The BJP’s Karnataka defeat — a blow to its mythmaking

It would be tempting to reduce the Karnataka verdict to a simple case of State-level anti-incumbency. After all, no Karnataka government has been re-elected for close to four decades.

May 13, 2023 10:04 pm | Updated May 14, 2023 03:30 pm IST

BJP supporters are seen during an election rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. File

BJP supporters are seen during an election rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. File | Photo Credit: PTI

The Congress’ decisive win in Karnataka shatters two myths about the BJP’s electoral dominance — the idea of “subaltern Hindutva” and the popularity of the “double engine” slogan.

It would be tempting to reduce the Karnataka verdict to a simple case of State-level anti-incumbency. After all, no Karnataka government has been re-elected for close to four decades. The high levels of dissatisfaction attached to the Bommai government in particular meant that a renewed mandate seemed further out of reach. Yet, a simplistic anti-incumbency narrative, explained in terms of localized factors, might only obscure how the present ‘national’ polity also embeds itself deeply into ‘state’ results.

The argument here is not that the Karnataka results mark a substantial national shift, instead the argument is that the election provides an excellent portal to understand certain challenges and contradictions in the BJP’s post-2014 project of national domination.

At the outset, let’s note that anti-incumbency is a necessary but not a sufficient explanation for the nature of BJP’s defeat. After-all, this was the BJP’s first post-Yediyurappa election in close to three decades. Even as Mr. Yediyurappa was later integrated into the campaign, the party fought the election under the face of the Prime Minister. The key functions of election strategy and campaign execution had been centralized in an unprecedented manner, consequent to the national leadership’s dominant control over the state unit post-Yediyurappa’s ouster in 2021.

Arguably, the national hegemony of the ruling party post-2014 has been bolstered through certain persuasive-myths attached to the ‘new’ Modi-Shah BJP. The use of the of the term ‘myth’ here draws from the French historian Georges Sorel’s conception of myth: any ‘concrete fantasy’ that facilitates political consensus. The truth-value of a myth is immaterial here, what is material is only its functional-value in the construction of hegemonic power. Over the last decade, the BJP has particularly relied on two such myths for political expansion and/or legitimation — an ideological myth (‘subaltern Hindutva’) and a governance myth (‘double engine sarkar’). These myths help the party shroud over structural weaknesses and project a self-perpetuating aura of ‘invincibility’. Insofar as the Karnataka election result disturbs the basis of these myths, it leaves a significant national imprint.

Firstly, let’s come to the myth of subaltern Hindutva. It is no doubt true that the BJP has broadened, in the recent past, its electoral catchment area among subaltern sections (Dalits, tribals, poorer non-dominant backward castes). However, besides the two national Modi waves, we have hardly seen widespread support of the subalterns towards an umbrella ‘Hindu’ coalition. The larger ideological basis, as opposed to community-specific strategic basis, of the subaltern support to Hindutva is unclear as they can often be characterized as the last-to-join and first-to-leave voters of the larger Hindu coalition. The former tendency has scorched the BJP in state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, while the latter tendency has stalled the party’s expansion bid in state elections of Telangana, Orissa and Maharashtra,

In state elections, it is these very sections which tend to shift back heavily towards the Congress or regional parties, sowing doubts about their ideological commitment to the BJP or conventionally-defined Hindutva, let alone to a subaltern-driven, anti-elite variety of Hindutva.

The national leadership of the BJP (along with a pro-Hindutva faction within the state unit) has been planning for a while to move the state party beyond its core Lingayat moorings and integrate subaltern sections through hard Hindutva. A major limitation of this strategy was that the RSS’ grassroots influence hardly extended beyond coastal Karnataka (overlapping, co-incidentally, with the specific zone where communal issues find electoral resonance). Given this context, it is hard to believe the BJP’s strategy mostly consisted of saturating the airwaves with communal issues such as halal, hijab, and azaan (later ‘terrorism’ and ‘Bajrangbali’) and hoping for a near-spontaneously forged Hindu coalition. As it happened, the only significant impact of the BJP’s hard Hindutva campaign, waged over two years, remained confined to the 20-odd seats of Karnataka.

Conversely, the Congress won a full majority precisely on an anti-BJP consolidation of the subaltern sections based on a (relatively) progressive socio-economic agenda. This agenda was embodied in the leadership appeal of Siddaramaiah, who has melded the Dalits, Tribals, Muslim and Kurubas (who comprise 45% of the population) into a signature political coalition, racking up two similarly constituted political majorities within a decade.

Consider two critical pieces of survey evidence gathered from Axis My India exit survey.

First, the Congress lead among Dalit voters compared to the BJP in this election is 38% points (60% versus 22%), and tribals is 11% points (44% versus 33%), Kurubas is 39% points (62% versus 23%), Muslims was 86% points (88% versus 2%). These leads, though not dramatic by state standards, are still quite stark. Second, the Congress held a 11%-point lead compared to the BJP among the lowest-income voters (less than Rs 10,000 per month), which the pollster informed comprised a little more than half of the population.

As mentioned earlier, the second, governance-based myth of a “double-engine” government, exalts PM Modi as a last-ditch saviour to an incompetent local leader. The structural reasons why so many BJP state governments require a late-in-the-day intervention by the PM, either to force a leadership change or to bolster a fledgling CM through a prolonged and personalized campaign, is often left unexplored. To cite examples only from the recent past, such intervention had been required in Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Goa, Tripura, Gujarat, with fairly mixed outcomes.

The political scientist Neelanjan Sircar, among other scholars, argue that the primary reason lies in a mismatch of the ‘credit attribution’ of welfare schemes between the towering personality of Mr Modi and his relatively puny state leaders.

The tragic case of BS Bommai in Karnataka can be used to explore another variation of this larger story, where the double-engine dragnet operates through the seeding of overt factional conflict. It would be easy now to attribute all sorts of moral failings onto the deposed Chief Minster. But he had been dealt a particularly weak initial hand—seen in tandem to be beholden to the Modi-Shah combine as well as to his former mentor Mr Yedyurappa—Mr Bommai struggled to exercise any independent control over factional networks within the party, or even disciplinary authority over his administration.

In a state like Karnataka, corruption is well-entrenched into mainstream caste-community based social, commercial, and educational/religious structures, and hence it is extremely difficult to track ‘real’ changes in its scale. However, as the political scientist Harold Gould observed way back in 1997, in a paper on the Congress decline in Karnataka, the ‘perception’ of rampant corruption is deduced by the public through other short-hand, surface-level political variables, such as high factional conflict and weak state leadership. The perception of an ‘out of control’ corruption, as got attached to Bommai, might have flowed just as well from perceptions of his structural weakness rather than any ‘real’ multiplication of corruption.

Consider some alternative pieces of evidence from the sobering CSDS-NDTV pre-poll. First, 63% of respondents claimed to be satisfied with the state government’s performance, as opposed to 32% who claimed to be dissatisfied. It is almost identical to the satisfaction with the central government (66% versus 33%). On development projects, the government was rated fairly well, scoring high on the provision of roads, water and electricity. Further, the survey showed that the beneficiaries of the welfare schemes of the state government approved of them and were positively inclined towards the BJP. Yet, the same voters also held him to be the most corrupt CM of the decade who deserved to be denied another chance. The empty signifier of BS Bommai, felled by the double engine dragnet will now assume all its sins of the double engine, and credit for the valiant rescue mission shall seep towards the other end of the engine.

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