Slip between cup and lip?

BJP’s gateway to South

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being presented a Mysore Peta by State President B S Yeddyurappa during the Parivartan Yatra rally in Bengaluru. PTI

Karnataka is crucial to the political fortunes of the BJP south of the Vindhyas. The Congress-JD (S) alliance government is already beginning to feel the multiple pressure points that could threaten its longevity. Swords are being drawn out by all political parties, with the parliamentary elections fast approaching. 

The goal of the BJP would be not only to hold on to the 17 seats it had secured in the 2014 elections, but to increase the number. By no means is it going to be a walkover for the party in the next hustings. The recent defeat it suffered in the Bellary by-election has been a setback. The inroads that the BJP could make will be contingent on the resilience of the Congress-JD(S) alliance in withstanding the pressure points.

One of the possibilities for the BJP would be to ensure that the bickering between the alliance partners continues and deepens in the run-up to the elections. The defeat of the BJP in the by-elections in Karnataka is an indication
of the rough ride ahead. The propensity of the BJP to dismiss the Congress-JD(S) alliance as inconsequential and unnatural will not serve its interests either.

The discrediting of former BJP minister Janardhan Reddy further adds to its problems. The raging conflict between Kumaraswamy and Reddy goes back to 2006. Since the May 2018 assembly election, the BJP has strategically distanced itself from the Reddy brothers. Reddy, too, has kept a low profile since his release on bail.

In the last assembly elections, six of the assembly segments in Bellary went to Congress. In a major embarrassment to the BJP, Sreeramulu’s sister J Shanta was trounced by a relative newcomer, V S Ugrappa, in the Lok Sabha by-election. The time has come for BJP to introspect and change strategies to take on the Congress-JD(S) alliance.

The death of Ananth Kumar, the BJP’s long-standing MP from Bangalore South, has also been a setback. This is a seat the BJP has held since 1991. It has always been a high profile constituency, held by personalities like Kengal Hanumanthaiah (1967 and 1971), Gundu Rao (1989), Prof K Venkatagiri Gowda (1991) and Ananth Kumar since. In the 2014 election, Nandan Nilekani was blown away by the Modi wave by a record margin of 2.28 lakh votes.

Strategically, the Congress has come to recognise the role and importance of regional parties in its political calculations and fortunes. Perhaps, the Congress-JD(S) combine would have fared better in the last assembly election had they entered into a pre-poll alliance. They have no choice but to do so for the parliamentary elections.

As part of its strategy for the general election, the BJP has decided to highlight the issue of rampant corruption and scams pertaining to land, liquor, housing schemes and real estate in particular. The BJP, too, will have to play its game of alliance politics with potential regional allies. Congress seems to have come to terms with this reality. Though the Congress-JD(S) alliance was hastily stitched together, it has now become a political necessity for both sides. It marked a change from the Congress inertia of the past.

Regional sentiment

The regional sentiment is on a high all over the country. The BJP would need to capitalise on this, while downplaying the image of the BJP as a party that is controlled and regulated entirely by its central leadership. It has to expand its footprint where it is traditionally weak, and protect its traditional bastions, wherever it feels threatened. To do this, it may require partners, wherever necessary, which have to be worked out tactfully. The electoral arithmetic can be complicated for all the political parties. ‘Achhe din’, which struck a chord with all, from farmers to the middle class and the business community in 2014, remains a distant dream for many in 2019. The BJP will have to convince the electorate that it has delivered on the major promises made in 2014.

It will also have to contend with the growing urban disillusionment and apathy, especially in the Bengaluru region. The May 2018 Assembly elections and by-elections in Karnataka are indicative of these trends. Congress won 17 seats in the Bengaluru region, compared to BJP’s 11 — worrisome for the BJP because the urban middle class in the Bengaluru region has been the BJP’s traditional bastion.

There seems to be no magic wand or formula for the ‘Mahagatbandhan’ to take shape and work. Given the challenges and uncertainties on the ground, it is bound to take a variety of twists and turns en route, both before and after the elections. To take on the BJP, the alliance parties have to ensure that there is greater consolidation of votes in its favour.

For the BJP, it is critically important to mobilise the people so that they come out in large numbers to vote. The Hindutva agenda, though critical for the BJP, may not be sufficient by itself to garner the required votes and seats in Karnataka. Neither will 0it serve the BJP’s interests to dub the Congress-JD(S) alliance as unnatural and inconsequential. The battle lines are clearly drawn.

Anticipating the immense challenges ahead of D-day, it seems the BJP is recalibrating its approach, outlook and strategies. The people’s expectation from the BJP is more down-to-earth. What remains of the ‘Modi wave’ may not be sufficient to get the job done. The BJP has its task cut out to ensure that Karnataka will be its gateway to the south. The challenge before the party is that there can be many a slip between the cup and the lip.

(The writer is Professor and Dean (Arts), Department of Political Science, Bangalore University)

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