Pollscape | Karnataka: Can PM’s roadshows be an antidote to anti-incumbency?
BJP has relied heavily on PM Modi, with him holding 21 public meetings and several roadshows. But this strategy may have sent mixed signals to voters
Whatever may be the outcome of the Karnataka Assembly election 2023, it would go down in the state’s history as one in which, for the first time in Karnataka, a sitting prime minister virtually took over the campaign for the ruling party.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has addressed 21 public meetings and held several road shows covering a large part of the state during the two weeks of the election campaign. Add to this the several pre-election visits that the PM made, including those to inaugurate the Shimoga airport (on February 27) and the Bangalore-Mysore Expressway (on March 12).
The prime minister's virtual camping in the state might have enthused the party workers. This has now become a common element of the BJP’s state election strategy as it was seen earlier in the cases of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh. But, the signals that the PM-centred election campaign in Karnataka has sent to the electorate are not all quite positive.
For one, the repetitive nature of the rallies and roadshows took away the curiosity and excitement associated with the events except among the die-hard BJP supporters. At times, it came across as a desperate move of the ruling BJP, as the party had no credible state leader to present before the people and no major issue to flag.
This is the first time that the BJP is facing elections in Karnataka without projecting a credible leader as its candidate for the chief minister’s post. Generally, a ruling party would always go to the election with the sitting chief minister as its face, but chief minister Basavaraja Bommai was seen as a minor player in the campaign dominated by the prime minister. So was former chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa who played his role in the campaign more as a grand patriarchal figure rather than as a future leader of any promise given the party's rule of retiring leaders older than 75 years. In the past, the BJP had ridiculed the Congress whenever the grand old party faced elections without projecting a leader as the possible future chief minister. At the receiving end this time, the BJP strategically skirted the issue.
The prime minister came, he saw people who managed to be present at his rallies and roadshows, and the people in turn saw him, but what did he tell them? What was his message to the electorate of whom many harboured anger against the incumbent state government of the prime minister’s party? It was here that the grandiosely planned strategy appeared morally shaky. The narrative he placed before the people lacked consistency and conviction. Initially, he spoke about corruption despite his own party government having been steeped neck deep in corruption charges. Eventually, the focus moved away possibly because the reference to corruption received a rebuttal from the opposition which cited the latest example of party MLA Madal Virupakshappa’s arrest on corruption charges a day before the election was announced in March.
The second favourite topic was the dynastic rule in the Congress, but when it came to light that the BJP’s list of contestants had many local-level dynasts, the prime minister changed track. Then it was the promise of a double-engine government (the same party ruling at both Centre and state), which was an idea rejected by voters in Karnataka long ago. In any case, the track record of the double-engine government for the past four years left the people with very little expectations from the prime minister’s promise of ‘Making Karnataka Number 1’ through it.
Then, the Congress gave him a stick to beat it with a couple of its characteristic faux pas. First, it was AICCI President Mallikarjun Kharge calling the Prime Minister poisonous and then Congress manifesto making a promise to consider banning the Bajrang Dal. After this, the prime minister started seeking sympathy, first for himself for being the target of unfair criticism from the Congress, and then for Lord Hanuman. In a strange logic, BJP argued that the proposed ban on one of the virulent organisations was an affront to Lord Hanuman. And the final shot from the prime minister even sounded a bit absurd when he said under the Congress, Karnataka would break away from the Indian Union!
The Karnataka election 2023 would attract the attention of future generations not just for the prolonged presence of the prime minister on the field but also for the kind of election speeches that any prime minister so far would have delivered in a state election. Conspicuous by absence in Modi’s rally speeches was anything to assuage the electorate reeling under price rise. Would the grand spectacle and political rhetoric be sufficient to douse the fire of anti-incumbency? For an answer, one needs to wait till May 13.
Karnataka’s political history shows that the electorate here has generally not preferred the party in power at the Centre to rule the state, thus rejecting the idea of a double-engine government. Since 1983, when the first non-Congress government came to power in Karnataka, the voters here have elected one of the parties sitting in the opposition at the Centre to rule Karnataka. So, in 1983, Karnataka elected Janata Party Government here when the Congress was in power at the Centre. In 1985, the Congress government led by Rajiv Gandhi was at the Centre whereas Karnataka re-elected the Janata Party to rule the state. In 1989, Janata Dal held power at the Centre, but Karnataka voted overwhelmingly for the Congress. In 1994, Congress under Narasimha Rao was in power at the Centre, but Karnataka voted for the Janata Dal. In 1999, when the BJP came to power at the Centre, Karnataka’s choice was the Congress. In 2004, it was a role reversal. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) assumed power at the Centre, whereas the state rejected the Congress eventually leading to two coalition governments.
In 2008, the UPA was in power at the Centre whereas the State elected its first BJP government. In 2013, when the Congress came to power in Karnataka, the Congress held power at the Centre too, but within a year the BJP replaced the Congress at the Centre. In 2018 again, as the BJP continued to hold power at the Centre, a Congress-JDS coalition assumed power in the state. It was only because of the BJP’s Operation Kamala that Karnataka came to have the government of the same party as at the Centre between 2019 and 2023. This first double-engine government after 40 years was not the choice of the people but was imposed on them by the BJP through horse trading.
Karnataka does not have a regional party but avoiding the rule by the party in power at the Centre seemed the state’s version of regional politics. The prime minister imposing himself on state politics and advocating the cause of a double-engine government, therefore, was certainly not in sync with the idea of Karnataka. Irrespective of how many additional seats the prime minister’s prolonged campaign would have helped the BJP to win, it appeared that the prime minister was pushing Karnataka in the direction of a political culture which is very different from what it has always been known for.
A Narayana is a professor of public policy and governance at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru
The views expressed are personal