In the weeks ahead, Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strategists will undoubtedly do a deep dive into the detailed results from Karnataka to analyse and understand what went right for the former and wrong for the latter in the Assembly polls.
But there is a common takeaway for both parties as they prepare for the upcoming elections in three states (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh) where they will butt heads again – the importance of strong local leaders to helm an Assembly campaign.
The BJP sidelined its tallest state leader BS Yediyurappa and several prominent members of his Lingayat community, ran the Karnataka government through a puppet chief minister, and relied on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-voltage roadshows and rallies to propel it past the finishing line.
A common takeaway for both parties as they prepare for the upcoming state elections is the importance of strong local leaders to helm an assembly campaign
The BJP turned in its worst performance since 2013. That was the year Yediyurappa quit the BJP and fought the election leading his own regional outfit
Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra spent a lot of time in the state but limited themselves to playing a supporting role and toed the line set by the local leadership by staying away from national issues
The Modi-led BJP has started looking more and more like the Indira Gandhi Congress while the Rahul-Priyanka Congress seems to be borrowing a leaf out of the Vajpayee-Advani BJP playbook
Buoyed by its success in Himachal Pradesh, the party put a similar strategy into play in Karnataka. The result was even more spectacular with the Congress scoring a tally of more than double than that of the BJP
Local Command of Congress vs BJP’s Alienating Politics
The result was quite the opposite. The BJP turned in its worst performance since 2013. That was the year Yediyurappa quit the BJP and fought the election leading his own regional outfit. The result: the party lost 70 of the seats it had won in 2008.
This year, it is down by 38 seats compared to 2018. Most of these lost constituencies are from Lingayat-dominated areas with the Congress profiting from the community’s anger over Yediyurappa's marginalisation. Perhaps, the damage is less this time around because Yediyurappa did not rebel formally. But he could not hide his bitterness. He campaigned half-heartedly and the BJP has paid a heavy price.
In contrast, the Congress foregrounded its two most prominent Karnataka faces – DK Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah – and allowed them to do the heavy lifting. Realising that this was a do-or-die battle, Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah sank their differences, worked as a team along with Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge who hails from the state, grounded the campaign in purely local issues, and did most of the ticket distribution.
Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra spent a lot of time in the state but limited themselves to playing a supporting role and toed the line set by the local leadership by staying away from national issues in their speeches and studiously avoiding personal attacks on Modi. The strategy reaped a rich harvest as the Congress recorded its best-ever performance in Karnataka since 1999.
Speaking of Role Reversals...
There is an inescapable irony in the unfolding scenario. The Modi-led BJP has started looking more and more like the Indira Gandhi Congress while the Rahul-Priyanka Congress seems to be borrowing a leaf out of the Vajpayee-Advani BJP playbook.
Advani was the pre-Modi era BJP’s talent-spotter. He identified those with potential and developed a second rung of leadership of which Modi was one. Vajpayee as PM nurtured them and gave them prominence. Through them, the BJP spread its footprint across states and registered its first breakthrough in South India with Yediyurappa forming the first saffron government in Karnataka in 2008.
The BJP broke tradition to name chief ministerial candidates and fought Assembly elections under their leadership. Vajpayee and Advani played a limited role in the campaign and addressed token rallies. Unlike Modi, they did not carry every election, right down to the municipal level, on their shoulders.
Indira Gandhi, on the other hand, systematically cut down regional satraps of the Congress and positioned herself as the sole vote-catcher for the party through a carefully crafted personality cult. In the process, she destroyed the party’s organisational machinery which is evident today in the steady decline of the Congress.
It is interesting that after 10 years of defeat and humiliation, the Rahul-Priyanka Congress seems to have dispensed with the Indira Gandhi tradition and is experimenting with a broad-based strategy for fighting assembly polls through state leaders, much like the Vajpayee-Advani BJP did.
Himachal Victory Helped Congress’ Performance To Peak
The strategy was first put to test in Himachal Pradesh last November. Rahul Gandhi did not address a single rally in the state. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra parked herself in Shimla but avoided the limelight. Congress state leaders were pushed forward – and they wove a successful narrative around local issues.
The BJP found itself ridden with factionalism and torn apart by defections. Modi’s towering presence and a blitzkrieg campaign were supposed to brush all that under the carpet and take the party to victory. But it was the Congress party’s grounded narrative that carried the day. The Congress won its first election after five years of continuous losses.
Buoyed by its success in Himachal Pradesh, the party put a similar strategy into play in Karnataka. The result was even more spectacular with the Congress scoring a tally of more than double than that of the BJP.
Assembly elections later this year will reveal whether the Congress has finally found a template to challenge Modi and his BJP, at least in the states. The strategy of pitching local leaders against the Modi juggernaut has worked in assembly elections twice. Will it succeed again in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh where the party has strong state leaders and a reasonably robust organisation?
Rahul Gandhi’s post-result comments were significant. While the party’s social media feed tried to credit his Bharat Jodo Yatra for the Karnataka victory, Rahul showed greater maturity and a welcome degree of humility by thanking the people of Karnataka and the state leadership. This could be the start of a journey to build a new Congress should the Gandhi family draw the right lessons.
Has Karnataka Axed Modi’s Towering Impact?
The BJP, on the other hand, faces a more fundamental and worrisome question now. Has the Karnataka verdict punctured the Modi balloon? While there is little doubt that Modi towers over the political landscape like a colossus, surely it must be evident to him and his party that voters are discerning enough to differentiate between an assembly election and a national poll.
Voters are more likely to choose Modi when he himself is on the ticket to be the PM. But they are likely to look past him when it comes to deciding their chief minister, except perhaps in his home state of Gujarat. It must be evident to the BJP that its much-vaunted "double-engine" sarkar theory is in danger of being derailed, especially if the Congress finds itself on a winning streak this year with its new template.
Ever since Modi stormed to power in 2014, he has not allowed any national or state leader to grow in his shadow. Yogi Adityanath is an exception but only because he was already a Hindutva icon in his own right.
Is it time for a rethink then? Modi may be in pole position for the general election in 2024 but unless the BJP is able to hold power in the states, his centralised style of governing may have to make way for co-operative federalism.
(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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