The Karnataka assembly elections, crucial as they were, threw up a few challenges in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls a year down the line and held out some lessons for the BJP as well as the Congress. The BJP has undoubtedly had a good run barring a few jolts along the way since its spectacular win in the 2014 general elections. While it was shaken and rocked in Bihar assembly and in two key byelections in Uttar Pradesh, it notched up a series of wins in a spate of assembly polls.
With the Opposition getting its act together, albeit partially, in the Karnataka vote, with the BJP improving its last tally considerably but falling short of the magic figure and the Congress stitching up an alliance with the Janata Dal(S) to outmanoeuvre it, the saffron outfit was clearly on the back foot. Who will have the last laugh in the Lok Sabha polls in Karnataka is still an open question — whether the BJP could gain from its new position as an underdog evoking sympathy much the same way as Mrs Indira Gandhi benefited from Opposition consolidation against her in 1971, or the Congress-JD (S) could benefit from the combination of two distinct voting groups is the question.
This writer’s gut feeling is that the BJP would be a net gainer because it would also be able to capitalise on the fact that it lost power despite a good mandate due to the opportunistic alliance between a rejected Congress and an unscrupulous JD(S). When BJP chief minister BS Yeddyurappa resigned on May 19, just before his party was to take the floor test in the Assembly, he did make many BJP supporters emotional. One truth that has emerged from the Assembly polls is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to be a crowd puller and his charisma has not waned despite four years in the saddle, which is somewhat unusual.
People at large continue to believe that demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax brought temporary hardship but the ultimate effects would be positive. At any rate, they are inclined to give BJP and Modi a further chance to perform, looking at the lack of clarity in Opposition ranks over how they would run the country if the reins are handed over to them. While it is true that no prime minister has evoked so much ill-will and criticism from a broad array of rival political parties, it is equally true that people at large have never before been more indulgent towards a prime minister.
As things stand, the motley crowd that the Opposition is with little hint of cohesion in policies and programmes evokes more derision than hope. By contrast, the BJP looks a force to reckon with, cohesive and formidable. How things will actually pan out in 2019, and crucially, whether the other Opposition parties and Congress would reconcile to a common candidate for prime ministership remains to be seen. One of the prime lessons for the BJP to learn is that regional parties cannot be ignored or wished away. Their ground-level cadre, an understanding of local issues and a better grip on identity calculations play their own roles.
It needs to learn to forge new alliances and to strive to retain old friends. For that it has to shed its ego and arrogance. It was the arrogance of Congress leaders that resulted in the downfall of that grand old party in 2014. In today’s era of coalition politics, no party can succeed with its leaders having a stiff upper lip. The leadership of the Congress with Rahul Gandhi at the helm inspires little hope of the party’s revival. Most other leaders of political parties, too, do not measure up to minimum standards of leadership acumen and overall merit.
Mauled in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and thrown out of power in most states which it hitherto held, the Congress has been under prolonged siege. The Left parties have shrunk dramatically with only Kerala to boast of and regional parties like Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samja Party are in dire straits. That they now see a threat to their very existence and are bandying together to forge an anti-Modi front is not unnatural. But the ferocity of their attacks and the BJP’s recoil action are hitting at the very foundations of democracy.
2019 will indeed be a crucial year. If the BJP wins the general elections, it would move to decimate its rivals. But if the regrouping of and forging of unity among the Opposition parties lead to unexpected pro-Opposition results, there opens up the prospects of a ‘khichdi sarkar’ with little to gloat about. Polarisation along religious and caste lines would only mean more fragmentation, and development could well be a casualty in such a divided polity. The desirable thing would be for parties to unite on ideological lines and not on lines of caste and religion but how far that would be fulfilled is anybody’s guess.
There are too many imponderables in the emerging situation to predict where the country is heading with the 2019 elections. While the Karnataka poll results and the elections later this year to assemblies in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh may throw up hints as to which way the wind is blowing, there would be no finality about it. The country is indeed at the crossroads.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.