After Karnataka, Reading The Tea Leaves For 2024
To borrow an IPL term, the game is on. Pre-Karnataka, it was commonly believed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would follow in the footsteps of Jawaharlal Nehru by winning three national elections in a row. The belief stemmed from his popularity, transcending class, caste, gender, and region, especially among Hindus who account for 80 per cent of the country’s population. There was also the perception that nine years of his regime had improved the quality of lives of a cross-section of people through better delivery of “new welfarism” to beneficiaries, and progress in digital connectivity and transport infrastructure.
Besides, there is an enormous disparity in election funding available with the BJP and the Opposition. The Opposition is also widely perceived to be in disarray. Above all, the Modi-Amit Shah duo, is seen to be perpetually election-focused and prone to the ruthless use of saam, dam, dand, bhed (persuasion, bribe, coercion, and division).
Contrast that with what happened in the Karnataka election, particularly in the Jayanagar constituency in Bengaluru. A quintessentially middle-class area, Jayanagar epitomises the Bangalore of the 70s – when it was mostly still a cantonment town with a smattering of top-grade scientific institutions – as much it does the IT-dominated Bengaluru of today with world-class traffic jams. Jayanagar is part of the Bangalore South parliamentary seat, which elected Tejasvi Surya, the poster boy of Hindutva, to parliament. Modi’s last-minute Bengaluru blitz went through five of the seven assembly constituencies of Bangalore South, including Jayanagar.
The CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey in Karnataka showed that the young and college-educated, who are present in large numbers in Jayanagar, stayed with the BJP in this election. In fact, the BJP improved its performance in the 36 seats of the Bengaluru political sub-region, its vote share going up by five per cent and its seats share from 11 to 16. Yet, the BJP barely scraped through in the Jayananagar seat with the state’s tiniest margin – 16 votes. It helped that a candidate with the same name as that of the Congress candidate polled 320 votes.
The Congress’s strategy in Karnataka, most commentators note, focused almost entirely on local issues. But pray, what were these local issues? In a nutshell, they were the daily challenges that confront the vast national population subsumed in the 90% labour force which works in the informal sector. The rise in prices of necessities, none more so than cooking gas. Petty but omnipresent corruption. Lack of jobs with content, security and dignity. Enough food now that the more munificent Covid-era free food has been substituted with a limited free supply of rations.
As is evident, none of these are local issues. What should worry the BJP is that these issues have a national resonance, with growth continuing to be jobless, welfare spending as a percentage of GDP down across channels including MNREGA, health and education, and the widening income disparity. In Karnataka, the Congress’s subregion-wise seat share was the highest in the poorest regions. This evidence of economic pain among the poor translating into political anger will worry the BJP the most, for it could easily play out at the national level, as journalist Roshan Kishore has argued.
In Karnataka, the Congress struck a chord with its five promises – 200 units of electricity free to all households; Rs 2,000 per month to all households headed by women; Rs 3,000 per month to unemployed graduates and Rs 1,500 to diploma holders; 10 kg of rice free per person to the poorest families, and free bus rides for women. Not surprisingly, it won the larger chunk of underclass votes across the state, cutting across castes and communities, reaffirming the resilience of the Ahinda model (a Kannada acronym for Alpasankhyataru or minorities, Hindulidavaru or backward classes, and Dalitaru or Dalits) first fashioned by Devaraj Urs in the 1970s.
But the Congress should know – and Rahul Gandhi must know – that the real challenge in India’s political economy is creating sustainable livelihoods for the millions who are unemployed or, more commonly, underemployed. The CSDS-Lokniti Karnataka survey also showed that unemployment was a bigger issue for 30% of the respondents this time, up 10 times from 2018. Indeed, this jobs deficit continues to dog India’s economy after the 1991 liberalisation-induced growth spurt, made worse by the Covid-induced slowdown and disruption.
Karnataka offers a palpable example of the economy’s unequal growth and its political consequence, as Narendar Pani, Dean of Social Sciences at Bengaluru’s National Institute of Advanced Studies, has highlighted.
The per capita income of the Bangalore sub-region is nearly Rs 400,000 per annum, four times that of the poorest regions in the state, Hyderabad-Karnataka and Bombay-Karnataka. As Pani has noted, in the 28 seats of Bengaluru which have benefited from the BJP’s growth-at-any-cost model, the party saw a rise of nearly 50% in the seats it won. In the rest of Karnataka, which paid the price of the model, the BJP saw its seats drop to nearly half its 2018 tally. As he pithily concludes: “The pro-poor political strategy of Congress would thus depend on its ability to generate an effective growth strategy that is more sensitive to its social costs. This will reduce the need for subsidies, even as it increases the resources to provide them. Congress has to find a growth strategy that allows participation of people outside the tech capital.” It hardly needs to be underlined that this prescription is not just for Karnataka’s economy.
Meanwhile, what should the BJP be seeing in the looking glass? Vaman Acharya, a Karnataka BJP spokesperson, was candid about where the party had gone wrong – in the dilution of its ideology. As Acharya wrote in an op-ed: “The BJP earlier prided itself on being the ‘party with a difference’. It stood out for its ideology of nationalism, idealism and fresh thinking. The inclusion in the party of people with diverse backgrounds, including those with strong ideological differences, diluted the ideological commitment.” Acharya did not name it, but his reference was to Operation Lotus, the term used by the Opposition to describe the BJP’s political engineering to wrest power in states like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
But it is also true that it is the Savarkar-brand Hindutva that fires the one ideological commitment of the Sangh Parivar that this government has pursued above all its commitments – that of making India a de facto Hindu Rashtra, albeit on the basis of the popular vote. Towards that objective, the party’s proponents even have the necessary prescription after the Karnataka setback – Hindutva plus governance plus local connect. Yogi Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh and Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam are their perfect state examples of the national Modi model of capturing the imagination of the largest component of the electorate, the Hindus – Yogi for his “law and order” platform and Himanta for playing up the threat of “immigrants”.
One suspects the ultimate battle of the soul of the country will be between syncretic Hinduism and the more aggressive Hindutva.
(Ajay Kumar is a senior journalist. He is former Managing Editor, Business Standard and former Executive Editor, The Economic Times.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.