Modi did not do anything for the SC/ST.” Congress was prompt to leap on Shah’s faux pas. Rahul Gandhi was quick to say “gifted to us by the BJP president, our campaign in Karnataka is off to a fabulous start. Indeed Yeddyurappa ran the most corrupt government ever”.
The outcome of the Karnataka Assembly election, scheduled for May 12, is likely to have a major bearing on the future course of both the BJP and the Congress. The Karnataka results could set the tempo for the upcoming Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh later this year and even shape the contour of 2019 general election. If the BJP regains the three states, it could disorient the Opposition, which has lost state after state since Narendra Modi government was sworn-in as PM in 2014. A Congress win could boost the confidence of opposition, which seems to have sensed an opening following its success in bye polls in UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh on Odisha,
Karnataka is central to the BJP’s plans for Southern India since the party has a significant electoral presence in the state having won office in 2008. Five states and the union territory of Puducherry and Lakshadweep and131 seats in the Lok Sabha, but the BJP continues to be a bit player in the region barring Karnataka.
The absence of a government in the south also diminishes the BJP’s claim to be a pan India party: Since 2014, it has formed governments across north, west, central and eastern India but has failed to crack the South. The very strengths that helped the BJP to deepen its presence in rest of India are threatening to queer the pitch in south.
The Congress in Karnataka under Siddaramaiah has countered the BJP’s aggressive nationalist plank by embracing a Kannada sub-nationalist agenda: This narrative subtly frames the BJP as a Hindi-Hindutva party that is unable to recognize the cultural nuances of Kannada society.
Talk of the Finance Commission assigning greater weightage to population while devolving central funds, too, has inadvertently led into political narrative, which suggests that the Centre is prejudiced. Siddaramaiah has also pitch forked the Lingayat demand for religious minority status to the centre-stage close to the election to tame the BJP attempt to consolidate Hindu communities under its umbrella. The BJP push on a Hindu identity, embellished by campaigners like Yogi Adityanath, is now squaring against Siddaramaiah’s social coalition that includes sections of OBCs, Dalits and Muslims, a coalition forged by welfare programmes and underlined by Kannada sub-nationalism. A win in Karnataka may help BJP wrest the narrative and open up political space in the southern states.
Retaining office in Karnataka is essential for the Congress to claim leadership of the non-BJP political parties. The party seems to have figured that it can hope to rebuild only by empowering state leaders. It has backed Siddaramaiah all through and allowed him to project himself as the Congress face in the state. It’s a gamble that could transform the Congress into a more federal party, a character that distinguished it in the 1950s and 60s. (IPA Service)