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Karnataka elections show the Opposition needs to find answers to the BJP, writes Prashant Jha

The saffron party did not win a majority. But it is still light years ahead of its opponents on several parameters

analysis Updated: May 15, 2018 20:42 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times
BJP workers with the cut-outs of PM Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah on May 15, New Delhi
BJP workers with the cut-outs of PM Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah on May 15, New Delhi (PTI)

Even as the question of government formation in Karnataka remains open, the outcome has once again underlined the electoral dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Indian politics. It did not win a majority, and the party will have to introspect on that. But it has, in terms of sheer poll management, outmanoeuvred the Opposition.

Three things about the BJP electoral edge — even if it does not form the government in Bengaluru — stand out.

The party has gone beyond its comfort zone of north, west and central India and become the single largest party in a southern state. Just over the past year, it has shown an ability to retain power when it is the incumbent (Gujarat) and do well when it is the challenger (from UP to Tripura to Karnataka). And it has been able to take on a rooted, local leader with its national leadership and organisational machine.

This should worry the Opposition in general, and the Congress in particular. The 2019 general elections are just a year away. And the non-BJP parties are, for most part, struggling with the right formula to cause a major electoral reversal.

Here is what they need to find answers to.

One, the BJP’s trump card remains Narendra Modi. The Opposition has tried two key methods to counter him. In the case of Karnataka, they banked on strong regional assertion and made it a Modi vs Siddaramaiah election. The former was projected as an outside, a distant face of cultural homogeneity, and the latter was positioned as someone representing the aspirations of the state and its diverse population. The formula did not work. The other tool they are increasingly banking on is making it a Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi contest, in the hope that there is growing popular disillusionment with Modi across the country. There are slices of anecdotal evidence, and some suggestions from bypolls, which do suggest that the Modi hawa of 2014 has dissipated. But an election like Karnataka shows that Modi continues to remain way above any national leader in terms of popular appeal. Neither the local challenger nor the national challenger card is strong enough.

Two, the BJP has shown an uncanny ability to concentrate its resources, weave wide social coalitions, invest organisational muscle and then convert support into votes at the constituency-level. Karnataka was ripe for the Congress to do it. It had a stronger organisation than in most states; it was banking on its own social coalition of AHINDA, a Kannada acronym depicting backwards, Dalits and minorities, which, on paper, was wider than the BJP coalition; and it was present in every region of the state. But the BJP was able to score yet again because its constituency level management was smarter. In a first-past-the-post system, it does not matter if you have a substantial vote share (as the Bahujan Samaj Party has learnt in UP); the challenge is to convert it into seats. BJP figured out its areas of strength and ensured it did well there; the Congress was spread out, but couldn’t convert it into wins.

The final question the Congress is unable to find an answer to is the BJP’s politics of Hindu consolidation. In Karnataka, it thought it had a masterstroke when it awarded the Lingayats a separate status. It calculated that if you wean away influential caste groups, especially one which was loyal to the BJP, there would a winning combine with its own traditional constituencies. This boomeranged. The BJP told the electorate it respected the diversity within Hinduism, but this was an effort to divide Hindus and weaken the community. This was coupled with the party’s usual rhetoric on the Congress ‘appeasing minorities’. The fact that the BJP’s local face, B S Yeddyuruppa, happened to be from the community helped. The Congress has also constantly underestimated the BJP’s inroads into OBCs and Dalits. The BJP Hindu coalition is fragile but formidable.

The BJP did not win a majority. But its performance shows that on leadership, arithmetic, organisation, and social coalition, the Opposition — particularly a fragmented one — is yet to find answers.

First Published: May 15, 2018 20:19 IST

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