The K’taka verdict can worry the BJP
The results showed that a one-size-fits-all plan that doesn’t address local sensitivities is likely to flounder in states with robust cultural identities
Are you sure we are winning so comfortably?” the senior Congress leader’s voice on the phone sounded anxious. It was the night before counting day in Karnataka where an AxisMyIndia exit poll for India Today predicted a big win for the Congress. I asked the leader why he was so worried. “You know how Mr Modi has campaigned here in the last few days, maybe he has turned around the election,” was the nervous response. The reaction typifies how an aura of near invincibility has been built around Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s persona, best typified in the 2019 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) social media slogan, “Aayega to Modi hi” (only Modi will return to power). But Karnataka 2023 has dented the belief that a Modi-led BJP, a bit like the Clive Lloyd-led West Indian cricket team of the 1980s, is unbeatable.
Undoubtedly, Karnataka was a hyper-localised election in which the price of a gas cylinder mattered more than a Jai Bajrangbali battle cry. A state-specific mandate may not influence general election outcomes, but there are five important reasons why the BJP should be concerned about Verdict Karnataka.
First, PM Modi did invest his personal equity in the campaign: Nineteen rallies and six roadshows in a weeklong blitzkrieg suggests that Brand Modi was top of the mind in the political calculus. In the last few months, the PM was in Karnataka every other week, inaugurating airports, highway projects, even a railway platform. On voting day, BJP advertisements splashed across major Kannada papers focused on PM Modi while all other leaders, including chief minister (CM) Basavraj Bommai, were in the background. The much-publicised Karnataka double engine only had a single all-powerful driver in the end. But the result showed that a charismatic leader at the Centre cannot compensate for ineffectual leaders in the states.
Moreover, Brand Modi is built around his muscular leadership credentials where he claims to have zero tolerance for corruption. Yet, in Karnataka, despite copious allegations of “40% commission sarkara”, there was no sign of the Centre acting swiftly to end the perception of corruption being normalised in a major BJP state. Where enforcement agencies were hyperactive in Opposition-ruled states, they were largely missing in action in Karnataka. If a BJP government is seen to be just as corrupt as any previous Congress regime, Brand Modi loses its sheen and unique selling point.
Second, the remarkably accurate Axis exit poll showed women voting for the Congress in far larger numbers than for the BJP. Whereas the gap in voting preferences between the two main parties was 5 percentage points among men, it was a whopping 11 percentage points among women. A double-digit gap among women voters should set off alarm bells for the BJP. Women have been a core constituency of PM Modi in the past decade. The last big state where the BJP was on the wrong side of women voters by a wide margin was West Bengal in 2021, where Mamata Banerjee’s presence as a woman CM made a crucial difference. This time, the impact of the price rise on household budgets and the Congress’s guarantee of cash incentives was decisive.
Third, the results map of Karnataka shows that the Congress outperformed the BJP in relatively underdeveloped areas with lower per capita income. The Axis exit poll confirms this: Those with a family monthly income of less than ₹10,000 gave the Congress a massive 11 percentage point edge over the BJP while the saffron party did much better among higher income groups. The BJP didn’t win a single one of Karnataka’s 15 Scheduled Tribe reserved seats and only 12 of 36 Scheduled Caste reserved seats, the Congress dominating both key blocs. This is in sharp contrast to recent trends where poor-Dalit-Adivasi voters have been at the heart of the BJP’s vast labharthi (beneficiary) constituency. When poorer voters start deserting a party in such large numbers in a state, the warning signs cannot be ignored.
Fourth, Karnataka has shown the limits to the politics of religious polarisation. Right through 2022, the BJP in Karnataka consciously stoked Hindutva majoritarian politics: Muslims were routinely demonised through campaigns over hijab, halal and azaan. From castigating Tipu Sultan to venerating VD Savarkar, the BJP was hoping to stoke a Hindu-Muslim divide. Even Christians were not spared: Anti-conversion laws were apparently targeted at Christian missionaries. Not only did this shrill campaign consolidate minority votes, it also alienated numerous Hindu voters desirous of a more harmonious social climate. Home minister Amit Shah’s warning to voters that Karnataka would be “afflicted with riots” if the Congress came to power smacked of last-minute desperation.
Finally, the Karnataka verdict highlighted the BJP’s geographical constraints: “BJP mukt (free) Dakshin Bharat” is a reality that exposes the narrow “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” narrative once again. An all-India political power map reveals that the BJP now controls a smaller land area and population than non-BJP parties. A one-size-fits-all election strategy that doesn’t address regional sentiments and local sensitivities will flounder in states with distinctly robust cultural identities.
Which is why the BJP leadership may have to course-correct in the lead up to 2024. A PM Modi-led BJP remains an overwhelming favourite to win in a national election but the aayega to Modi hi swagger may need dialling down. It is an age-old truism in politics and life that self-confidence can rapidly descend into self-defeating hubris. Lloyd’s all-conquering West Indians did lose, after all, to Kapil Dev’s rank outsiders in the 1983 World Cup!
Post-script: Since I started the column with a phone call from a Congress leader, let me end with a more pleasant call received from a senior BJP leader apologising for remarks made by the party’s social media cell head Amit Malviya who accused me on air in a live counting day show of being a Congress propagandist who should retire. “I am sorry for what was said, we need to accept defeat more gracefully,” admitted the BJP leader. Touche.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author The views expressed are personal