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Why the Karnataka election is crucial both for Congress and the BJP

In one of his recent interviews, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a few minutes to elucidate his views on a slogan that become synonymous with his 2014 Lok Sabha Election pitch. ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ he said, does not necessarily mean the electoral demise of the Congress Party but the uprooting of a negative political culture epitomised for decades by the grand old party.

‘Casteism, nepotism, corruption, exploitation, treachery and an absolute lust for power have exemplified politics as practised and propagated by the Congress party’. While a literal occurrence of ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ has been fairly successful with the Congress and allies having suffered heavy losses in most elections since 2014, Karnataka stands in the way of Modi’s attempt to rid India of the Congress way of politics.

The battle for political power has been happening and will continue to happen across the country. But why is winning Karnataka as consequential for India? The answer lies in analyzing the political climate since 2014.

Karnataka 2018: The beginning or the end of revival for the Congress Party? 

BJPs thumping majority led many to believe that the Congress’s decimation was complete and final. With just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, the Congress was in its worst position electorally since independence. But a party whose sole ideology has been the acquisition of power at no cost, coupled with the experience of having used everything including state machinery (read Emergency 1977) in its pursuit of political power, could not be written off just yet.

Many permutations and combinations for revival were attempted – divisive, anti-government narrative building campaigns including the award-wapsi, intolerance fiasco found resonance amongst the long-standing usual suspects. However, nothing seems to stick strong enough to withstand the saffron surge that engulfed the country. The BJP was able to unseat Congress Governments in Haryana, Uttarakhand, Himachal, Assam and Maharashtra and win through alliances in J&K, Arunachal, Andhra Pradesh.

An attempt to unite the opposition under Mahaghatbandhan eventually fell through although the alliance did succeed electorally in Bihar. Later, BJP’s historic victory in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh cemented the electoral dominance of the saffron party.

It was only through Punjab that Congress began to see rays of hope against the BJP and allies. The Akali led NDA coalition crumbled in the face of massive anti-incumbency and the strong campaign of Capt. Amarinder Singh. For the first time, Congress had lessons to learn not from defeat but from victory. Having a strong regional leader, whose hold on the state was independent of the national sentiment towards the Congress, seems to have worked.

While in Gujarat, this formula could not be directly employed due to the lack of a strong regional leader, another similar strategy was being experimented. The Congress’ age-old tool of caste-based, divisive politics was employed in the Prime Minister’s home state, only this time around it was spearheaded by homegrown caste based leaders from outside the party (Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani).

Although this failed to stop the BJP from returning to govern Gujarat for a 5th consecutive term, it did have an important lesson for the Congress party. This lesson was identifying and externally nurturing caste fault-lines in vote banks that have historically been associated with the opposition.

Through all these victories and defeats, the Congress has been observing and imbibing the lessons and now they are being implemented in Karnataka. After all, being the only big state under Congress rule — the only big state where a project such as a steel flyover could be proposed to fill party coffers — means that a lot is at stake.

In Siddaramaiah, Congress has found someone who is both a regional powerhouse and a master at caste based divisive politics. While his first two and a half years of Chief Ministership saw some accusations of incompetence, dissent within the party, Siddaramaiah has succeeded in establishing his control over the party and the government.

The Congress party, for the first time since 2014, is going into a state election with an advantage, this is the first real hurdle in achieving Modi’s vision of a Congress Mukt Bharat. It is for this reason that winning Karnataka would be of absolute necessity for the BJP.

The same old party, just new packaging:

An aspect that has been apparent to observers of Karnataka politics is that Siddaramaiah has invested in an elaborate image management exercise to brand his government as pro-development. What helps the Congress party is that the so-called ‘civil society’ and the media doesn’t scrutinize its claims the way they do it for BJP and ‘Sangh Parivar’. This re-branding exercise is a significant part of understanding the newest avatar of the Congress party.

Though it was late to adopt technology and data-driven strategies in its political outreach management, through Karnataka, the party has finally found its way. The Chief Minister has gone an extra mile in ensuring that his voice is heard on all platforms including social media. A strong pro-development face is being projected even in the face of crumbling law and order, charges of corruption and apathetic governance.

Apart from which, there is a never before witnessed aura of aggression amongst senior Congress leaders and supporters in Karnataka in their presence online. One can ‘blame’ Cambridge Analytica or bots or whatever, but the truth is that Congress is doing well on this front. Though this re-branding exercise is nothing but mere eyewash, at present, at least in the online world, it appears to be working.

Caste card:

Siddaramaiah’s focus on the AHINDA (minorities, OBCs, and Dalits) strategy has predated his association with the Congress party. However, brutally divisive caste politics has been taken to an extent not witnessed in the state even in the times of Devraj Urs.

The target has been the politically consolidated, BJP core voter base of the Lingayats. By distinguishing Lingayats from the Veerashivas and promoting the narrative of a separate and officially supporting the demand for a minority Lingayat religion, Siddaramaiah has used caste fault line combinations that were employed in Gujarat. It is apparent that Siddaramaiah will stop at nothing, not even damaging the very basic fabric of Hindu society, to hold on to power, a trademark of a true Congressman.

Demoralised Hindus:

Another old strategy that is being continued in Karnataka is the political and most, unfortunately, literal beating that Hindus have taken under Siddaramaiah in Karnataka. Minority appeasement has been associated with the Congress for decades. In Karnataka, the Congress party has furthered this agenda not just through its Government Schemes (read Shaadi Bhagya) but also by promulgating politics of communal violence.

The Congress Party has allowed for violence against Hindus to gain a foothold in Karnataka, especially in the coastal districts neighbouring the state of Kerala. 23 Hindu activists, many of whom belonged to the RSS or the BJP, have been brutally murdered. The Government has not only remained unmoved in view of these killings but has also politically nurtured the PFI, an organization that has been chargesheeted in the murder of many of these Hindu activists.

Why BJP needs to win the state:

BJP Karnataka’s campaign against the Karnataka Congress has recently gained momentum, especially online. The BJP’s Chief Ministerial candidate, Yeddyurappa has visited all 224 assembly constituencies through his ‘Parivarthana Yatra’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also reported to lead the campaigning in the state. All this shows how the state is equally important to the BJP in wake of the 2019 general elections.

If the BJP wins Karnataka, it will leave a big blow to Congress which has an upper hand in the state and has most of the factors working in its favour as of now. The latest campaign to shame BJP and Hindus over rapes in Unnao and Kathua also has peaked. Congress seems to have got everything right, except a few hiccups like dissatisfaction with ticket distribution, which honestly is not unique to the party. This is why it will be a big blow to Congress if they lose from here and the BJP has to do its best to secure a victory.

If the party loses in Karnataka, it will expose its vulnerabilities further and could demoralise the support base further. The Congress supporting ecosystem will also get a shot in their arm and that will add to the troubles of the BJP.

All these factors ensure that the upcoming Karnataka elections are going to be keenly fought and perhaps we are going to witness some unprecedented political one-upmanship in coming days.

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