The election results in Karnataka are further evidence that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is losing ground in the states and that there is something fundamentally wrong with its electoral strategy for Assembly elections.
With a prime minister as popular as Narendra Modi at the helm, a vast organisation across the states, and a machinery to win elections, how could the BJP's state-centric political strategy be flawed?
The answer lies within the state's leadership. Multiple election studies have revealed that when it comes to state elections, people vote on state-related issues and not on larger political ones.
The success of the Congress in the Karnataka Assembly elections illustrates the significance of state leadership. Chief Minister-elect Siddaramaiah and Deputy Chief Minister-elect DK Shivakumar led the party to victory in the state.
In contrast, there were no credible state leaders within the BJP to lead the party from the front. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, along with other central leaders, led the entire BJP campaign.
Strong CMs Improve Winnability
In the realm of regional politics, the fortunes of the incumbent political party are inextricably linked to the leadership of the chief minister. This is due to the fact that the CM assumes the mantle of both the state unit of the political party and the government, thereby, becoming the public face of the administration.
In places where it chose strong chief ministers, such as Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and even Manipur, the BJP has performed well. The ascent of Yogi Adityanath as a prominent figure and the head of state in Uttar Pradesh has been nothing short of remarkable. Sarbananda Sonowal, the former chief minister of Assam and a prominent figure in the saffron party held a position of great influence in the state.
The political landscape in Assam has been abuzz with the decision of the BJP to appoint Himanta Biswa Sarma as the successor to Sonowal. Despite his past affiliations with the Congress Party, Sarma's reputation as a formidable regional leader remains undisputed. Sarma's meteoric rise within the BJP ranks has made him a prominent figure in the Northeast and a sought after campaigner for the party nationwide.
The presence of strong leaders such as Yogi Adityanath or Sarma as chief ministers can have a significant impact on the administration. In such cases, they play a crucial role in ensuring that the implementation of poll promises is carried out seamlessly while also maintaining a strong connection with the people at the grassroots level. This allows for greater accountability and transparency in governance, ultimately benefiting the populace.
It is imperative for the BJP to acknowledge that the presence of feeble chief ministers such as Basvaraj Bommai jeopardises effective governance, thereby fueling anti-incumbency sentiments. As recent events have shown, the strength of a chief minister can make all the difference in navigating the treacherous waters of anti-incumbency. Take for example, the case of Yogi Adityanath, who deftly managed the public's anger over COVID mismanagement and emerged relatively unscathed. On the other hand, weaker CMs can find themselves at the mercy of the prime minister, relying on their support to weather the storm of public discontent.
Arbitrary Change Of CM Doesn't Work
The BJP would do well to recognise that the erratic swapping of chief ministers in order to appease the whims of the central leadership is a flawed approach at this juncture. In the aftermath of Karnataka's recent loss, it is imperative for the BJP to reflect on their decision to replace Yeddyurappa with Bommai as the state's chief minister.
A thorough review of this move is necessary to understand its impact on the party's performance and to determine the best course of action moving forward. As per pre-poll surveys, it has been observed that Bommai's popularity has taken a hit. It cannot be denied that the BJP possessed the ability to conduct an internal survey to gauge the correctness of their decision to remove Yeddyurappa. Any assertion to the contrary would be weak.
The recent Karnataka election serves as a prime illustration of how voters tend to disapprove of sudden shifts in leadership. When it comes to the BJP's stance on Tripura or Uttarakhand, it's important to acknowledge the significant political and demographic differences between these states.
The BJP's recent strategies of removing CMs and choosing less capable ones seem to indicate that it has evolved into a high-command party. In a move that has raised eyebrows and sparked debate, it appears that the weighty decisions of the organisation are not being made through a democratic process of careful consideration and consensus-building.
Rather, it seems that the ultimate authority lies solely in the hands of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The recent events surrounding the Congress serve as a cautionary tale for the saffron party, highlighting the deplorable nature of such a political structure. The strategic appointment of less formidable chief ministers may indeed bolster the authority of the central leadership, yet it can prove disadvantageous for the state units.
Polarisation Strategy Also Might Need Review
It is imperative for the BJP to acknowledge that their polarisation tactics may not be universally applicable. In today's globalised world, it is becoming increasingly important to have a nuanced understanding of the unique cultural, demographic, and historical factors that shape different regions. Such knowledge can prove invaluable in navigating the complexities of international relations, business, and diplomacy.
The political landscape in Karnataka has been marked by a series of events that have been closely tied to the BJP's efforts to promote Hindutva. From the contentious Hijab row to the Tipu Sultan controversy, the Kerala Story anecdote, and the PFI ban, the BJP has left no stone unturned in its pursuit of this agenda. While the strategy proved successful in certain regions, such as coastal Karnataka where the party secured 13 out of 19 seats, it did not yield the same results in other areas.
When it comes to Hindutva, the Hindi heartland of Northern India stands apart from other regions. As per regional variations, the manner in which Lord Ram is venerated in the Hindi heartland may not hold significance in the Eastern parts of India.
The uniqueness of Hindutva in Dravidian culture is noteworthy. This is evident in the unsuccessful attempt by the BJP to enforce its Hindutva ideology in Karnataka. Once again, the significance of regional leadership is underscored, as it is only through their guidance that the BJP can comprehend the nuances of cultural differences across various states. The Hindutva approach of the BJP failed to yield the desired results, as it did not cater to the diverse needs of the populace. Instead, it inadvertently bolstered the Congress' support among the Muslim community.
BJP Needs State-Specific Goal, Not Double Engine
A crucial election tactic implemented by the BJP involves advocating for a double-engine government. When the same political party holds power at both the state and federal levels, it can lead to more effective development initiatives. As the state elections loom, the BJP must shift its focus from the tried and tested double-engine pitch and instead, explore state-specific strategies to emerge victorious.
The state of Karnataka serves as a prime illustration of the dire consequences that can arise when a government is plagued by ineptitude, corruption, and a general lack of direction. In such a scenario, even the most well-intentioned efforts to salvage the situation, such as the much-touted "double engine pitch," may ultimately prove futile. It is an undeniable fact that the welfare schemes implemented by the central government play a pivotal role in the overall development of the nation.
However, it is equally important to acknowledge the significance of state-specific development and welfare schemes. These schemes cater to the unique needs and requirements of individual states, thereby, ensuring a more targeted and effective approach towards achieving socio-economic progress.
The BJP's disregard for the development of a state-specific narrative can be attributed to weaker chief ministers, a lack of state leadership, and an overpowering central leadership. However, it is imperative that this approach be revised to better address the needs of individual states. The Congress party's triumph in Karnataka can be attributed, in no small part, to their focussed state-centric messaging and a slew of welfare-oriented pledges, including freebies.
(The author is an independent journalist based in Kolkata and former policy research fellow at Delhi Assembly Research Center. He tweets @sayantan_gh. Views expressed are personal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)