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'Congress has to sort out Shivakumar-Siddaramaiah tensions'

May 16, 2023 12:43 IST
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'So far, the problem has been contained, but trouble may emerge.'

IMAGE: Karnataka Congress chief D K Shivakumar along with former chief minister Siddaramaiah during their visit to the Sri Chamundeshwari temple in Mysuru on May 9, 2023, a day before Karnataka voted in the assembly elections. Photograph: ANI Photo

"Inflation was far less important than the wretched performance of the BJP's state government," James Manor, professor emeritus at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, who has studied Karnataka politics for half a century, tells's Nikhil Lakshman in an e-mail interview.


Sir, what would be your main takeaways from the Karnataka election results?
An academic in Mysuru we spoke to on Saturday afternoon said the battle for Karnataka was lost in the kitchen.
Inflation. he felt, trumped all the BJP's different messages of Hindutva.
Do you believe Hindutva -- the versions offered by the prime minister, the home minister, the BJP president... -- didn't cut dice with an electorate more concerned with bread and butter issues, and the notion that Mr Bommai's government -- as you pointed out in an interview -- had performed 'abysmally'.

Inflation was far less important than the wretched performance of the BJP's state government.

A BJP leader was caught on tape saying that there was no functioning government! There were also several other important factors, which I mention below.

Do you believe the BJP would have performed better had local leaders defined the electoral messaging and rhetoric, determined who the candidates would be instead of all this being in the hands of the folks in Delhi?
Do you think the early determinants in the lead-up to the election -- the hijab campaign, the clashes in coastal Karnataka -- and things like Bajrang Bali during the BJP rallies, which seem to been crafted by the party strategists in New Delhi may have played well in North India, but were clearly out of sync with current sentiments in Karnataka?

The radically over-centralised BJP, with national leaders making all the key decisions and not listening to state-level BJP leaders has been a problem in Karnataka since 2014, and it damaged the party this time.

IMAGE: Narendra D Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party's star campaigner during the last election rally for BJP candidates ahead of the Karnataka assembly elections in Bengaluru, May 7, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

Hard-line Hindutva has never found traction in the state, apart from the small and socially eccentric coast belt and a few cities.

The central BJP leaders were determined to push it hard, and it failed.

Why do you think the BJP retained Bengaluru and Coastal Karnataka?
Both areas have a population relatively better educated and more prosperous than the rest of the state, so does Mr Modi's appeal and the BJP's Hindutva appeal to this demographic more than it would to rural voters in areas like Old Mysuru or Hyderabad Karnataka?
Can the BJP count on Mr Modi's appeal to extend to the communities that voted for the Congress this election at next year's general election?
Do you expect the results of the Lok Sabha election to be different from the results of the assembly election?

Hindutva has long had some appeal in Bangalore and on the coast.

But to win elections, rural voters who outnumber people in those places must be persuaded.

The BJP largely failed in that necessary task, as some state-level leaders knew and warned that it would.

The result of the 2024 Lok Sabha election may be very different, however, because state-level issues will count for much less.

Is this electoral debacle an irreversible moment in the BJP's history in Karnataka?
Does it slow down the BJP's momentum to make inroads in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh?
Could the BJP wait a while and try and make inroads into the current Congress legislature party just as they did in 2019 in Karnataka and in Madhya Pradesh?
Or do the Congress numbers make it difficult for the BJP to attempt another 'Operation Kamala'?

This election will not finish the BJP in the state over the longer term.

But if its national leaders react by imposing poor leaders, it could do lasting damage.

This result will make it more difficult for the BJP across the South, but it never had hugely promising chances in the Telugu areas.

The impressive size of the Congress total in the Karnataka assembly will make it nearly impossible for the BJP to poach defectors and take power.

They will still try, as they did -- even after their embarrassing defeat in West Bengal.

They seem unable to resist the temptation. But it is unlikely to work at all well here.

With Mr Yediyurappa in sunset mode, does the BJP have any leader with statewide appeal?
B L Santosh and Pralhad Joshi are ambitious men, but do they have Mr Yediyurappa's cachet to lead the party to victory in the next election?
The failed Bommai experiment has clearly revealed that the party's piggy bank of electable leaders is empty.
Will Modi-Shah again pick one of its marionettes to lead the party and hope that the prime minister's electoral appeal will erase all the disadvantages, like it has done in Gujarat?

The BJP has no leader with the appeal of Mr Yediyurappa.

There were many things wrong with his style of functioning, but he had broad popular appeal.

If BJP national leaders choose Mr Santhosh, whose Hindutva campaign failed, they will remain weak.

But the party's alternatives to him are not promising either.

IMAGE: Congress supporters in Bengaluru, May 13, 2023, celebrate the party's victory in the Karnataka assembly elections. Photograph: ANI Photo

And what of the Congress? Can Mr Kharge strike a deal with Mr Siddaramaiah and Mr Shivakumar so that the supporters of either are not alienated, and undermine the next government?
What challenges await the Congress government?
Do you think the party can deliver on its promises? Ensure a corruption-free -- or a minimal corruption -- government?
Could the BJP embarrass the Congress by sending central agencies to go after Mr Shivakumar if he is either the next chief minister or an important minister?

The central government will send investigative agencies to harass Mr Shivakumar -- as they have done in the recent past -- and other Congress leaders.

But this is unlikely to be very effective.

One real worry for the Congress is sorting out the potential tension between Mr Shivakumar and Mr Siddaramaiah -- and their groups of supporters.

So far, the problem has been contained, but trouble may emerge.

IMAGE: Karnataka Congress President D K Shivakumar with party leaders Randeep Surjewala, Siddaramaiah and others celebrates a day ahead of his 62nd birthday after the Congress Legislature Party meeting in Bengaluru, May 14, 2023. Photograph: @INCKarnataka/Twitter

What does the Congress victory in Karnataka mean for Elections 2024?

The outlook for the 2024 national election is unclear. This result may inspire more efforts nationally for opposition unity.

That unity may only fully emerge AFTER the votes are counted in 2024 -- if the BJP loses ground in Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, Himachal, Maharashtra, central India and the South.

It is possible that even an imperfectly united Opposition may deny the BJP a majority.

And THEN they might unite to take power in New Delhi.

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