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Lesson from Karnataka – respect states and India’s federalism

The Karnataka election outcome has reaffirmed this idea and has shown yet again that the notion of ‘one nation, one thought’ is fundamentally flawed
Last Updated : 13 May 2023, 21:02 IST
Last Updated : 13 May 2023, 21:02 IST

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Regular readers know that this column extols federalism and argues that it is the bedrock on which our nation stands. The Karnataka election outcome has reaffirmed this idea and has shown yet again that the notion of ‘one nation, one thought’ is fundamentally flawed. The emphatic Congress victory is an outcome of the people of Karnataka rejecting the idea of one national leader, one national political party, one national issue, one national policy and so on. The BJP under Narendra Modi is an exemplar of that ‘one nation, one thought’ idea. Karnataka has given a resounding message that India is a federal union of states, not one homogeneous nation, and attempts to shove a national idea down their throats will be spat out.

While the Congress party invoked issues of corruption that impacted Kannadigas and asked to vote out the BJP, Modi said vote for the BJP because Congress abused me 91 times. Nobody really abused Modi, except to indulge in standard election campaign speeches. But that is not the point. The BJP mindset was that the perceived sin of ‘abusing’ Modi should matter to Kannadigas more than their own daily struggles with corruption.

This playbook stems from the notion that if a voter in UP can be wooed by crocodile tears of a national leader, so can voters in the southern state of Karnataka and the rest of India be. It is reflective of the BJP’s entrenched belief that a national leader’s ‘blessing’ is far superior to actual state issues for voters across the nation. The Karnataka election has revealed some harsh truths for the BJP – a national leader does not trump state issues, and their supposed ‘supreme national leader’ is neither national nor supreme.

Another striking example of a national election playbook forced upon Karnataka was the attempt to religiously polarise voters under the alibi of Bajrang Dal and using the national media to amplify it. Again, this tactic may have worked in UP or Gujarat, but clearly it did not in Karnataka. But the BJP under Modi does not want to recognise the diversity of India’s states and reconcile with it. It does not have a playbook other than one national formula for everything from electioneering to governance to policies.

This illusion of a national party and their leader piercing through the thick walls of state boundaries is further propagated and amplified by the self-anointed national media, based in Lutyen’s Delhi. The cacophonic political shows on ‘national’ television and political punditry in the opinion pages of ‘national’ newspapers in the run-up to the Karnataka elections bellowed about how the Congress was committing suicide with the Bajrang Dal issue and how Modi’s rallies would overpower local issues, etc., because that is how it works in say UP or Uttarakhand or Gujarat. 43% of voters in Karnataka voted for the Congress in this election, the highest for any party in four decades. Cheekily, the Congress party can now understandably, albeit wrongly, argue that the Bajrang Dal issue helped and not hurt its cause, contrary to national media punditry. Consumption of Delhi media is perhaps the most injurious to India’s federalism.

As I have shown using data in previous columns, India’s regional diversity and geospatial disparity across economic, cultural, political and social axes are only widening and not converging over time. The gap between, say, Bihar and Karnataka is wider today in all aspects than even two decades ago, which will manifest in its politics. The Karnataka election is a profound lesson in federal politics, not just for the BJP but also for the Congress party. The Congress cannot extrapolate its Karnataka victory to presume that national issues such as Adani’s cronyism or any other, while they may have helped in Karnataka, can be replicated in other states to same result. It is important to understand that the winning formula in Karnataka is not seamlessly transferrable to other states such as Rajasthan, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh, where elections are due later in the year.

The obvious next question is whether regional differences recede and national issues take precedence in a national election. It is a widely held belief that India’s national elections are more national after the advent of Modi’s BJP. There is empirical truth to this assertion, based on the 2014 and 2019 national elections. However, this is not an entrenched and established fact of Indian politics forever.

As India’s states grow further and further apart economically and socially, it has to inevitably reflect in its politics too. It is incumbent upon the Opposition to reinforce among voters in each state that the BJP represents a coerced ‘one nation, one formula’ idea which renders their state worse and delivers bad outcomes. That is, it is necessary for Opposition parties to convince the tribal woman in Rajasthan bearing the brunt of inflation or the jobless youngster in UP that their woes are best addressed by political parties and leaders that are more attuned to their local circumstances, than by any messiah from Delhi with one solution for the entire nation.

The lesson from Karnataka for the Opposition is to convince voters that even in a national election, their daily livelihood interests are best served by local leaders and the seemingly abstract notion of federalism matters for the common man.

The other sobering lesson for the Opposition from Karnataka is that ideas such as ‘Opposition unity’ that assume that if few parties get together nationally, their voters in each state will also come together is a fallacy. The Karnataka outcome shows that each state election is best fought locally, and the optics of all Opposition parties’ leaders raising hands in a show of unity for Delhi media cameras may not entice voters across state boundaries.

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Published 13 May 2023, 20:08 IST

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