Understanding Narendra Modi’s appeal in Karnataka

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the public rally for Lok Sabha elections at Palace Ground in Bengaluru. (DH Photo)

Of all the Southern states, Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds the strongest appeal in Karnataka. This is quite expected since Karnataka is the only Southern state where the BJP has a significant base. 

The BJP ruled the state twice – first as part of a coalition with the Janata Dal (Secular) for 20 months (2006-07) and then on its own for a full term (2008-2013) – before Modi came to dominate the Saffron party. But the current popularity of Modi in Karnataka is not just an offshoot of the party’s pre-existing prominence in the state. It is a more nuanced story.

Unlike the other Southern states, Karnataka does not have a strong regional party or a popular regional leader. Karnataka has always rallied around the so-called national parties. When Modi rose prominently on the national scene on the eve of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress was in power in Karnataka with Siddaramaiah as Chief Minister. 

Although Siddaramaiah was a strong leader in his own right, his style of leadership was not a counter-magnet to Modi’s. Siddaramaiah’s rustic mannerisms and his commitment to a narrowly-conceived concept of social justice focusing on a few disadvantaged castes hardly pleased the state’s middle class. Exploiting a few missteps of the Siddaramaiah government, the BJP also projected him as an anti-Hindu leader.

Modi at the same time presented an image of being a champion of the cause of ‘all Hindus’ and a harbinger of ‘inclusive development’, which struck an immediate chord with the state’s middle class. 

In other Southern states, charismatic regional leaders presented their own ideological and developmental alternatives to those represented by Modi. In the absence of any such alternatives in Karnataka, the Modi model easily lured a large number voters.

During the five years of Modi’s rule at the Centre, similarly, leaders in other Southern states could come out with substantive anti-Modi narratives which have been conspicuously absent in Karnataka. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) made the Modi government’s alleged trampling on the federal principles of governance a big issue. The state has had a history of resisting the dominance of the overbearing Centre and thus this narrative could strike a chord with voters there. 

In Andhra Pradesh, Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu could project the Modi government’s alleged neglect of the fund-starved new state to keep any possible upsurge of a pro-Modi wave at bay. In neighbouring Telangana, the ruling Telangana Rashtriya Samithi (TRS) based its politics on strong pro-Telangana sentiment which could fortify the state against Modi’s nationalist Hindu pull. 

Leaders in Kerala were quick to point to Modi’s alleged divisive politics, which has good purchase in the state given the presence there of a strong Left movement and minority communities. 

In contrast, the parties and leaders in Karnataka have not been able to weave a convincing and accessible anti-Modi narrative. The exception is pockets in what is known as Old Mysore districts where the JD(S) has been able to capture the imagination of voters as it projects itself as the protector of the region’s numerically strong Vokkaliga community.

A biased regional Kannada media has contributed immensely to popularize the ‘Modi myth’ in Karnataka. All Kannada newspapers, barring a couple, have taken a pro-Modi stand in their editorial and reportage, with the most widely circulated Kannada daily leading the pack. A sting operation widely shared through the social media on the eve of 2018 assembly elections showed the editor of a Kannada newspaper confess before the secret camera that “one need not compel us to publish pro-Hindu (read pro-Modi) reports since we have long been doing it anyway.” The regional media in other Southern states, especially in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, are more critical of the Modi model of politics and development. 

Karnataka’s strong educational sector is dominated by engineering, medical and management institutes where education is highly instrumental and devoid of any critical approach to public affairs. The absence in contemporary Karnataka of strong intellectual traditions, social movements, and even a good centre of higher learning allowed smooth sailing for Modi’s politics, based on Hindu pride, as nationalist sentiment. 

Finally, Modi may have charmed Karnataka much more than what he could do elsewhere in peninsular India, but this story has a sub-text of BJP’s declining electoral performance in the state during the Modi era, which should not be missed. The BJP won 19 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka in 2009 whereas in 2014 when ‘Modi wave’ was at its peak, the BJP could win only 17 seats. 

In 2018 Assembly elections despite an extensive and aggressive campaign by Modi in a bid to extend his dominance to Southern India, the BJP could not win a simple majority. It emerged as the single largest party with 104 seats, whereas it could win 110 seats in 2008 under the leadership of BS Yeddyurappa. So, the BJP had seen much better days in this Southern state before Modi descended on the scene. Will the results of 2019 Lok Sabha elections prove any different?

(A Narayana is an Associate Professor with Azim Premji University and a policy researcher and political commentator)

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Understanding Narendra Modi’s appeal in Karnataka

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