No Southern Comfort for BJP: Karnataka Polls Prove That the Deccan is Different

The BJP is now wiped out from provincial governments in all five southern states.

4 min read
Hindi Female

In 1976, at the height of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's controversial and authoritarian Emergency rule, the Congress party's significantly sycophantic president, Dev Kant Barooah, became somewhat infamous with a quote: "India is Indira, Indira is India."

Only a year later, the Indian National Congress suffered a humiliating defeat by the hotch-potch coalition that contested as a unified Janata Party, but the verdict was such that the Grand Old Party managed to retain the southern states.

At this point, someone said: If Indira is not India, at least she is South India. Another line, probably uttered by Tamil satirist Cho Ramaswamy, said the verdict seemed to make more geography than history.

Stories of those days come to mind as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party loses power in Karnataka.  


BJP-Free South India

The BJP is now wiped out from provincial governments in all five southern states, raising taunts, if not questions, on its claim about being a pan-India nationalist party. This despite Modi's last-hour blitzkrieg and a noisy, rhetoric-laden 26-km roadshow that did not work. The margin of victory for the Congress is decisive.

A throwback to the spirit of 1977 would reveal two insights. First, south and north India often think of issues in different ways, necessitating policies, promises, and leadership styles that do not fit the Modi/BJP's one-size-fits-all cocktail of Hindu assertiveness, a personality focus on a towering leader and big-ticket infrastructure-led growth, rather than a host of bite-sized promises for various interest groups. 

Secondly, a simple statement of wisdom: you never say never in democratic politics. The BJP was nearly wiped off in the 1984  Lok Sabha when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi won a landslide in national elections on the back of a sympathy wave for the assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi. But it bounced back over the next decade.

BJP Ideology Hits a Plateau

In Karnataka, the BJP ran against what I call the Dravida brick wall. Politics in the Deccan Plateau is quite different from that in the northern Gangetic plains. The RSS-backed BJP's old slogan of "Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan' has an alliterative charm but it literally and figuratively hits a plateau south of the Vindhyas.

Here, ambitious backward castes and politically aware voters demand goodies like job quotas and welfare handouts that challenge BJP's fiscally conservative outlook. Congress has been happy to step in and provide an alternative platform full of what BJP supporters call freebies. Those pressing buttons in voting machines may call them "votebies".

This year's Karnataka elections saw many a head-on-clash between the BJP and the Congress: While the BJP tried to bring in Hindu sentiments first through its gestures that seemed to target Muslim symbols like the hijab and Tipu Sultan's 18th Century reign, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi appealed with an equal sentiment on religious harmony as he led a "Bharat Jodo Yatra" (Unite India March).  

While the BJP has historically fought elections campaigning against corruption, it found itself tagged by Congress as a "40% sarkar" for alleged 40% commissions demanded by ruling party fixers in the pursuit of state benefits and contracts.

The BJP also accidentally stepped on Kannada and Karnataka pride when Home Minister Amit Shah spoke of Gujarat-based Amul helping the southern state's homegrown Nandini label in the milk economy. His patronising offer of help was something the Congress milked in its election campaigns as a Big Brother plan to bulldoze a popular local brand.


Congress Showed Committment, Energy, and Focus

We will never know which factor influenced the Congress victory more, but it is certain that an anti-incumbency sentiment, a recurring feature in Karnataka politics, helped for sure. Also, we know from history that any political party has to balance the interests of the rival Vokkaliga and LIngayat communities in Karnataka representing a politically aware rural middle class.

The two communities play a key role in deciding winners. The BJP seems to have got its balance horribly wrong this time. Its bet on the Lingayats seems to have backfired in some key areas, adding to the anti-incumbency mood. The farming community of Vokkaligas also appears to have shed their traditional allegiance to the Janata Dal (Secular)'s in some important pockets, splitting their votes in a manner that seems to have helped the Congress more.

Also, the Congress in Karnataka under state party chief DK Shivakumar has been extraordinary in its commitment, energy, and focus, unlike in the north where party cadres need more motivation. Both the BJP and Congress had strong money power, or at least accused each other of that. Enough for us to imagine Shivakumar mouthing a cult line from the national hit Kannada movie, KGF: "If you think you are bad, I am your dad."

Psephologists and sundry pundits considering matters related to caste and local factors will pour over numbers and anecdotes in the coming days to extract more details. What can be said now is that it is too early to celebrate any party fighting an election in the South just because it had a propaganda blitzkrieg.  We might as well craft a cheesy KGF-like line to highlight that: Campaigns do not always lead to champagne.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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