While a victory in Karnataka elections will open the doors to the BJP’s foray into southern India, a win for Congress will galvanise the party into a much tougher opponent in the upcoming electoral battles. Photo: PTI
Ever since Narendra Modi inspired the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to an audacious win in the 16th general election in 2014, every electoral contest, including panchayat-level polls, has acquired a high profile. Nothing different for Karnataka.
For one, unlike what most people like to believe, this contest is a bigger test for the Congress rather than the BJP or Modi. Barring the success in Punjab—largely because of the regional warlord Amarinder Singh—and in Bihar (where it suffered the ignominy of being the understudy of two regional parties), the Congress has suffered frequent electoral reverses. Consequently in the last four years it has ceded its position as the national pole of Indian politics to the BJP.
In Karnataka, it had another regional strongman in Siddaramaiah—who with frequent doses of populism is a political power to contend with—and a divided house in the BJP. Decidedly, advantage Congress. In fact, till six months ago the party was considered the frontrunner, but as polling date closed in and the Modi juggernaut swung into action the Congress seemed to wilt. No one knows the final outcome, but losing for Congress would be a political disaster—as it would have been virtually wiped out from the mainland—leaving it even more demoralised before the big electoral test next year.
A win on the other hand, the first for Rahul Gandhi as the party’s president, will lend wind to its sails and presumably galvanise the Congress—transforming it into a tougher opponent in the upcoming elections to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh—all of which are direct contests between the BJP and Congress.
Second, leading from the above, the stakes for the BJP are high no doubt, but not like it is for the Congress. A loss would hurt no doubt, especially since it will show that the Modi phenomenon can be overcome and it could potentially disrupt the 2019 plan—given that in 2014 it won 17 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Yet the party will take solace from the fact that it has since 2014 expanded its electoral footprint to 21 states—including Tripura in the North East of India.
If they win however it will act like a force multiplier that will have reverberations that will influence even the outcome of the upcoming assembly election in Rajasthan where the party at the moment is on the back foot.
It will also reinforce the new-look BJP’s conviction that for it there does not exist a “no-go” area in the electoral arena. At the same time it will also demonstrate, once again like in Gujarat, that the key to the BJP’s electoral success is the Modi bounce. Consensus is that Modi changed the narrative in the last two weeks of the campaign—a similar flourish had saved the BJP from a humiliating defeat in Gujarat.
Third, the Karnataka elections is once again a test for the political transformation that Modi has effected of the BJP. It has over the last four years gone beyond its traditional voter base of upper caste and traders to bring within its fold the backward castes, Dalits (in Karnataka, they account for 24% of the population) and scheduled tribes. Without this success would have not been easy, especially in polarized states like Uttar Pradesh—a somewhat similar scenario prevails in Karnataka.
In the final analysis it is clear that the Karnataka elections is not just a regular contest. The implications of the outcome will go far beyond its borders.