By Sushil Kutty
The single-phase Karnataka assembly elections takes place on May 10. It is a largely 3-party race, with the BJP, the Congress and H D Kumaraswamy’s Janata Dal (S) fighting it out in the full glare of domestic, national and international media. The Karnataka elections are the first big elections being fought after the recent political upheavals featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his business tycoon friend Gautam Adani and Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, who had led his ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ through Karnataka with irrepressible gusto. Needless to say, the Karnataka assembly election is a matter of “life and death” for the Congress after the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from the Lok Sabha.
The Gandhi scion has positioned himself as the primary challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi; and for both of them losing or winning Karnataka will make them the talking point of the G-20. India assumed the G-20 presidency for 2023 in Bali last year and, since then, there have been G-20 events underway throughout India, including in Karnataka. The political upheavals haven’t gone unnoticed by foreign delegates. The other day, the US State Department commented its displeasure at the Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from Parliament.
Maybe, after all, the United States is not “oblivious” to happenings in India. The world will be watching Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi dodging each other’s barbs as the Karnataka campaign gathers storm. Whose fortunes dip and whose luck takes hits? There are also a number of state bigwigs of both parties whose reputations will be on the line; among them none taller than Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, for whom Karnataka is home-state, and happy hunting ground.
More importantly, this will be Kharge’s first big election since he took charge of the party apparatus. Already, Kharge is seen as an insignificant sidearm to Rahul Gandhi’s big nuclear options. But with this election, Kharge has the chance to prove he is his own man, and nobody’s fool. The Dalit Congress President’s “Dalit-hood” will be tested. Will more Dalit voters float and flock to the Congress tent?
That said, only a win in Karnataka can rejuvenate the Congress, and reinvigorate it for the remaining five 2023 assembly polls. The Congress sees itself the natural leader of the Opposition, the only opposition party with the reach and national vote-share to beat the BJP. The Congress believes it will and it can win 2024. But for that, the Congress must win Karnataka, the first of the “big states” going to polls in 2023.
The Congress cannot afford to lose, either. Rahul Gandhi’s present and future depends on the Congress winning the Karnataka election. Only a victory will validate the “success” claim of Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’. Otherwise, time spent in the BJY will be another hole in Rahul Gandhi’s political ’CV’, a gap of four-plus months gone to waste from Rahul’s calendar.
Rahul Gandhi’s BJY image is intrinsically linked to 2024. The Congress and, particularly, Rahul Gandhi cannot overlook and underestimate the importance of the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ to the Congress’s plans for 2024. More so, because Rahul Gandhi will be the party’s star campaigner, starting from Karnataka. Rahul Gandhi will kick-start his Karnataka campaign from Kolar, the same place from where he had posed the question: “Are all with the surname ‘Modi’ thieves?”
The real question is, does the Congress have the stamina to stay put and fight, and keep winning? One big loss will seal its fate to lead the Opposition. None of the ambitious regional satraps will acknowledge Congress leadership if the Congress starts with a loss in Karnataka for which Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge will have to take the blame. Congress workers will not forget Kharge exhorting them at the Raipur plenary to “work with discipline, solidarity and complete unity”. It was Kharge who set the party’s tone for the “all-important” 2024 Lok Sabha elections, which the party said were “crucial for India’s future”.
But Rahul Gandhi also would not be able to walk away from a loss in Karnataka. With Rahul Gandhi leading the Karnataka election campaign, there is no way Rahul can escape responsibility, and accountability. If Karnataka will be the first big test for Kharge after being elected party President, it will be Rahul Gandhi’s chance to prove to the people of India that he is as good as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and, perhaps, by far better, as his legions of supporters claim.
Putting aside everything, every analysis, and every dissection, every premonition, the first impression and the last assertion, the Karnataka assembly elections will be the first opportunity for the Congress and Rahul Gandhi to test the “Modi-Adani” alleged corruption issue and see how much has it impacted voter-preferences at a time when much of the media has been cornered and coopted to spin another different yarn.
The 2023 Karnataka assembly elections will force Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah to keep returning to the state that is slipping out of their hands. In the three months of 2023 so far, Modi has made 13 tours of Karnataka and in the one month left to Election Day, he will likely make 13 more. As would his majordomo, Union Home Minister Amit Shah. By the way ’13’ is an unlucky number. (IPA Service)