Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Suhas Palshikar - The Karnataka lesson

By re-emerging as a leading party in Karnataka, the BJP has again underscored that it has a firm foot in South India. Symbolically, the Karnataka victory signifies the national spread of the party though it is yet to penetrate other southern states as also the two key eastern states, Odisha and West Bengal. Detailed analyses of vote share and immediate intrigues like post-election alliances may capture the headlines for a while but the fact remains that in the game of winning elections, the BJP is currently quite formidable. This larger message is something that will weigh heavily when any calculations about the parliamentary elections begin.

The Karnataka government was certainly not an unpopular government. The chief minister had shown considerable aggression in dealing with the BJP during the campaign. The state government had not ignored to publicise its many welfare schemes. Yet, all this could not stop the BJP from emerging as the single-largest party. Nor could all this stop the JDS from retaining its hold. The Karnataka story, then, has two sub-texts. One is about the success of the BJP and the other is about the inability of the Congress to revive itself.

All single-line explanations of electoral outcomes are bound to be grotesque, and yet, there is no escaping the point that once again, the victory in Karnataka has come through the prime minister’s popularity. Barring Delhi and Bihar, all state elections since 2014 have only confirmed the reach and acceptance of Modi. He could pull off a victory in Gujarat despite all odds stacked against his party’s incumbent government and now, in Karnataka, he has managed to defeat the Congress in spite of a somewhat tame image of his party there — and many cracks notwithstanding. The good news of its success also carries a twin liability for the BJP — something that has implications beyond the party.

First, the overdependence on Modi can slowly become a limitation for the BJP. So far, despite all disappointments thrown at the electorate by his government, Modi has managed to retain popularity of a cross-section of the voters. Should that popularity only slightly dwindle, the party would be in deep trouble. Two, Modi’s electoral successes have often come with a heavy price in terms of steady degeneration of the public discourse. From attacking past Congress leaders and raking up avoidable social conflicts, the recent campaign saw him indulge in diatribe and innuendo unbecoming of a prime minister and not befitting a truly popular leader. It was once said of him by many observers that he tapped the aspiration of the voters. Now it seems that he keeps tapping their baser prejudices. This trait, while winning him elections, undermines the quality of democracy.

All this is closely connected to the other subtext of the Karnataka outcome: The inability of the Congress to revive itself. This inability is exposed on three fronts...