Karnataka results could pave the road to 2024 - Hindustan Times
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Karnataka results could pave the road to 2024

ByNarendar Pani
May 06, 2023 07:46 PM IST

For the BJP, it's the mantra of centralisation and focus on PM Modi. The Congress is leaning on local leaders and a narrative of federalism

The Karnataka elections on May 10 are turning out to be the most ideological battle in decades. In a string of recent state polls, the practice has been for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to raise its Hindutva pitch, while other parties tended to skirt around this issue. But with a few days to go for polling in Karnataka, the Congress released a manifesto that likened the Bajrang Dal to the Popular Front of India (PFI), and promised action, which could include a ban, against organisations spewing hate. The BJP responded on predictable lines, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi equating a ban on the Bajrang Dal to a ban on Bajrang Bali, or Lord Hanuman.

The BJP looks set to fight 2024 on a version of Hindutva symbolised by the person of PM Modi and his welfare push. The Congress is looking to focus on decentralisation by promoting local leaders, and imposing electoral costs on potential defectors (AFP) PREMIUM
The BJP looks set to fight 2024 on a version of Hindutva symbolised by the person of PM Modi and his welfare push. The Congress is looking to focus on decentralisation by promoting local leaders, and imposing electoral costs on potential defectors (AFP)

This flashpoint was the latest evidence of the fact that both parties have built their strategies for this assembly elections with a longer-term view of their respective ideologies. For the BJP, while an emphasis on Hindutva was expected, what was less so was the centralised version of this ideology that it has followed in this campaign. Over the past two decades, the BJP has tried to merge its version of Hindutva with local Hindu institutions of various shades and leanings, often ceding ground to the latter. In this round, there has been no such leeway. Some state BJP leaders with influence in mathas and other local Hindu institutions have not even been given tickets. And there has been an insistence that a vote for the BJP is a vote for PM Modi. Home minister Amit Shah made this clear when, after introducing a candidate in a constituency, he stated that the vote was not for the candidate but for Modi.

The Congress has also stuck closer to its ideological moorings than it has done for decades. Building its strategy around Rahul Gandhi’s emphasis on the first line of the Constitution that India is a Union of states, the party has provided a prominent place for the state leadership. Its promises were made in the form of guarantees signed by the Leader of the Opposition, Siddaramaiah, and the state unit president, DK Shivakumar. In his new role as Congress chief, Mallikarjun Kharge was given a public role much later in the campaign, even as the Gandhis were mobilised. The economic narrative was also built around protecting the state’s institutions, symbolised by the perceived battle between the brand of the Karnataka Milk Federation, Nandini, and the more prominent national brand of Gujarat origin, Amul.

The long view taken by both parties may indicate that they are looking beyond the current round in Karnataka to the national elections next year. The BJP has left little room for doubt that it will fight the next parliamentary elections on a version of Hindutva symbolised by the person of PM Modi and his welfare push. And by sidelining the old guard of leaders during a state election, it has reiterated its overwhelming confidence in the image of PM Modi. The Congress, in contrast, is using the Karnataka election to present itself as a national party sensitive to local concerns. As distinct from the BJP or a national alliance of regional parties, the Congress would like to present itself in 2024 as a national party of local leaders.

Much would then depend on how these strategies work out in Karnataka. The BJP may well be banking on Karnataka’s historical preference for centralised national leadership. When asked to choose between D Devaraj Urs and Indira Gandhi in 1980, the state picked Mrs Gandhi, although Urs was seen as a transformational state leader who brought about his version of land reforms. Mrs Gandhi established a pattern of cutting state leaders down to size that the BJP now appears keen to follow.

The Rahul Gandhi-influenced Congress believes that things have changed since the time of his grandmother. Beginning in the 1980s, Karnataka emerged as a pioneer in decentralisation. While this has not led to decentralised growth – the state’s economy is still heavily Bengaluru-centric – it has certainly resulted in decentralised politics. Political reputations are increasingly made and unmade at the taluka or assembly constituency level. The Congress has thus emphasised issues that have resonance at that local level. The state leadership has also realised that their future depends on choosing candidates who built local political reputations rather than playing favourites. The difficulty is that once elected, the lawmakers with a base of their own have less reason to be loyal to the party. By introducing a strong ideological element to its campaign, the Congress may expect to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of elected leaders – in a highly competitive local political environment, would the MLAs be re-elected if they abandoned the ideological platform on which they won?

Even as the Congress seeks to sow doubts in the minds of potential defectors, the BJP has decided that with an ideological advantage around Hindutva, it does not need to worry about MLAs defecting. It has gone out of its way to legitimise lawmakers who defected to it from other parties. When many sitting MLAs have not been given tickets, the defectors or their family members have been accommodated. And even the PM has campaigned in the constituencies of some of the defectors. On the other hand, the Congress has sought strong candidates who can defeat the defectors in their home base. For its survival, the Congress must establish that defection may have immediate economic and political benefits, but that it also has an electoral cost.

The results of this ideological battle in Karnataka will inevitably be assessed primarily in terms of who forms the next government in Bengaluru. But its ramifications will extend to the national level in 2024 and beyond. It will tell us whether there is any promise in the efforts of the Congress to return to its past when it possessed a multiplicity of leaders, several of them with a strong regional base. The fact that the party has taken a local approach without naming a chief ministerial candidate suggests it will also be willing to identify and absorb leaders with sub-regional appeal. But that creates the daunting task of developing an effective organisational structure that can keep multiple mass leaders together.

If the Congress is testing local waters, the BJP, on the other hand, is deeply invested in the benefits of personality-based centralisation. The Karnataka elections will provide some indication of whether, in the PM, the BJP has a gift that keeps on giving, or whether it can do with a few more leaders, especially at the state level. If the BJP does well in Karnataka, after brushing aside many old leaders with independent political strength, expect a similar strategy in other states. In terms of the relative positions of the Congress and the BJP and the internal power structure of the latter, the Karnataka elections will provide insights into the future of the political relationship in India, between the local and the national.

Narender Pani is professor and dean, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

The views expressed are personal.

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