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'It's been a dream story'
Sheela Bhatt

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May 26, 2008
Arun Jaitley, like a stockbroker, had discounted the profit much before the Karnataka election results were announced. He says he expected a few more seats than the 110 the Bharatiya Janata Party won in the state. As a party strategist, Jaitley has arrived with Sunday's triumph.

His success in other state assembly elections could be branded a fluke or being plain lucky but Sunday's victory in Karnataka puts him in a different league within his party.

When Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt met him on the day of the big victory, he was arguing on a television channel known for its anti-BJP bias. Then, he rushed to the India International Centre to meet old buddy Virendra Kapoor and have tea and apple pie and jokes related to the IPL.

Jaitley remains grounded in success. And that makes him a different politician in New Delhi. He spoke to about what brought his party's dream win in Karnataka.

What was your strategy to win the Karnataka election?

We took a few steps before the election. The party should be clear about the leader. We selected B S Yeddyurappa. He has a huge record of struggle in Karnataka. There was a time when he was the only BJP MLA in Karnataka.

He has struggled for the party. He has toured the length and breadth of the state. He comes from a background where his social base is quite strong. In fact, his presence has added value for the BJP in a large part of Karnataka.

You will also recall that there were certain problems in the organisation. But I found that Ananth Kumar's attitude in the election was extremely constructive. Both Ananth Kumar and Yeddyurappa unanimously decided 224 candidates for the party along with other leaders.

We had no problems during the campaign, we had some problems initially. Broadly, my strategy was to give a free hold to the candidates in the state and inject the central leadership. We had (BJP prime ministerial candidate L K) Advaniji, (Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra) Modi, Sushmaji (Swaraj), (BJP President) Rajnath Singh and (former BJP president M) Venkaiah Naidu who addressed almost 200 public meetings in the state. Compare that to the one meeting of Dr Manmohan Singh [Images], six of Mrs Sonia Gandhi [Images] and a few hours of Rahul Gandhi [Images]. I thought the Congress campaign was a little lukewarm.

Having done this we had to analyse the issues of the elections and pitch for it. Our speeches, campaign, press conferences, communication -- all had a certain kind of projection.

We were betrayed by the JD-S (Janata Dal-Secular) but the betrayal itself was not enough to win the election. Saying that there is politics of opportunism is not enough but it had a direct relationship with a kind of political stability that is required in the state.

The issue of the betrayal of Yeddyurappa's short-lived government, instability and the politics of opportunism of the Congress and JD-S were interlinked. The Congress was a loser in the last election but still they manipulated to form the government. After projecting the Congress's opportunism, the second thing we did was to highlight the plight of the farmers.

Yeddyurappa has a huge following amongst farmers. In urban areas, life has become terrible. Price rise, the urban chaos of Bangalore, the higher cost of education, high interest rate for housing, costly homes and traffic nightmares in Bangalore are the issues we focused on.

The central issues were price rise, the farmer's plight and the issue related to the soft approach to terrorism. Having done this we articulated these through our campaign, our communication was focused. Compare it with the Congress campaign -- they had no leader of the state. It was a faceless campaign. Their issues were half-hearted. Their central leadership and their campaigners were little lukewarm about the campaign.

We started gaining momentum. This momentum was capable of taking us to 120 seats. On the coastal belt we lost some seats due to one problem but by and large these results were expected. We could have got a handful of seats more.

How did you manage the caste divide of the Lingayats and Vokkaligas?

I don't think it is question of managing the divide. The Congress was identifying us as the Lingayat party. That was consolidating our social base. At the same time, the party was very clear that it needed to be inclusive in its social base, so our candidates came from all communities.

Like, in Bangalore city, I had six Vokkaligas and only two Lingayats. I had four Reddys and two Kammas, as a result I had a strong social composition. We had powerful Lingayat candidates in South Karnataka. If you see our poster campaign and advertisements, we always had Yeddyurappa, Ananth Kumar and Sadanand Gowda. It really meant a Lingayat, a Brahmin and a Vokkaliga.

When you park yourself in a state capital, what do you do there?

There are different departments in the election we have to manage. There is a media cell, there is a cell that deals with candidates, a department for publicity, another cell deals with psephology and we have a cell for focussing on issues.

I spend my mornings taking daily reports and giving directions to them. In the evening I go for campaigning and in the night, meet people who have returned from different places and learn about how people are reacting to the campaigns.

What is the X factor that works in your strategy?

There is no X factor. There is logic to every election. I allow logic to take our cause rather than allow semantics to work.

You belong to what the southern people call a Hindi party. You have been successful in a state where a section of the population is fanatic about the language. To some, Kannada has a godly status. How did you carve a victory here?

The evolution of the BJP in Karnataka is a script in itself. From one seat to a majority in the assembly in 20 years is a dream story.

Advaniji has said that the Karnataka victory is a turning point. Can you elaborate?

I think it's a turning point because it's a chain of elections being lost by the Congress. While it's a chain of elections that have been won by us. As a result of which it puts us as the frontrunner for the Lok Sabha poll. That's why this election is a turning point.

The Congress argues that this election was fought on local issues and it will not have any national impact.

I think they should know that price rise was one of the major issues of this election.

Photograph: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

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