There are many reasons for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in Karnataka: Deft election management by party president Amit Shah, perseverance of party workers right from the State leadership to the booth level; dissatisfaction of voters with the Siddaramaiah regime; anger over the Congress’s minority appeasement policies; attempts by the Congress Government to divide the Hindu community into Lingayat versus non-Lingayat groups; farmer distress; and, poor law and order situation. But none of these would have been effectively tapped into without the charismatic presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The 104 seats the BJP has got in the Assembly is a result of Modi’s successful outreach to the people of the State.
The Prime Minister was the swing factor for his party, like he has been election after election since 2014. It had been assumed in Karnataka at the start of the campaign that the Siddaramaiah regime would be able to retain hold over the State despite the BJP’s concerted efforts to dislodge the Government. Attempts were made to build a Siddaramaiah versus BS Yeddyurappa narrative, as the Congress believed that this would work in its favour. The problem arose for the Congress when the BJP stepped up its campaign and began to present a Siddaramaiah versus Modi script. Things turned worse for the Congress when Rahul Gandhi decided to up the ante, leading to a Modi versus Rahul Gandhi scenario. From there on, there was no hope for the Congress.
Election after election the Modi versus Rahul situation has worked against the Congress. The party’s president has proved no match for the magic Modi exudes when he is on a campaign trail. The Congress leader falls behind in oratorial skills, is unable to connect with the aspirations of the people, and chooses the wrong subjects to either attack his opponent or defend his party. But there is another issue that plays out most strongly, and which subsumes all other issues. It is the credibility quotient of Prime Minister Modi. Various public surveys have indicated that Modi retains his popularity even four years into his tenure, though the level of popularity may have seen a small dip. While some of his decisions may have not been whole-heartedly welcomed, his intent has never been in question. It’s a fact that his rivals have not been able to counter on the ground.
The manner in which the Prime Minister was able to swing Karnataka in the BJP’s favour is illustrative. Within ten days to go for polling, most pollsters were predicting a win for the Congress — even if a narrow one. But the last ten days witnessed carpet-bombing by Modi, who addressed more than a dozen rallies in various parts of the State. Suddenly, the narrative began to shift in his party’s favour. Workers realised that all was not lost and that they had a good chance to oust Siddaramaiah. The issues the Prime Minister raised were not just relevant but also ones that connected with the people. Dynasty, minority appeasement, politics of polarisation, corruption, law and order — they resonated with the voters. Along the way, he was helped by Rahul Gandhi, whose self-endorsement as a prime ministerial candidate gave Modi a good stick to ridicule the Congress president.
Not one to mince words during an election campaign, Modi hammered away at the Congress’s Achilles heel: The culture of dynasty politics. By calling himself kaamdar and Rahul Gandhi naamdar, he, in one stroke reiterated his image as a servant of the people and that of his rival, a feudal lord. These assertions, although rhetorical and dramatic, work with the ordinary Indians who have to struggle for basic amenities and rights while they see the privileged class — which, by virtue of their surnames — enjoy life. Modi becomes believable because he has come up the hard way, climbing the ladder of success step by step. On the other hand, when Rahul Gandhi talks of peasant issues or of the problems ordinary Indians face, he is viewed as an opportunist who speaks without conviction.
But communication skills and a humble background alone are not enough to win the trust of voters. People want results, and it is here that the Prime Minister scores. Clearly, the voters believe him when he says that his Government at the Centre has taken various steps that can change the lives of the ordinary Indian for the better. And they believe him because they have seen that happening on the ground in some cases — though it can be always argued that enough has not been done. The direct benefit transfers, the provision of free cooking gas to poor women, especially in the villages, massive rural electrification, opening of bank accounts, credit and insurance schemes for farmers — these have all impacted people’s lives on the ground, and the benefits are there for all to see.
Although foreign policy and internal security are not compelling issues in State elections, they do contribute to the overall image the voters entertain of leaders, and which then assists them in making a choice. The people of Karnataka perhaps realised that in voting for BJP candidates, they were strengthening Modi’s hands at the national level to help him take on terrorism and further boost the country’s image globally. The Congress was at a disadvantage here, because its own track record has been poor in the ten years it ruled as the head of the UPA.
Going back a few months, the BJP’s scintillating showing in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election was largely due to Prime Minister Modi. Whether there had been religious polarisation or whether the people were swayed by decisions of the Centre in providing free cooking gas etc, are matters to be debated upon. The voters of Uttar Pradesh trusted Modi and voted for the BJP. Remember, the party did not even have a chief ministerial face. In Gujarat, the BJP overcame serious anti-incumbency and an invigorated Congress which had stitched alliance with leaders of the Patel community, OBCs and Scheduled Castes, almost entirely on the strength of Modi’s appeal in the State. But for his massive public outreach, the party could have well lost Gujarat.
That said, it would be unwise of the BJP to overly depend on Modi’s charisma. Wherever in power, the party’s Government must perform to the people’s expectations. It cannot be that they falter and then hope for the Modi magic to bail them out. Elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan later this year will once more test this magic, but more importantly, they will be a referendum on the BJP regimes there.