A couple of weeks ago, when the Karnataka election campaign was in its last lap, the Bharatiya Janata Party state unit in Kerala got a message from the Prime Minister’s Office: A senior BJP leader told this author that the PMO wanted details of the Swaraj Round encircling the Thekkinkadu Maidan, the 65-acre canopy in the heart of Thrissur, to explore the feasibility of holding a Modi roadshow in the city. Having received great feedback on the roadshow in Kochi last month, it was part of the ruling party’s target to make the most of the prime minister’s goodwill in Kerala.
Earlier this year, BJP had set an ambitious target of doubling its tally of 30 seats from the south, which sends 130 members to the Lok Sabha. Having reached saturation point in northern and Western India on the back of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which were fought primarily on the national security plank, BJP reckons it has to make up for potential losses in Bihar and Maharashtra by maximising its seats in the South and the Northeast. It is in this scenario that Modi’s “carpet bombing” strategy for the last leg of the Karnataka assembly polls needs to be contextualised.
A stinging loss
The stinging loss in Karnataka, especially the margin of defeat, has dealt a huge blow to BJP’s overall calculation for 2024 and beyond. That the prime minister would invest so much of his energies into the last week preceding the polls indicated that BJP sniffed a chance to retain power, at least in partnership with the Janata Dal (Secular). The loss of its lone bastion has set the party back by a decade in South India.
Karnataka is very much a mini-South India, carved out of the erstwhile princely states of Hyderabad and Mysore, the province of Coorg, and the presidencies of Madras and Bombay.
Thus, the state has a large population that identifies equally with other southern states and cultures, with BJP’s historical gains concentrated in the Kittur-Karnataka (Mumbai-Karnataka) region abutting Maharashtra and the coastal and Malnad (Western Ghats) regions of the state. In the Lingayat heartland of Kittur-Karnataka, BS Yediyurappa, assuming leadership of an ascendant BJP in the state, convinced the community to back him as their leader, which had to do with social engineering more than anything else.
BL Santhosh’s gambit
In many ways, it was the appointment of BL Santhosh as BJP’s national joint general secretary (in-charge of southern states) in 2014 – following its 2013 loss in Karnataka after Yediyurappa’s exit in December 2012 – that recast the party’s strategy in the state and the rest of South India. Originally loaned from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Santhosh was known to extrapolate Karnataka to the rest of South India and had the potential to replicate the strategies adopted in the state elsewhere.
At the Madhava Nivas, the RSS headquarters in Kerala, a prominent Sangh man told me how often the “polyglot” Santhosh travelled to Kerala in those five years (2014-19), significantly influencing BJP’s growth trajectory in the state. It’s true that BJP did well electorally and opened its account in this intervening period in the state, but it is also a feat it has since failed to replicate.
Hailing from the mostly Tulu-speaking coastal Karnataka, of which the two taluks – Kasaragod and Manjeshwar – got left behind in Kerala during the reorganisation of states, Santhosh played a part in executing the generational overhaul of Kerala BJP and taking leaders such as K Surendran under his wing.
On 13 May, as the election results trickled in from Karnataka, a pall of gloom descended on BJP offices across the state. Party leaders put on a brave face in TV studios for the live coverage of the polls. However, these representatives had no hesitation in privately admitting that BJP’s forward march in the state would be severely jolted after its electoral loss in Karnataka.
While Santhosh’s idea of replicating strategies that were successful in Karnataka to the rest of South India had merit, what he probably failed to gauge was the unlikelihood of BJP’s Hindutva monolith working across Karnataka and beyond. True, it worked to a large extent in coastal Karnataka and adjoining Malnad due to a host of reasons, but it couldn’t be scaled up to a pan-Karnataka level.
Of course, BJP is not expected to give up the strategy on account of this loss alone.
Secular moorings of South India
The people of South India have their own sub-national identities, which they identify with just as they identify with their national identity. Unlike the post-Partition spite that existed in the North, these people have co-existed peacefully for ages and wouldn’t be amenable to a uniform Hindutva pitch. It’s not so easy to polarise them solely on religious lines.
And hence the prime minister’s “Jai Bajrangbali” war cries (alluding to the Congress manifesto proposal to ban the Bajrang Dal in tandem with the Popular Front of India) didn’t turn into votes as BJP might have expected. The loss of BJP’s national general secretary and hardliner CT Ravi in Chikmagalur would have also rankled the party, without a doubt.
Other divisive issues such as hijab, halal food and Tipu Sultan were on the back burner in the first leg of the campaign, but Modi didn’t have qualms naming The Kerala Story, a recent propaganda film by Sudipto Sen, in his campaign to warn the electorate of the spectre of Islamism. In the end, the impressive crowds thronging Modi’s roadshows in Bengaluru and Mysuru and the massive rallies belied the performance of BJP at the hustings.
BJP’s push on infrastructure at the cost of welfare measures, too, failed to click in Karnataka – one of the lesser-acknowledged reasons for the loss. Moreover, Congress leadership in Karnataka wasn’t apologetic or jittery about speaking up for Muslims (as it usually is in the Hindi heartland) when it announced that it would restore 4 per cent reservation for the community under category 2B in the OBC list.
Also read: BJP politics in Karnataka is letting Modi down. It’s becoming another Congress
Back to the drawing board
BJP had much riding on its performance in Karnataka, which it saw as an entry point into Telangana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Retaining power here would have given it the momentum to engineer a spate of desertions in these states, just like it did in the Northeast over the last few years.
Instead, BJP’s famed “double-engine” government has chugged to a halt in the south of the Vindhyas, but for a small stake in the Union Territory of Puducherry, and finds itself back to the drawing board. In sharp contrast to Kerala BJP, Congress had a spring in steps after the results came in, living to fight another day.
The author is a Kerala-based journalist and columnist. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)