The Modi magic is back in the reckoning.
Notwithstanding surface disenchantments of people at various levels, Narendra Modi has once again established that he stands heads and shoulders over his political rivals.
BJP’s surprise tally of near majority in the Karnataka state Assembly has proved that Modi remains unmatched in appeal to voters across regions. He retains the ability to sway voters across sections with his oratorical skills and rhetorical flourishes.
BJP’s less than half-way mark tally of cliffhanger — less than 112 seats out of 222 in 224-member Assembly — has opened the possibility of Congress-JD(S) tie-up for a coalition government. The Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) have decided to stake claim to form government with a view to keep the BJP out of power.
The one and only.
But that doesn’t detract from the Modi’s stupendous feat to have single-handedly turned around the election in BJP’s favour. He has almost snatched victory from the jaws of certain defeat in Karnataka as he had managed to do in Gujarat.
Modi’s performance in Karnataka is much more credible than Gujarat. In Gujarat, he had to sweat it out despite playing on his own turf and despite having a BJP government.
In Karnataka, the task was tougher. Modi was up against a formidable state satrap in Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah. He faced a resurgent Congress under Rahul Gandhi following its credible performance in Gujarat Assembly elections and in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh by-elections.
Unlike Gujarat and Hindi-speaking states, Modi faced language barrier in Karnataka. In many places, he had to depend on translators.
The BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, 75-year-old BS Yeddyurappa, carried the onerous baggage of being tainted. He was BJP’s choice because the party had no talent in Karnataka to speak of, and because he could deliver Lingayat community votes.
Siddaramaiah had fortified the Congress bastion in Karnataka. He had worked on all fronts in anticipation of taking on Modi-Shah duo. He was prepared for a hard battle against the BJP’s formidable election machine, Modi’s guile and his no-holds-barred and low-level campaign blitzkrieg.
Importantly, Siddaramaiah was credited to have bucked the anti-incumbency against his government to a large extent. At least that’s what ground reportage and pollsters had concluded during the campaign trail and surveys.
He was also fighting a jinx, a trend in Karnataka that has seen no ruling party being voted back to power for the second consecutive term since 1985 when Janata Party’s Ramakrishna Hegde was re-elected as the chief minister. The trend continues.
Hanging in there.
Siddaramaiah borrowed a leaf from Hegde to make federalism his plank. He went much beyond Hedge and shrewdly linked federalism with the issue of Kannada pride by unveiling a state flag for Karnataka.
His brilliant Facebook post on “Regional Identity and Federalism” a few months before the election in which he advocated financial and cultural autonomy for states was neither an empty talk nor merely a principled stand for a cause. That was a well thought out electoral strategy to corner Modi and take the fight to the BJP camp.
If Modi had his oratorical skills, Siddaramaiah had worked out caste and religious combinations. If Modi had a communal card in the form of Hindutva agenda to play, Siddaramaiah had a plan in place to pander to Lingayats’ demand for minority religious status.
If Modi had nationalist card, Siddaramaiah had Kannada sub-nationalism to counter that. Against Modi’s Hindu identity politics, Siddaramaiah had his brand of identity politics in the form of Kannada pride.
Siddaramaiah had managed to build huge AHINDA (minorities, backward classes and Dalits) support with his inclusive and welfare policies. Popular schemes such as free distribution of rice, subsidy for milk, hostels for students, interest-free loans to farmers and Indira Canteen had put the Congress on a strong wicket in Karnataka.
It’s important to recount Siddaramaiah’s record to put Modi’s electoral feat in perspective. Also because the Congress president Rahul Gandhi had let the chief minister lead from the front and turn the Karnataka election in fight between Siddaramaiah and Modi.
Notwithstanding a hung Assembly, the Karnataka verdict will clear doubts of sceptics, within the NDA, the BJP as well as outside, that Modi magic has waned and his charisma to pull votes has faded.
Opposition parties will be forced to redouble their efforts and strategise with urgency to put up a united fight against Modi to win the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
The unlikely verdict will put pressure on Rahul Gandhi to refrain from making casual remarks like the one he made in Karnataka about his readiness to become the prime minister in 2019. The Congress’ performance in Karnataka re-emphasises the fact that the leadership issue for 2019 remains wide open among anti-Modi Opposition parties.
On this score, the decision of the Congress to accept JD(S)’s HD Kumaraswamy as chief minister in a probable coalition despite the latter having less than 40 seats speaks of pragmatic strategy. But there is still a lot of drama and surprises left in Karnataka.
As for Opposition leadership, elections to the Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh assemblies later this year will tilt the balance in favour of Rahul Gandhi if the Congress decisively beats the BJP.
Modi will not be looking at elections to the three Hindi heartland states with trepidation after the Karnataka result. He will be reassured in comfort that he can sway the voters despite anti-incumbencies against the BJP in the three states as well as the Centre.
All speculations about early and simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh assemblies need to rest. Despite his sterling solo performance in Karnataka, Modi is unlikely to risk Lok Sabha election before the end of the term in May next year.
Most importantly, many NDA allies that were keenly watching the Karnataka elections will heave a sigh of relief. They will wait to see Modi’s performance in Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh before deciding to stick with NDA or quit.
Had the BJP lost Karnataka decisively and squarely, NDA allies would have been forced to rethink their plan.
Until then the Modi magic holds.
Also read: Why Karnataka election has resulted in a political cliffhanger (and what it reveals about Modi and Rahul Gandhi)