The BJP’s victory may not be fully sealed as the scores fluctuate at the time this is written (it’s still five short of 112 and arithmetically Congress+JD(S) are 114). But the Congress party’s defeat is conclusive. In yet another face-off, Narendra Modi has shown Rahul Gandhi is no match for him. There wasn’t much doubt earlier, but the Karnataka result affirms Narendra Modi’s rise as a genuine pan-India leader. This makes him only the third such in our political history, after Nehru and Indira.
This result, therefore, has three key lessons:
1) Coalition/alliance building will now follow a process unfamiliar to many in the past four decades. For those parties that are so apart ideologically or in vote-base terms that they can never align with the BJP, there is the challenge of finding a story to rival Modi’s. Today, it looks insurmountable. If they unite and name a leader, a Modi versus A, B, or C presidential-style campaign will be a walkover. If they don’t, they will be annihilated piecemeal.
For those regional parties with less ideological baggage, the default option is always the party more likely to be able to control power in Delhi and then give them a part of it. Akhilesh, Mamata, even Mayawati, the Left do not have this flexibility. But what about the rest, including Sharad Pawar? Particularly so if Shiv Sena remains estranged with the BJP.
How does this work? I can do no better than quote Deve Gowda’s son Kumaraswamy who I asked in a (2006) ‘Walk the Talk’ interview if he wasn’t embarrassed to be chief minister with BJP’s support while the “secular” unity to keep BJP out had made his father the prime minister of India? He said, “my father, sir, made a big mistake by becoming prime minister.” Why? Because he said he lost focus on his state and lost his power here. All regional parties, he then said, must learn from DMK/AIDMK. Keep power in your state and somebody in Delhi will be willing to seat you under the tent of national power. This will now apply even more strongly and with one difference. The magnet that was “secular” and Congress-dominated, will now be “nationalist” and under the BJP.
If, as RSS ideologue Seshadri Chari says it will be Modi versus nobody (in particular) in 2019, it isn’t an exaggeration. The question is, will this equation hold for another year? Usually, you’d be inclined to believe that things do not stay the same in politics for a year and something’s got to give. But today, no analysis indicates how such a shift could come.
2) The second essential lesson from Karnataka for national politics is that in any three-way election, the BJP will be the default winner. This is just a case of history repeating itself. Narendra Modi is to Indian politics now what Indira Gandhi was between 1969 and 1973. When all other leaders and parties combined against her, it actually worked to her benefit. She only had to say I want to ‘Garibi Hatao’ and all that unites this gaggle is the hatred for me. There is no ideology binding this cynical lot that can’t even agree on one leader.
Fact: This worked for her until the Emergency, and after a brief Janata interlude in 1977-80, afterwards too. The same disparate opposition came together as one Janata Party once its leaders were out of Indira’s jails. But then, just as she’d predicted, the “khichri” rotted and unravelled in just about two years. This is an established playbook in Indian politics. Just that the BJP (Bharatiya Jan Sangh then) was at the other end then, now it is the Congress. Can the opposition learn from this and come up with some innovative idea? So far, we see no sign of such introspection or intellectual rethink within the Congress or the rest of the opposition.
3) The most significant fact is the BJP doing much better than the larger exit polls had predicted in the old Mysuru/south Karnataka region. The Congress strategy of overlooking the two major castes, Vokkaligas and Lingayats, and putting together an alliance of the “rest” was audacious. It has surely failed. Karnataka is a very diverse electorate and each of the three parties has chosen its preferred combination and gone for broke focusing on it.
We can expect two outcomes from this. One, no party has been able to build a cross-caste appeal to sweep the state. But second, and more important, the only party for whom this strategy has worked is the JD(S). In the region considered its stronghold and where the Congress was expecting to grab seats from it, JD (S) has done brilliantly. The new factor here this time is Mayawati, who supported the JD(S) and campaigned for it. Has she swung a large part of the Dalit vote that the Congress was counting on, we don’t know yet. But seems unlikely the JD(S) could do so well and the Congress so badly unless the Dalit vote was split substantially.
So is Mayawati the X-factor of this Karnataka election? We will know with greater clarity soon enough. That is why I am tempted to say that what happens next in the Kairana bye-election in Uttar Pradesh might have as much of an impact on the 2019 line-ups as Karnataka, 2018.