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'Whatever happens in Karnataka, Modi is on a slippery downhill road'

May 10, 2018 08:52 IST

'For short-term gain, the BJP makes extraordinary promises, they take extraordinary decisions, but in the long term it is going to impact both them and the country.'

Prime Minister Narendra D Modi being at a rally in Bengaluru. Photograph: Shailendra Bhojak/PTI Photo
IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi being at a rally in Bengaluru. Photograph: Shailendra Bhojak/PTI Photo

"The Modi wave has completely collapsed" in Karnataka, Krishna Prasad, the well-known journalist and Outlook magazine's former editor-in-chief, asserted in an eloquent interview with Rediff.com's Utkarsh Mishra.

Part 2 of a MUST READ interview:

How would the presence of the Reddy brothers in the BJP's candidate list affect its chances? Could it be the Achilles' heel for Modi?

This is only a surprise for people who think that the BJP is a set of angels descended from heaven. I do not have that illusion. This will only surprise people who thought that Narendra Modi is going to 'clean up India'.

We all know the genesis of the BJP in Karnataka which was through an extremely dubious method of buying up MLAs, which the Reddy brothers enabled to happen.

It was called 'Operation Lotus'. And we also know all the corporate leaders and business houses which back Modi.

So this is not a surprise at all. Will it be the Achilles' heel for Narendra Modi? Well, I believe Modi's descent began more than a year ago. And it will go on till the 2019 elections.

Whatever happens in Karnataka, Modi is on a slippery downhill road.

So will it be his Achilles' heel, maybe, but certainly Modi will once again be accused of harbouring the Reddy brothers. Amit Shah will be accused of giving them room.

But the BJP needs money to run this election (campaign). This election is going to cost them nearly Rs 2,000 crore to Rs 2,500 crore (Rs 20 billion to Rs 25 billion). And the Reddy brothers do have some influence.

Also, let's not run away from this fact that the BJP is not alone in this game. The Congress has also accommodated very dubious people. The JD-S (Janata Dal-Secular) always accommodates dubious people.

So in Karnataka, corruption is less of an issue with each passing year.

Of course there will be a perception problem for Modi at the national level. We must keep in mind that whatever the BJP does in Karnataka will have a national impact.

For example, if they accommodate the Reddy brothers, they'll be accused of backing corruption; if Yogi Adityanath says (some) absolutely bad things during campaigning, they will be accused of cultural polarisation, etc.

Whatever they do for their benefit here, will impact them nationally.

Look at the Cauvery issue, for instance.

The BJP thinks it has done a smart thing by not setting up the Cauvery Management Board -- as directed by the Supreme Court -- because it will appeal to the Karnataka voters. But what it does not realise that it will have a very negative impact in Tamil Nadu.

They have also not taken a decision on the Mahadayi river water issue in Karnataka.

What is turning out to be the problem for the BJP is that for short-term gain, they make extraordinary promises, they take extraordinary decisions, but in the long term it is going to impact both them and the country.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah
'We should not forget that Siddaramaiah was the first Congress chief minister to be elected democratically.'
'In 2013 after the elections, he was not declared chief minister directly, as it usually happens. But he won in a secret ballot held within the Congress legislature party.'
'So he has got very strong credentials for what he has become,' Krishna Prasad points out.

Did Siddaramaiah opt for a second seat on the basis of caste equations? Was he afraid that the Vokkaligas would not vote for him in Chamundeshwari?

There can be as many explanations as you want, but the fact is Siddaramaiah had chosen the Chamundeshwari seat in Mysore as he vacated his earlier seat of Varuna for his son. So he was hit by a 'sonstroke'.

Most politicians go through this phase at the fag end of their career.

After Siddaramaiah lost his eldest son, who died in 2016, he decided to push his other son into the picture and that's why he decided to create room for him in his previous constituency.

His new constituency Chamundeshwari is supposed to be heavily Vokkaliga dominated and he was definitely under some pressure because the BJP and JD-S have joined hands to defeat him.

And it is also quite possible that some people within the Congress would want Siddaramaiah defeated so that he doesn't get a second term.

So I think he chose to fight from one more constituency, Badami, because he wants to play it safe. He probably wants to use the somewhat substantial Kuruba electorate in Badami to his benefit.

I wish we had asked similar questions when Narendra Modi decided to contest from Varanasi and Vadodara (in 2014). I remember (then prime minister P V) Narasimha Rao contesting from three constituencies. Many leaders have contested elections from multiple platforms.

As we speak, (former CM H D) Kumaraswamy himself is contesting from two neighbouring constituencies.

At least Siddaramaiah can claim that he's trying to be a pan-Karnataka leader by standing from one seat each in the south and in the north.

But Kumaraswamy is standing from two constituencies next to each other. In fact Siddaramaiah's opponent in Badami B Sriramulu, who is part of the extend family of the Reddy brothers, is himself fighting from one more constituency.

So it is not an uncommon practice, though we must question it because at the end we only will have to pay for the by-election. But it is part of the political stratagem.

Besides, the Congress high command would not want Siddaramaiah to lose.

So like the BJP, are there factions in the Congress which want to take Siddaramaiah down?

See, Siddaramaiah has always been seen as an outsider in the Congress. He came from the JD-S only a few years ago.

We should not forget that Siddaramaiah was the first Congress chief minister to be elected democratically (by the MLAs after the election).

In 2013 after the elections, he was not declared chief minister directly, as it usually happens. But he won in a secret ballot held within the Congress legislature party.

So he has got very strong credentials for what he has become. He has become a strong additional force.

I think that is because he draws his strength from being democratically elected, one.

Two, what he has done is that he has steadily, over the last five years, removed all traces of opposition to him (within the party).

For example (former Union minister) S M Krishna, who belongs to the Vokkaliga community, had to leave the party.

V Srinivasa Prasad, a long-term Congress MP and MLA, had to leave the party.

A whole lot of people left the party because they kind of felt claustrophobic under Siddaramaiah.

But within the Congress there are Vokkaligas now who think they deserve a shot.

Like D K Shivakumar, who is a powerful minister, a powerful businessman, and a very effective politician, who has been very close to 10 Janpath (fomer Congress president Sonia Gandhi's home) for a very long time.

If you remember during the Gujarat Rajya Sabha elections last year, the Congress MLAs had to be shifted from Gujarat.

They were shifted to Bengaluru and they were kept in the safe custody of D K Shivakumar, who took them to a resort. And that resulted in a set of income tax raids on him.

Shivakumar had played a similar role (to save the) Vilasrao Deshmukh (government in Maharashtra) earlier on.

So what you'll find is that there will be people like Shivaumar who feel they have worked hard enough for the party, contributed enough to the party for them to be kept in the reckoning.

Similarly, there is a feeling among Dalits that they have not been given their due.

For example, Karnataka Congress president G Parameshwara Rao; he always wanted to be the deputy chief minister, but he lost the 2013 elections.

Or people like Mallikarjun Kharge, who is also a Dalit, would like to be given a chance and they too have their factions.

In fact, the candidature of Siddaramaiah from the second seat was held up because people like Kharge opposed it.

So there is a Vokkaliga faction, there's a Dalit faction and so on within the Congress.

But this is what you expect to be present in all political parties.

To the credit of Siddaramaiah, he has been able to stave off these kind of traps for five years. He is the first chief minister in 40 years to complete the full five-year term.

That's good enough for an outsider in a party. And I think all of these factors are visible and that's where I am.

IMAGE: Young BJP supporters at Prime Minister Narendra D Modi's rally in Bengaluru. Photograph: Shailendra Bhokak/PTI Photo

A situation might arise where the Congress needs support from the JD-S to form a government. In such a situation, the JD-S may demand that Siddaramaiah should not be the chief minister.
Who do you see heading such a government?

Well, that's a lot of ifs. We don't know yet.

The only pollster, C-Fore, who got both 2008 and 2013 elections correctly, predicts a clear Congress victory in 2018 too. But let us assume it is wrong, we don't know how many seats the BJP, or the Congress or the JD-S will get.

However, there are enough indications that there is a secret understanding between the JD-S and the BJP.

As Rahul Gandhi said, the JD-S is a 'B team' of the Sangh Parivar. He said the 'S' in the JD-S stands for the Sangh Parivar.

I know for a fact that there are many constituencies where the BJP wants to help the JD-S, it has not put up its number one candidate.

The BJP has a list of candidates in order of preference, and I know at least three constituencies where the BJP has chosen the third-place candidate to contest, including in Chamundeshwari, where the BJP wants to help the JD-S candidate to defeat Siddaramaiah.

So will the JD-S go with the Congress or the BJP is the second question. The first question is, will there be a hung assembly?

But in case of a hung assembly, there are enough indications that the JD-S will go with the BJP.

Most importantly, two extremely unreliable political parties -- Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party and Asaduddin Owaisi's All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen -- have tied up with the JD-S.

All these three parties have a record of doing things that help the BJP in elections.

In the Gujarat assembly election, the Congress lost about 10 seats by a margin of about 300 to 2,000 votes because parties like the BSP and the NCP (the Nationalist Congress Party) had put up candidates.

So it is possible that Mayawati might be playing a BJP game in Karnataka, which means cutting into the Congress vote.

Similarly, Owaisi has always done the strangest things to help the BJP get out of a tough situation. Again, he has tied up with the JD-S in Karnataka.

So there's enough indication that the BJP has backing a certain kind of politics of the JD-S. It has also got its own parties to support the JD-S.

It has also, I'm told reliably, been behind the setting up of a political party called MEP (All India Mahila Empowerment Party) in Karnataka. So there are enough indications that the JD-S will go with the BJP.

However, I saw an interview with H D Deve Gowda in which he said there is no way Kumaraswamy is going to repeat his mistake (of joining hands with the BJP). He says Kumaraswamy has realised his mistake and he will never do it again.

But that is all for public consumption. Deve Gowda is a well-known opportunist. So I will not be surprised if the JD-S goes with the BJP.

If on the other hand, the JD-S decides to go with the Congress, you can be 100 per cent sure that they will not accept Siddaramaiah as the chief minister.

In such a scenario the JD-S will insist that the chief ministership should either be given to Kumaraswamy -- depending on how many seats the JD-S wins -- or to some other face from the Congress, maybe some Dalit leader.

The JD-S is now known to be extremely Dalit friendly, so it may be that this time they back the candidature of a Parameshwara Rao, or may be even D K Shivakumar.

I am told very reliably that Shivakumar is getting very close to Kumaraswamy, for whatever reason. They are otherwise very strong rivals; they belong to the same community, they want the same constituency, they own the same kind of business, and they've always been at daggers drawn.

But I'm told that both of them have come close to each other. So it is possible Shivakumar props up if a Vokkaliga were to become chief minister in a Congress-JD-S coalition.

So I think there are many possibilities and it is all too early to speculate upon. This will only become clear after May 15 (the day of counting).

Congress President Rahul Gandhi addresses a rally in Karnataka
'Rahul Gandhi has made many trips to Karnataka just like Modi and Shah, but what I hear from the ground, there seems to be greater response to his speeches and rallies as compared to Modi, Shah or Adityanath; because Siddaramaiah was given his due place in those rallies.'
'Also, Rahul seems more humane in the rallies and speeches he has made.'
'He goes and takes selfies, he meets people, he shakes hands, he eats and drinks on the roadside.'
'So he is being seen to be more personal, more humane.'

And how does Rahul Gandhi figure in all this? Should he not over-assert himself and let Siddaramaiah hold the reins of the campaign?

That certainly is the case. There is no question that Siddaramaiah runs the campaign in Karnataka.

The strange thing about this election is that the BJP looks more like the Congress of the past and the Congress looks more like the BJP of the past.

So while the Congress is having an extremely localised leadership, the BJP has got an extremely centralised one.

Everything in the BJP now depends on the high command.

On the other hand, Siddarmaiah has been able to take decisions on his own. So I don't think Rahul Gandhi is playing the same role as Narendra D Modi and Amit A Shah in this election.

At the same time, you should look at the advertisements and you will see that Rahul Gandhi is seen with the chief minister and the state Congress president, on the other hand you will never see Yeddyurappa, Shah and Modi together in an advertisement.

So it seems to me that the Congress campaign looks more unified and localised than the BJP so far.

Rahul Gandhi has made many trips to Karnataka just like Modi and Shah, but what I hear from the ground from different places, there seems to be greater response to his speeches and rallies as compared to Modi, Shah or Adityanath; because Siddaramaiah was given his due place in those rallies.

Also, Rahul seems more humane in the rallies and speeches he has made.

He goes and takes selfies, he meets people, he shakes hands, he eats and drinks on the roadside. So he is being seen to be more personal, more humane.

In the case of Shah, one academic was telling me that his rallies and speeches looked very "cold and clinical". And if you know Shah, what it (cold and clinical) means is obvious.

So Rahul has invested a lot in this campaign, but he has also kept a distance when required and given Siddaramaiah space.

At least from what I am hearing, about 120 to 130 candidates of the Congress out of 223, are actually Siddaramaiah's choices.

So I think there is enough to show that Rahul has played a very interesting role so far.

Of course, his social media and media management is done from Delhi or people from Delhi who have come to Bengaluru. But that goes for both parties.

On the whole, I think, Rahul has played a very interesting role, like he did in Gujarat.

Utkarsh Mishra / Rediff.com