regular-article-logo Thursday, 21 September 2023

Congress's win in Karnataka Assembly elections: A new tomorrow or yesterday once more

Verdicts and victories can be fickle things, especially in era of marauding power-mongers adept at smash and-grab tactics and unembarrassed about employing them

Sankarshan Thakur New Delhi Published 14.05.23, 04:11 AM
(Clockwise) Congress supporters in Guwahati celebrate the party’s victory in the Karnataka elections on Saturday; Hyderabad; Nagpur; Bikaner

(Clockwise) Congress supporters in Guwahati celebrate the party’s victory in the Karnataka elections on Saturday; Hyderabad; Nagpur; Bikaner PTI picture

The unequivocal verdict for change in Karnataka could be about tomorrow; it could well also be about yesterday once more.

There’s a vast constituency that would hope, even expect, that the unseating of the BJP turns into an expanding trend in the run-up to 2024. It will be prudent to temper such hope and expectation with the prospect of contrary possibilities.


Recall the eve of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress scored a stunning hat-trick, wresting Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, all heartland states. But it wasn’t long before the euphoria soured and then expired; months later, in the summer of 2019, Narendra Modi scored an even bigger Lok Sabha victory than he had in 2014.

Ahead of the last general election and in the years since, verdicts and elected governments have been brazenly subverted or stolen. By the Modi establishment whose avowed ambition is one-party suzerainty, and on occasion by Opposition parties too — Bihar, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka itself, all have played stage to cynical acts of hijacking the popular vote and twisting it out of recognition.

Verdicts and victories can be fickle things, especially in the era of marauding power-mongers adept at smash-and-grab tactics and unembarrassed about employing them. “Operation Kamal” — a set of amoral and illicit manoeuvres to achieve undemocratic access to power — is enshrined in our political lexicon now.

A minister in the outgoing BJP government came from no hesitation in announcing that should his party lose, it will put into effect an “operation” or a “plan B” to keep its grip on power. The Congress’s numerical cushion insulates it from immediate moneybag manipulation, but as Maharashtra and Karnataka (and Bihar in 2017) have amply demonstrated, the predator can be a patient beast.

There also lurks in the Karnataka verdict the peril of over-reading its meaning and message. Doubtless, Karnataka has rebuffed the bigoted and divisive BJP discourse; it has refused to be swayed by the hijab-halal bluster; it has rubbished the threat that there will be communal violence should the BJP lose; it has rejected the double-engine gambit because it failed to deliver on essentials. The electorate, by and large, judged the double-engine dispensation worthy of being thrown out; it rewarded the Congress in fulsome measure with the responsibility of effecting correction.

In doing so, the electorate probably invested in a party whose campaign stood mindfully clear of the shrill sectarian discourse of the BJP and spoke to the “bread and butter” issues of the populace. It is too early to reach that conclusion yet, but perhaps the verdict also echoes the footprint of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, which coursed through a slice of Karnataka.

That said, it would be wrong to assume that the drubbing of divisive rhetoric at the hustings represents a radical change of heart. Electoral verdicts seldom represent erasure or rewriting of emotion or ideology. It is pertinent that despite its numerical deficit in the new Karnataka Assembly, the BJP has retained its 36 per cent vote-share. Two years ago, Mamata Banerjee defied pundits to swamp her opponents in Bengal; that still left the BJP with 38 per cent of the popular vote-share. The BJP has lost Karnataka, the votaries of what it represents are going nowhere.

Few can credibly argue tonight that Prime Minister Modi’s vote-catcher charisma is beyond question. Nearly 50 big rallies, several choreographed roadshows, the most vociferously cried out battlecry, the most unseemly resorts to trigger community divides, and yet his party has floundered. But again, it is necessary to remember this is not the first time the fabled “Modi magic” has flickered and flopped. It happened in Bihar in 2015, it happened in Bengal in 2021, it happened in Himachal last year, it happened in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018. Come the Lok Sabha election, Modi seemed able to blunt, or reverse, the provincial setbacks the BJP suffered.

Those northern heartland states will go to the polls again later this year, almost the preparatory lap to 2024. That will be an occasion to assess the potency and longevity of the booster shot administered on Saturday to the Congress, and to the wider opposition to the Modi-Sangh worldview which thrives on fractures. Perhaps the outcomes will offer some sense of whether Karnataka’s message is robustly about tomorrow or dissipates into another preface to yesterday once more.

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