Post updated with tweet reflecting anger of BJP rank and file, see below.
Originally published on Niti Central here. All of the data from Karnataka election results 2013 can be found here.
The collective political wisdom of the crowd over the past decade has more or less settled down towards a preference for stability over anything else. Assembly election after Assembly election have seen a shift away from political fragmentation and a preference for a single party or stable pre-poll coalition at the State level. The only exceptions have been smaller States like Goa and Jharkhand that held out against this broad trend for the longest time. Goa finally made up its mind towards a stable political configuration last year. Jharkhand is now the lone exception to this nationwide trend. The stability in electoral choice however, has not always extended to stability in intra-party politics.
The Congress in Andhra Pradesh and the BJP in Karnataka sent the highest number of Members of Parliament for their respective parties back in 2009. Both have seen incessant intra-party instability ever since. While the BJP licks its wounds and the Congress celebrates its victory in Karnataka, one crucial difference must be pointed out. While the party that rules Karnataka has not always managed to rule in Delhi, the Congress has never managed to rule Delhi without winning in Andhra Pradesh since the Congress’s monopoly over national politics ended in 1989.
The BJP’s loss in Karnataka is strongly underlined by the havoc wreaked by the BS Yeddyurappa’s KJP. The fact that the KJP ended up in second place in as many as 35 odd seats is a telling comment on the body blow landed by Yeddyurappa to the BJP leaving it with neither a credible candidate nor a formidable organisation in many seats. Further analysis of vote shares of close contests will likely show many narrow contests where the attrition of BJP votes to the KJP made a critical difference. Whether Yeddyurappa’s ouster or continuance in the BJP could have seen a different result in Karnataka yesterday is a matter of political conjecture. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, to speculate on different outcomes based on permutations and combinations of the vote shares of different parties can at best provide cold comfort.
The political reality for the BJP in Karnataka was known many months in advance, if not years. It had no excuse for not having pre-empted this split and for not having contained its fallout. It is also inexcusable to give itself a clean chit on the endless factional political intrigue in Karnataka right from 2008. The KJP split denied the BJP the privilege of ending up as a formidable Opposition while causing it to suffer the ignominy of having to jostle with the JD-S for the space of the principal Opposition party in Karnataka. But the larger failure of the BJP in Karnataka yesterday lay in allowing factional political intrigue to distract it from Governance. In the process many bright spots of performance like infrastructure improvements, improvements in service delivery did not matter at the end of the day in the minds of the voter.
Where does the BJP go from here both in Karnataka and nationally ?
Three anecdotes come to mind that may be pertinent here. All three are unrelated, but each, rooted in a common paradox, holds a valuable lesson for the BJP as it looks to recover lost ground in Karnataka and hopes to pose a formidable challenge to the UPA in Delhi.
The first anecdote is from Ahmedabad from the day after the Gujarat results were out when Narendra Modi was re-elected for the third time. The hotel manager in Khanpur who also moonlights as a cab driver gave us a ride back to the airport early in the morning. He made a perceptive remark which reflects the paradox for the BJP in a manner not very different from 1996. The hotel manager, while explaining his voting preference earlier in the week remarked that he was not a BJP partisan and that he did not trust the BJP as a party, but he trusted Narendra Modi.
It is both paradoxical and counter-intuitive that it is not Narendra Modi that has an acceptability problem but it is the BJP as a Party that has an acceptability problem.
Fast forward to the last week of April when Narendra Modi was in Bangalore for his maiden campaign event in Karnataka. A riveting image from that day was the electrified crowd at the National College Grounds in Basavanagudi shouting down the local BJP Member of Parliament Mr. Anantha Kumar. It took an extraordinary intervention by Narendra Modi to persuade the crowd to listen to their own Member of Parliament highlighting how deep the disenchantment was with the BJP’s leadership outside of Narendra Modi.
Much has been made of Narendra Modi’s impact or lack of on the Karnataka election. The reality is the BJP’s wins in the heart of Bangalore came from seats where the candidates were not only performant and had good ground game but also had identified themselves in a significant way with Narendra Modi in their Campaign Material (highlighted by this columnist on Twitter a few weeks back) even before Modi had set foot in Karnataka.
The paradox deepens for even the most formidable candidates had to rely on the Modi factor in their campaign to overcome the challenge posed by anti-incumbency.
The last anecdote is a personal confession of sorts. Having been away from India for over a decade, this columnist was thrilled to finally get back in the electoral rolls and to vote. A personal tragedy over the weekend changed the plans for the voting day but it also helped overcome a moral dilemma.
Yeshwanthpur, the Constituency where this columnist was registered to vote, was a BJP seat back in 2008 having elected the formidable Sobha Karandlaje. For the past many months that this columnist has been residing in that constituency, it was clear that the BJP had abandoned it. There was neither a sign of the organisation nor the semblance of any campaign for many months. By the time Karandlaje decided to switch parties and seats, the BJP it seems was left high and dry in this constituency with no Plan B. With not even the slightest evidence of a serious campaign, even this columnist, a known BJP partisan, was faced with the moral dilemma of having to choose between a non-candidate from the BJP, an alleged criminal with seven cases from the JD-S, as alternatives to the relatively clean and engaged Congress candidate.
The paradox of the most committed BJP partisan being unpersuaded at the polling booth highlights the biggest challenge for the BJP and its rank and file.
The lesson from Karnataka for the BJP is that the most superhuman campaign by one individual will come to naught if it is not backed by a performant organisation and by a credible candidate. In our indirect democracy, when the average voter, even if marginally enthused by Narendra Modi, steps into the polling booth and stares at the ballot, they will not see Narendra Modi but the local candidate. Unless the BJP rank and file bring extraordinary pressure to bear on the BJP’s leadership to choose credible candidates who exude Narendra Modi’s persona both with their conduct and in their views, their dream of seeing Modi in Delhi will remain distant.
BJP will neither change by the superhuman efforts of one individual nor by the wisdom of a few good men in Delhi. Extraordinary pressure from the ground-up alone can force this change on the BJP.
Filed under: Karnataka Polls 2013, Narendra Modi