The limits of the Modi magic, the accountability of a soft chief minister and the dangers of polarisation: 10 lessons from Karnataka

TeaThe not-so-extraordinary data point of the Karnataka verdict is that the Congress has a clear majority and the BJP has lost its only strength in the south. Instead, it is the fact that the BJP has been reduced to less than half of the Congress. Chew on that number again. Firing on two engines in the state and at the Centre, the all-powerful BJP fell to less than half of the Congress.

It leaves many lessons and takeaways. Let us list here the 10 most important:

◆If you run a really bad state government, nothing can rescue you. Voters will then shun the allure of your national leaders, nationalism, polarization, religion and of course a partisan news media, no matter how much it pleases you.

Why has Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intense, personal campaign not worked? Is this showing a decline in his popularity? hold your horses. Karnataka reminds us again that the voter differentiates between when Modi himself is on the ticket and when he seeks votes for others. He may still be able to elect a power pole for the Lok Sabha. That’s why he wins Gujarat. There he asks for votes for himself. Not in other states.

◆ This shows how voters in a state judge the performance of your local government. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP captured 170 of the 224 assembly constituencies. The Congress and JD(S) won only 47 (36 Congress, 11 JD(S)), despite their pre-poll alliance. Today’s reversal, with no alliance between the Congress and the JD(S) reaching nearly 170, shows that the Indian electorate is too smart to put their emotions above rational expectations.

◆ In its 10th year in power, the Modi-Shah BJP has shown a gross inadequacy in the assembly to replicate its Lok Sabha success. They have suffered successive losses in states, or settled for alliances, accepting much more land than they wanted. As long as Nitish’s vehicle is tied to his engine, look at Maharashtra, Haryana and Bihar.

We need to do a deep analysis of the states that he has decisively won on his own. For example Uttar Pradesh and Assam. In both, a local leader has emerged, and each is quite capable of winning elections on its own. Both are pre-eminent campaign leaders in their states. He does not follow the script of the BJP high command. We had explained about Gujarat earlier. Uttarakhand, along with some northeastern states, is an exception, but very small in the big picture.

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◆ The Modi-Shah BJP model of appointing a lightweight Chief Minister from New Delhi was already over. Karnataka is the harshest reminder of how impractical this is. Except for Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana, who is running for his second term – even after giving half his government to Dushyant Chautala – each of these high command choices has resulted in a disaster. One, Devendra Fadnavis has been reduced to the post of Deputy Chief Minister. Basavaraj Bommai is the worst right now. ‘High commandist’ parties usually hate their own strong state leaders. As BJP did with Yeddyurappa. It has destroyed it in two elections, 2013 and 2023.

◆The model of governance of states from Delhi has completely broken down. Will this BJP have the heart to encourage more Yogis and Himantas to rise in the States? If so, it would make it clear that now there will be early elections in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Instead of weakening the stature of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the party will start rebuilding it. This will require a fundamental change in its style, mood and strategy. Does this BJP have the guts to accept the perils of being a one leader party?

◆ You cannot say that polarization does not work. Or, the BJP is unable to maintain its vote share despite its grossly inefficient governance. But the reverse argument also works. A divisive appeal excites your loyalists and potentially alienates those in the middle, who in the end make up the small percentage of voters who matter. Disappointed with the JD-S in this matter, many people preferred the Congress instead. The figures so far tell us that BJP’s vote share is mostly intact, Congress’s vote share has increased by 5 percentage points and JD-S’s has declined by just over 5 percentage points. It looks like a direct transfer. We might venture to say that when these voters sought an alternative, they did not want a divisive alternative. Hence polarization is a double edged sword. It may also drive away enough Hindu voters to defeat you in a tight election.

◆ This election is expected to put an end to the phenomenon of the Gowda family who are the cynical, ideology-free, power-hungry JD(S). In the 25 years beginning in 1996 when VC HD Deve Gowda became prime minister, the party often took advantage of its unprincipled number three position to usurp undeserved power. That business is over now. The Gowda dynasty is terminal and in rapid decline. It is good for India, and even better for Karnataka.

The lesson for the Congress is the same for the BJP. That if you have strong state leaders like Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar, you can win despite the odds. Gandhi family’s ability to win states for you is much less than that of Modi. But it is unlikely that it will be accepted. If you have been watching Congress spokespersons all day giving credit of victory to Rahul Gandhi, then no.

◆ And finally, the evidence suggests that Tipu Sultan does not matter in 21st century India. He may have been a good or a bad man two centuries ago. Abusing him or loving him will no longer pay for my child’s education, get me a job, or put water in my tap. Leave that to the historians and, you know what, your warriors are in for the fake outrage on TV channels and in the living rooms of your New Lutyens.

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