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Bangalore joins parivar - BJP breaks South barrier, extends winning streak - Dozen-defeat bad omen for Cong before LS polls

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By MANINI CHATTERJEE in Delhi
  • Published 26.05.08
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New Delhi, May 25: The BJP stormed across the Vindhyas today, winning 110 seats in the 224-member Karnataka Assembly to enable it to form the first ever government of its own in southern India and providing a huge morale booster to the party ahead of four crucial state elections this winter and the Lok Sabha polls less than a year away.

The BJP, which has been nurturing Karnataka as its “gateway to the South” for nearly two decades, reached tantalisingly close to the half-way mark but will need the support of Independents to form a stable government.

Falling just short of an absolute majority — the BJP is three shy of the mark of 113 — did not dampen the enthusiasm of party leaders who regarded the victory as sweet revenge for the manner in which H.D. Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) had betrayed B.S. Yeddyurappa — set to be the next chief minister — last November.

But more than the humbling of Gowda, the BJP national leadership rejoiced in the drubbing inflicted on its national rival, the Congress, which suffered its twelfth defeat since its unexpected ascension to power in 2004.

For the Congress, which managed to win a few more seats than its dismal tally of 65 in 2004, the news from Karnataka came as a severe blow and seemed to confirm that the party was fast losing its match-winning capacity regardless of pitch conditions. Barring Goa, Haryana, Assam, Maharashtra and the smaller Manipur and Puducherry, the Congress has lost every Assembly election it has fought since 2004.

In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the party blamed its terminal decline on the rise of “caste-based” parties; in Gujarat on “Hindutva”; in Punjab, Uttarakhand and Himachal on “anti-incumbency”; in Kerala, Bengal and Tripura on the Left’s superior organisation and so on.

The latest rout in Karnataka, being attributed to a “division in the secular vote”, is particularly distressing to India’s Grand Old Party because the state was for long a Congress bastion. The party has always had deep roots in rural Karnataka and as many as six CWC members hail from the state.

Both Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi fought and won Lok Sabha seats from Karnataka — Mrs Gandhi announcing her post-Emergency comeback trail from Chikmagalur and Sonia establishing her national reach by winning Bellary back in 1999.

Although Congress managers today were quick to blame the party’s poor showing in Karnataka on the state leadership — both S.M. Krishna and Veerappa Moily accepted responsibility — party insiders privately concede the rot goes much deeper and higher.

Despite having a full time president who chose to head the party rather than the government, the Congress organisation has failed to gear itself up in state after state and the party high command has refused to adapt to the increasing “regionalisation” of politics witnessed in India in recent decades, Congress leaders admit.

In Karnataka, the Congress did not project a future chief minister and instead unleashed a host of leaders who often undercut one another rather than organise a cohesive campaign.

Party leaders insist that it is not the “Congress style” to prop up a chief minister candidate before the results are out and it is for the elected MLAs to choose their leader. Since the “high command” usually anoints the leader in case of victory, this “democratic” tradition has ceased to cut much ice with the electorate who look for a clear leader in what are becoming presidential-style elections — unlike the past when the Congress received votes in the name of a supreme national leader a la Indira Gandhi.

The Karnataka experience, coming within six months of the Gujarat verdict, has implications that go well beyond the state.

For the BJP, which took a long time to come to terms with the 2004 defeat, the recent string of victories is a shot in the arm that will help the party galvanise itself in the battle for Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi — in all of which they face a straight contest with the Congress.

The Karnataka result also underlines the clever combination of tactics that the BJP has mastered as part of its growth strategy. The party has used its “ideological distinctiveness” to cater to its core constituency but has also used the “development” plank to expand beyond the core.

Of much greater significance has been the party’s ability to strike alliances with regional parties to make a breakthrough in areas outside its traditional strongholds.

In Karnataka, the BJP tied up first with Ramakrishna Hegde in 1998 and 1999, then with S. Bangarappa in 2004 and later with the Janata Dal (Secular) — each alliance helping the BJP make inroads into different parts of the state till it came within a striking distance of a majority of its own.

The BJP had similarly “piggy-backed” on the Janata Dal in Rajasthan and Gujarat in the early 1990s, and is trying out the same experiment in Bihar today.

In comparison, the Congress strategy is in a shambles. Organisational lethargy, factional fighting, and over-dependence on a somnolent high command have combined to make the Congress look like a party of the past than one with a future.

The immediate impact of the Karnataka results could be felt on the future of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Powerful sections in the government feel that the general elections should be advanced to November-December this year because a good monsoon could bring down the inflation rate and offer a better chance to the UPA than if the polls were held on schedule in the summer of 2009.

That apart, buoyed by the Bengal panchayat results, the pro-nuclear deal lobby also feels the government should go ahead with the next steps in operationalising the deal even if the Left chooses to withdraw support. The Manmohan Singh government could then go to the people with a concrete achievement in hand, they argue.

But there are equally strong voices within the party against any “adventurism” at this late stage and the Karnataka debacle may end up reinforcing the “cautious” approach to political decision-making that has been the hallmark of the Congress under Sonia.