Hard versus Soft Hindutva: Winners and losers of the Karnataka election

The Modi-Amit Shah combination has proven deadly in the face of Rahul Gandhi's weak strategy

Hard versus Soft Hindutva: Winners and losers of the Karnataka election
Irrespective of who will ultimately form the government in Karnataka, the results have shown that Congress, despite all its energy, has failed to stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s magic from taking effect. At the end the south-western Indian state got a hung assembly and the wrestling over who will be the king was still on while these lines were being written. Short of the simple majority by eight seats the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) has been pushed to the wall after the Congress and regional party Janta Dal (Secular) came together to make up the majority. The picture that emerges out of this bitterly-fought election is good indication of which way India is heading as it goes into an election year.

BJP’s performance in the elections is not bad but the numbers pushed it a little to the side. If a simple majority had come its way, it would have taken the 21st state in the country and leaving Congress to rule just three states. Which way the power swings in Karnataka is not as important as the way the BJP played itself in the elections. Political observers believe that it was a closely-fought election in which Congress did not do poorly. Most pollsters had predicted a comfortable win for the BJP but Congress’s performance was also not underestimated. If Congress becomes the part of the government, it will be just by chance, since its new-found coalition partner has 38 seats and Congress has 78 and the two Independents have also joined them.

Source: ECI via Nielsen

Notwithstanding the apparent disenchantment the people have with Modi’s government, the party has been on a winning streak and in contrast, the Congress on losing one. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who comes with a huge political baggage, is continuously losing the elections. As vice president, he lost 13 elections in a row and as president the Karnataka is the third one to lose. So it seems that for Congress, the Nehru-Gandhi family charm is no longer a boon.

Congress has ruled India for a long time and this is somehow a disadvantage for the party since the narrative in India has changed with the coming of Modi who derives all his power from the BJP’s ideological fountainhead RSS. Congress is being discredited, so is India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru. They are now presented as villains and not the heroes and the narrative is led by Modi himself.

Though Congress has been secular on paper but the way it has handled important issues like Kashmir, Babri Masjid and the minorities, has made it clear that it has also played dirty politics. The major allegation against Congress by the BJP has been ‘minority appeasement’ but going by what minorities have gone through during Congress rule debunks such a claim. Of late, Congress’ “soft Hindutva” policy has backfired. Development has taken a backseat in the elections and voters are thinking along ideological lines. Congress certainly faced anti-incumbency in Karnataka, but the state was not doing bad as far as development is concerned and Seetharaman was a robust candidate to fight for chief minister despite being in power for five years. Its economy grew at 8.5 percent–second-highest among 10 states and union territories in 2017, had a gross domestic product of $141 billion in 2017-2018. According to IndiaSpend, with a per capita income of Rs142,267 per annum, Karnataka’s citizens are India’s 10th richest, behind Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra, and Kerala in 2015-2016.
Congress has perennial hatred towards the regional parties, but it forgets that it is no longer a central force where the BJP has occupied the space

However, there are two major factors that hit Rahul Gandhi’s road to success in Karnataka. One is that Modi’s magic is still playing well and his whirlwind tour to the state in the last days of the elections helped the BJP change its fortunes. The BJP’s intense and well-strategised campaign had no match in Congress’s. The BJP ran its campaign apparently on development, but the word of mouth was its ideology of Hindutva. Giving the impression to Indians that their country was a Hindu country and had always been in danger because of “secularists” has been playing a significant role in the BJP’s winning spree for last few years. The BJP’s performance in Karnataka is out of its policy of Hindu consolidation throughout the country and the failures of Modi government have been overshadowed by religious polarisation in which minorities, particularly the Muslims, have been rendered irrelevant.

The Modi-Amit Shah (BJP chief) combination has proven deadly in the face of Rahul Gandhi’s weak strategy. Modi’s charisma coupled with its politics that revolved round issues like Tipu Sultan proved to be Gandhi’s nemesis.

By following the soft Hindutva agenda to compete with the BJP, the Congress is becoming its B team and not to recognise the importance of regional forces has played heavily in its defeat. Congress has perennial hatred towards the regional parties, but it forgets that it is no longer a central force where the BJP has occupied the space. While the situation cannot be clear vis a vis the 2019 general elections, the BJP has the challenge in three important states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, which are due for elections in November. That will set the tone for general elections.

Even if the BJP loses one or two, as is predicted, that certainly does not mean an end to Modi’s rule. As of now, there is no alternative to Modi. Secular forces are demoralised, and Congress is dividing them rather than uniting. It refuses to accept that it is no longer the leader in the politics. The only challenge that Modi and the BJP may not withstand is unity of all others. In case Bhahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP), two potent regional parties in Uttar Pradesh, unite like they did in by-polls recently, Modi’s return to power may become impossible. This is also conditioned with how Congress behaves with the regional forces. As of now, Modi is unbeatable and Karnataka has shown that. It was a test case for Congress in forging alliances and it failed.