Opinion: 7 Factors Behind The BJP's Karnataka Loss

Narendra Modi has lost in Karnataka - I wonder if we can say this now when the election results are out, and the Congress has won. I am sure that critics of the Congress will weave a narrative that the party won despite Rahul Gandhi, and that credit must be given to the local leaders of the state. These spinmeisters are the same who, when the BJP wins, love to say that Modi magic worked, but heap blame on local leaders when the party loses.

In my last column, I wrote that in the Karnataka election, it will be Modi who will win or lose as he took on the mantle of a guardian angel. Now I have no hesitation in saying that Modi should take the responsibility for defeat in the state and there are substantial reasons for that.

As results show, seven factors played against the BJP in these elections.

One, the marginalisation of BS Yediyurappa cost the BJP. Yediyurappa built the party from scratch. It is because of him that the powerful Lingayat community gravitated towards the BJP from the Congress after 1989. In this election, the BJP's loss in central Karnataka, the bastion of Lingayat voters, is indicative of the fact that Yediyurappa's apparent marginalisation was not taken lightly by the people of his caste. The dropping of Jagdish Shettar, a former chief minister, also added to the dissatisfaction of Lingayat voters. Shettar was a protégé of Yediyurappa, whose best efforts to plead his case failed to move the BJP. Another Lingayat leader, former Deputy Chief Minister Laxman Savadi, was also not given a ticket. The message was simple. The BJP's great gamble of inventing a New BJP in Karnataka and going beyond the Lingayat community has backfired. The decision to bench Yediyurappa was taken by Modi and if that strategy has not worked, then Modi should take the responsibility.

Two, the appointment of Basavaraj Bommai as Chief Minister proved to be disastrous for the party. Bommai will go down in Karnataka history as the most uninspiring Chief Minister. Karnataka, the economic powerhouse of the country, needed a dynamic leader to propel the state to a higher development curve. But Bommai's leadership was lackluster. After removing Yediyurappa, the BJP appointed Bommai to assuage the Lingayats but it did not work.

If the BJP was really trying to reinvent itself, it should have found a dynamic leader to inspire not only the party but also the state administration.

Three, the BJP has been raising communal topics in Karnataka for the last three years. The state is not known for religious polarisation, except in coastal Karnataka. Issues like the hijab, halal meat, love jihad, land jihad, and economic boycott of Muslims were aggressively raised by the BJP and its affiliates like Bajrang Dal. The communal cauldron was deliberately kept on the burner; perhaps the idea was to divert people's attention from price rise, corruption, and unemployment. In the last days of the campaign PM Modi aggressively invoked Bajrang Bali after the Congress in its manifesto declared that if elected it would ban the Bajrang Dal. Modi went to the extent of saying it was the Congress that had imprisoned Ram and now it would imprison Bajrang Bali. Modi began his speeches with the slogan "Jai Bajrang Bali". It was a clear violation of the Election Commission's code of conduct, but surprisingly, the poll body did not take note of it. Being Prime Minister, he should not have mixed religion with electioneering (although it failed miserably). The verdict reflects that the "Bajrang Bali" campaign did not go down well at a time when the people of Karnataka were upset with his party government's performance.

Four, Karnataka is an example of how factional politics has ruined the BJP's chances despite the "cohesive unit" myth. Several factions were working at cross purposes. The exit of Jagadish Shettar very strongly underlined this fact. He squarely blamed BL Santosh and the Brahmin lobby. In contrast, the Congress, after a long time, fought like a well-oiled machine. Throughout the campaign, the Congress was setting the agenda and the BJP was forced to react.

In DK Shivakumar, the Congress has a strong leader, who was willing to counter every move by the BJP on the same coin. Along with Shivakumar, Siddaramaiah proved to be a most charismatic crowd puller for the Congress, far more than rival Bommai. According to the NDTV-CSDS survey conducted a few weeks ago, 40% wanted Siddaramaiah as chief minister, and only 22% were willing to accept Bommai. For an incumbent Chief Minister, these figures are a disgrace.

Five, the results show that the Congress call to ban Bajrang Dal helped the party. It helped consolidate Muslim voters, especially in the old Mysuru area, where Janata Dal Secular's seats and vote share both reduced substantially.

Six, the Congress scored over its rivals in social engineering. Its focus on its old Ahinda (Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Scheduled Castes) votes proved decisive. Siddaramaiah, a chief minister candidate, is an OBC, Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress president, is a Dalit, and Shivakumar, a Vokkaligga. The OBC, Dalit and Muslim combination, along with the Vokkaligga, tilted the social arithmetic in favour of the Congress.

The BJP suffered due to chinks in its social base due to the dissatisfaction among the Lingayat voters. The clever ambiguity maintained by the Congress on its presumptive Chief Minister created the possibility that may be Shivakumar, a Vokkaligga.

Seven, Karnataka hints that the over-centralisation in the BJP may not work beyond the Vindhya and if the BJP sidelines and humiliates regional and sub-regional identities, and promotes the meta-Hindutva identity at their expense, then it might prove to be counterproductive. There is a clear indication that Hindutva has not worked. In contrast, the Congress's decentralised campaign and respect for local identity and local leaders paid them huge dividends.

In the end, it is a safe conclusion that taking voters for granted does not work, even for the most charismatic leader. A non-performing government cannot hide behind religion. People can't be fooled by religious slogans. Karnataka has given enough lessons to the BJP, and it needs to introspect if over-dependence on Modi in elections is the real weakness.

(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.