What didn’t work for the BJP in Karnataka election | Bengaluru - Hindustan Times
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What didn’t work for the BJP in Karnataka election

May 14, 2023 12:38 AM IST

The party’s biggest failure was engineering a smoother transition from the old to the new leadership

By the middle of April, even as voting day was three weeks away, the political trend in Karnataka had started becoming clear. The Congress was running a cogent, incisive campaign, their infighting put to bed for the moment. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the other hand, was playing catch-up, hobbled by a multitude of factors.

Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai ran a government that put communal issues front and centre (Basavaraj S Bommai Twitter)
Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai ran a government that put communal issues front and centre (Basavaraj S Bommai Twitter)

On April 21, BJP president JP Nadda looked to play their trump card in a campaign speech. Vote for the lotus, he said, or Karnataka would be deprived of the blessings of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For the BJP, perhaps aware that the elections were quickly slipping away, it was a return to their most reliable campaign plank: Modi’s personal popularity. But, on Saturday, it became clear that the Prime Minister’s popularity alone was not enough in changing the popular mood, especially when saddled with the baggage of an unpopular government and a limited social coalition.

For months, the BJP ran an uncharacteristically inefficient election campaign, beset by controversy. For one, there was the impression of corruption. Multiple contractors in the state accused the state government of taking commission cuts in development work, an allegation the Congress quickly picked up to term the incumbent government “40% sarkara”.

Chief minister Basavraj Bommai also ran a government that put communal issues front and centre — the ban on the hijab and a proposed ban on loudspeakers during aazaan dominated headlines for weeks, before the BJP realised it was preaching to the choir. The only resonance that these issues seemed to have was along the already polarised coast. There was also a proposed move to increase reservations for the influential Vokkaligas and Lingayats, by taking it away from Muslims. But this hastily announced plan backfired. It was stayed by the court. It angered castes such as the Banjaras who attacked BS Yediyurappa’s home. And it consolidated Muslims who voted single-mindedly for the Congress. Playing on Hindu sentiments and othering the Muslims has worked for the BJP undoubtedly, but when it is the defining card of the campaign, the party often falters.

It was in this adverse environment that Modi set to salvage the Karnataka election in earnest in the past two weeks by unleashing a campaign blitz.

He turned to the BJP’s old strengths — attacking the Congress on Muslim appeasement, recalling the Congress track record on corruption, and beseeching Karnataka to continue with a “double engine” government. But since 2018, state after state has offered a lesson to the BJP, and Karnataka was a reiteration of that. Think back to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh in 2019, or even Himachal Pradesh earlier this year. When the Opposition has a strong regional leadership and centres a campaign around local issues, it counters the BJP’s principal strengths and shifts the state elections away from a presidential referendum around Modi.

The elections pose important questions for the BJP moving forward. At the Centre, it is clear that Modi is the north star — the man around whom the 2024 campaign will be built. For the past decade now, Modi has occupied this space nationally in the party, while marginalising the old guard. Successive electoral wins have helped boost his popular legitimacy and further entrenched his position.

In the states though, the transition from the old to the new, from leaders who carry their own heft to those who are more willing to submit to the hegemony of the central command, has been far from smooth. Indeed, it has proved damaging to the party’s prospects. In Karnataka, the BJP sought to engineer exactly this shift. In 2021, the BJP replaced an unhappy BS Yediyurappa with Basavaraj Bommai as CM. The BJP dropped several candidates, replacing them with new faces, but were beset by protests. Former CM Jagdish Shettar and deputy CM Laxman Savadi left, complaining of disrespect. As discontent brewed, the BJP made symbolic gestures to show that all was well with Yediyurappa, with the PM holding his hand and signing his praises.

But as Saturday shows, confusion had set in, and the damage was done. Even though Lingayats appear to have broadly stayed with the BJP (its vote share has only marginally dipped), the party did not have a towering leader running its campaign. And its wider social coalition shrank. Older workers were left demoralised, the newer could not fill in adequately.

Ahead of crucial elections in late 2023, the issue of the old and new in state leadership positions is a problem that will confront the BJP again.

In Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, and perhaps Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, they have regional leaders whose ambitions have often been at odds with the central command. While there is little doubt that the BJP remains in pole position for the 2024 elections and Modi’s popularity is intact, setbacks at the state level will have implications for the party’s overall strength as well as presence in Rajya Sabha. How the BJP handles this transition from old to new in states and how it caters to the ambition of its regional powerhouses while stamping Modi’s authority may well be key to the party’s medium-term future, beyond 2024.

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