The road ahead for the BJP after the Karnataka loss

There are lessons from Karnataka for Modi and Shah

40-Prime-Minister-Narendra-Modi Task cut out: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP need to tweak their strategy ahead of the remaining assembly polls this year | Tony Dominic

Two showers, varied in nature, had different impacts on the Karnataka electorate. The Congress campaign played up videos of Rahul Gandhi braving a heavy downpour during the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Mysuru. Whereas Prime Minister Narendra Modi was greeted with a shower of marigold petals, supplied by party workers, by citizens during his long road shows in Bengaluru and other cities. It was aired on news channels and amplified on social media. The results were in favour of the rain-spattered Congress―a reminder of how a mufflered Arvind Kejriwal had got the better of Modi in a monogrammed suit eight years ago.

The images were external symbols in an election where the BJP high command took total control of a state assembly election, with Union Home Minister Amit Shah in charge of strategy. He held sessions not only in Delhi and Bengaluru, but also in districts. The other high functionary was B.L. Santhosh, general secretary (organisation), who earlier held the same position in the Karnataka BJP. Plus, Modi made multiple official forays. After the loss, there were attempts to lay the blame at Santhosh’s door. Similarly, BJP national president J.P. Nadda could not halt the slide in his home state of Himachal Pradesh. The local leadership was underwhelmed.

Since last February, the BJP and the Congress have had five direct confrontations. The score stood three in favour of the BJP (Goa, Gujarat, Uttarakhand) and two for the Congress (Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka). All five had incumbent BJP governments. In other states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Tripura, there were bigger regional players. In the five remaining assembly elections this year, the BJP and the Congress are head-to-head in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In Telangana, both are challengers to the entrenched Bharat Rashtra Samithi, led by K. Chandrashekar Rao. In Mizoram, the Mizo National Front is the main player.

There are lessons from Karnataka for Modi and Shah, both fast thinkers, innovative strategists and aggressive implementers. The BJP dumped key Lingayat leaders like Laxman Savadi and Jagadish Shettar at the last minute without offering a cogent explanation. And, the community punished the BJP, which had given three Lingayat chief ministers. The loss made a mockery of surveys and feedback from multiple observers. Shah, who repeatedly insisted on a big majority, was no more the infallible oracle. In the northern states, too, the party needs to have strong reasons and explainers for its shocking decisions.

Earlier strategists assigned to states like Arun Jaitley, Ananth Kumar and P. Muralidhar Rao campaigned far less. But Shah, because of his stature in the party and government and his electoral success rate, was key strategist and the biggest star campaigner after Modi. The party has to look whether the two roles should be combined in the coming elections, or should Shah just focus on the more important Lok Sabha elections.

In Karnataka, the criticism in the party ranks is that the high command ignored the voter perception about corruption in the B.S. Yediyurappa and Basavaraj Bommai governments. The high command will have to quickly address the negative perceptions about the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh, while supporting the local units to go full throttle against the Congress governments in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Also, there has to be a hard look at road shows, which were vote-catchers in Gujarat but not so much in Karnataka. The imperial march through cities did not address rural distress over cooking gas price and unemployment.

In Madhya Pradesh, after his government was toppled owing to Jyotiraditya Scindia’s defection in 2019, the Congress’s Kamal Nath appears to have consolidated the party behind him. The BJP has to decide whether it should give Scindia, who has chief ministerial ambitions, a bigger role even if it upsets the old timers. Balancing Chouhan and Scindia is a major opportunity and challenge.

In Rajasthan, the tussle between former chief minister Vasundhara Raje and Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat needs to be addressed as Raje, popular as maharani, has more support on ground. Also, despite the seemingly irreconcilable differences between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and former state Congress chief Sachin Pilot, the Bharat Jodo Yatra drew massive crowds in Rajasthan.

Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s populist schemes need to be tackled with the BJP’s own alternative programmes for the poor. That is why, Modi and Nadda may have to review the party’s conservatism and government’s welfare policies, which helped the Congress wrest power in Karnataka. The main focus of the BJP’s double-engine philosophy is massive industrialisation and urbanisation with high quality of life. The BJP has insisted its policies would increase jobs and entrepreneurship, which will help large populations become self-sufficient. While trickle-down economy has admirers in urban areas, rural distress needs urgent solutions. The party has also taken a rigid stand on implementing the New Pension Scheme for government employees and pensioners at the Centre and in BJP-ruled states. Leaders in Himachal Pradesh had said that the Congress’s promise of restoring the old pension scheme helped win votes. As the Congress repeats its five guarantees, which were a big hit in Karnataka, the BJP has to get its narrative right for the rural poor.

Karnataka also showed the ‘hindutva in danger’ card does not always click. When the Congress said it would ban the Bajrang Dal, the BJP said the Congress would imprison Hanuman. There were recitations of the Hanuman Chalisa in many districts. But there was no discernible impact on Hindu votes.

The BJP’s data bank, managed by Santhosh at the national headquarters, is impressive. The party has a system of office-bearers, from block to state level, reporting to the state leadership. Reports from the state and national office-bearers, Union ministers and MPs are regularly processed, with a digest going to parliamentary board members. Then there are reports from pollsters, think tanks and academics. The party discussions are elaborate. But this mountain needs to produce an anti-fragile strategy for the remaining battles of 2023. That will be the BJP’s summer challenge.