Written by A. Narayana.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity will face a big test in the forthcoming Legislative Assembly elections in the Southern state of Karnataka. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have vowed to make India free of the rival Congress Party which ruled the country for decades after independence.

The BJP has achieved this goal largely by winning elections or by engineering coalitions with regional parties all over the major Northern states, except for the mid-size north western state of Punjab. In Southern India, however, it is a different story. All the five states in the South have non-BJP Governments. While the Congress rules Karnataka, the only large state the party retains power, the other four states have regional party governments.  Karnataka also happens to be the only southern state where the BJP has any hold and held power once earlier (2008-2013).

The BJP under Modi is making determined efforts to wrest the state from the Congress – its last major bastion.

When Modi became the Prime Minister, his party ruled only four of India’s 29 states. Now, the BJP controls 21 states, a meteoric performance by any standards.

India’s State Legislative Assembly elections are generally fought by regional-level leaders, at least after the Congress dominance over national politics ended in the 1980s. Yet, the story has changed significantly since Modi became the prime minister in 2014. Now, he is the sole face of the party in all elections – local, provincial (state-level) or national. In Karnataka, the President of the state unit of the BJP and the party’s projected Chief Minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa is only a figurehead. The actual battle here is between Modi and Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who has emerged as a strong regional leader.

A loss here for the BJP will dent Modi’s image as much as it will put a brake on the BJP’s spree of winning states and in realizing its goal of a “Congress-free India”. A rout for the Congress would deliver a near-death blow to the grand-old party which has been struggling to keep itself aloft since it suffered its worst ever defeat in the 2014 national elections when it lost to Modi’s BJP by winning just 44 seats in the 545-member lower house of Parliament.

The Congress, whose fortunes are tied to the family of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, recently saw a change of leadership when Nehru’s scion Rahul Gandhi received the baton from his mother, Italian-born Sonia Gandhi. This change of leadership happened in the middle of a fiercely-fought election to the Legislative Assembly of Gujarat, which is Modi’s home state where he was the chief minister before his elevation as Prime Minister.  Although the Congress did not win here, it gave a very tough fight to the BJP which could barely scrape through. This raised hopes of a Congress revival under the new leader.

The Congress Party is therefore eagerly looking forward to Karnataka’s elections to consolidate its revival. Furthermore, along with the elections scheduled later this year for two other big states – Madhya Pradesh in central India and Rajasthan in the North West – the Karnataka elections are considered to be a pointer to the 2019 national elections in which Modi will be seeking re-election. If the BJP manages to win all these three states or at least two including Karnataka, Modi’s re-election will be much easier. A loss for the BJP in Karnataka or one of the two other states would make the 2019 national elections tougher for Modi.

Understanding Modi’s Southern Challenge

Modi’s leadership is a combination of hardline Hindutva and a promise of development. This model of leadership worked fantastically in the 2014 national elections and in several state elections so far. When Modi became the Prime Minister, his party ruled only four of India’s 29 States. Now, the BJP controls 21 states, a meteoric performance by any standards.  However, after the hard-earned victory in Gujarat, doubts are being expressed about Modi’s magic touch in elections. The party has since lost a string of by-elections in some of its strongholds like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

Although, it has recently secured the two smaller north eastern states of Tripura and Nagaland, signals from the ground in larger states have not been encouraging for the BJP.  Compounding this challenge is the fact that Modi has not been able to deliver on his developmental promises. Falling growth rates and rising unemployment have been a thorn in the side of the BJP. In Karnataka, therefore, Modi will not be able to oversell his developmental promise. Moreover, the Congress Government here is perceived to have done much better on the development front compared to the preceding five years under the BJP. As a result, the BJP does not appear to have the advantage of riding on an anti-incumbency wave.

This leaves Modi with the Hindutva plank. Campaign managers of his party have been working overtime to weave new spins to its Hindutva narrative in addition to toeing the conventional line that the Congress has been a pro-Muslim party and that it has consistently failed to protect the interests of the majority Hindus.

Congress has been trying to convince voters that it represents the real Hindus who stand for an inclusive India, as opposed to the BJP’s alleged exclusionary Hindu nationalist politics

It has been painting Chief Minister Siddaramaiah as a crusader against the Hindus after he lent his moral support to the demands of a powerful Hindu sect in the state, called Lingayats, for recognition as a separate minority religion. One of the hallmarks of the Congress Government for the past five years has been a series of socio-economic policies targeting backward castes, Dalits and minorities. While these policies are largely consistent with India’s constitutionally mandated positive discrimination, the BJP has been sending subtle messages to upper caste voters that these policies were divisive in nature. A powerful Hindu pontiff, known for his allegiance with the BJP, has publicly demanded a constitutional amendment to extend the positive discrimination policies to the economically weaker families of the upper castes.

A minister in Modi’s cabinet, elected from a constituency in Karnataka, has been advocating amendments to the Constitution to discard the idea of secularism, which the Supreme Court of India has upheld as part of the basic structure of the Constitution .

As the BJP deploys such strategies, the Congress is under tremendous pressure to employ its own brand of Hindutva. The Congress has been trying to convince voters that it represents the real Hindus who stand for an inclusive India, as opposed to the BJP’s alleged exclusionary Hindu nationalist politics. Should both parties stick to their respective lines, then it would mark a new beginning in the electoral politics in India with two versions of Hindutva competing for electoral acceptance. So far, the Congress has always presented itself as a secular alternative to the communal agenda of the BJP, which derides the former’s version of secularism as fake. The Congress has turned the tables by accusing the BJP of representing pseudo-Hinduism. At the moment, however, the principal contenders appear to be in a state of confusion as both lack a winning narrative.

Regardless of the results, politics in India will be different after the Karnataka elections. If the BJP wins, it will be the politics of one-party dominance again. The Congress dominated Indian politics for at least two decades after independence before it became a true multi-party democracy. Should the Congress retain power in Karnataka, hopes of serious two-party competition at the national level will stay alive.

A. Narayana is a Professor in the School of Policy and Governance at Azim Premji University in Bangalore, India. Image Credit: CC by Narendra Modi/Flickr.


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