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BJP’s spectacular performance in Karnataka heralds the end of a discredited government and a decrepit coalition

A FORTNIGHT BEFORE THE Karnataka Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) knew they had struck gold, winning 25 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in the state in a historic verdict for the party, karyakartas at a state-level Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) meeting were confident of bagging arguably the most unwinnable seat for the BJP after Hassan and Bengaluru (Rural). “It was hard to believe we could win Chamarajanagar. It is a reserved constituency in the old Mysore belt, and although we fielded a senior leader, V Srinivas Prasad, who had represented the constituency for the Congress multiple times, the sitting MP from the Congress had polled over 50 per cent votes in 2014 and we had reason to be worried,” says BJP’s B Sriramulu, a Valmiki leader. A former minister and a Dalit leader who had switched over to the BJP in 2016 when the then chief minister Siddaramaiah unceremoniously dropped him from the state cabinet, Prasad was reluctant to contest the seat. It had been a year since he had announced his retirement from electoral politics following his rout in the by-election to the Nanjangud Assembly constituency in 2017. And no one could disabuse him and the BJP leadership of their slender chances in Chamarajanagar, which encompasses Assembly segments that are Congress bastions, including Siddaramaiah’s home base of Varuna that is now represented by his son Yathindra. “The BJP sweep of Karnataka is reminiscent of the Congress’ performance under Indira Gandhi. Now that the BJP has established itself as a pan-Karnataka party, the Congress and the JD(S) are relegated to the fringes,” says 71-year-old Prasad, who managed to inch ahead of sitting Congress Member of Parliament (MP) R Dhruvanarayan thanks to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate securing 87,631 votes. Prasad beat his Congress rival by 1,817 votes, one of the lowest margins in an election that saw a parade of Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress names, each more famous than the other, run aground on the shoal of popularity. The leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge lost to a rebel candidate in Gulbarga, former Chief Minister M Veerappa Moily conceded defeat in Chikkaballapura, seven-time MP KH Muniyappa bit the dust in Kolar, and JD(S) patriarch and former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda was humbled in Tumkur. It was a verdict against a decrepit leadership that had driven the state into the tar pit of corruption and nepotism. “We are in a state of shock. Both the JD(S) and the Congress are responsible,” says GT Deve Gowda, a senior JD(S) leader and the minister for higher education. “Congress workers only talked of defeating the BJP but took little action. Congress leaders in Tumkur and Mandya openly worked against JD(S) candidates. The bickering between the cadres at the grassroots level was the biggest factor contributing to our loss.” The JD(S), he says, has reviewed its mistakes and won’t repeat them. The party, which has initiated a defamation case against Kannada journalist Vishweshwar Bhat for publishing an article on Nikhil Kumaraswamy, son of Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, has been accused of being touchy in the aftermath of the polls. “Those who are writing us off will witness our resilience,” GT Deve Gowda says.

Srinivas Prasad’s campaign did not reach every village in Chamarajanagar, but Narendra Modi’s did. “The candidate is the malai that sweetens the lassi, and it certainly helps to have a veteran like Srinivas Prasad running from a constituency where we had never opened our account. But in this election, the national narrative trounced regional concerns and Narendra Modi was the de facto candidate that half of Karnataka voted for,” says a senior BJP office-bearer who did not want to be named. “In politics one cannot jump from third to first position. We have to aim to be second first. In Kerala, for instance, the work we have done in the past two years only benefited the Congress. Karnataka is a different story. I have travelled across India and found Karnataka to be the only state where society worked with us and for us, recognising that a positive change was round the corner. In Karkala in Udupi, a restaurant provided free food to our karyakartas ; a barber from north Karnataka provided his services for free for two days—these ordinary people who never make it to the news pages were our ambassadors,” he adds. Anti-incumbency sentiment against a coalition that has pulled its leaders into a self- destructive orbit since taking charge a year ago following a hung verdict in the Assembly polls sweetened the deal for the BJP. “In seats like Kolar, it was the failure of the coalition government to work together that helped us. I won’t take credit for it,” says the BJP functionary. In Kolar, a drought-struck Scheduled Caste seat where the BJP had fielded a relative novice, the Congress and the JD(S) cadre failed to come together. Several local Congress leaders, including Assembly Speaker KR Ramesh Kumar, ex-Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Mulbagal Kothur G Manjunath and independent MLA H Nagesh who withdrew support to the coalition government earlier this year, openly criticised Congress candidates and even dispensed paeans to Modi.

“Each vote cast in the 2019 election for the BJP was in recognition of a lifetime of tapasya by the Prime Minister in service of the motherland,” says Tejasvi Surya

The verdict has forced the Congress-JD(S) coalition to maintain a charade of togetherness. Dissidents in the coalition were expected to abandon ship shortly after the elections to join the BJP, but despite securing 51.4 per cent vote share in the General Election in the state, it is in no rush to form a government in Karnataka. Things are moving at a glacial pace, with no one making a move to repeat the shopworn technique of engineering defections even as the Congress and JD(S) rush to pacify their legislators, with Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad and All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of the state KC Venugopal flying down to Bengaluru. The cabinet is expected to be expanded to accommodate disgruntled MLAs like Ramesh Jarkiholi and B Nagendra. “We are focused on the local body polls currently underway in the state. It could take weeks, perhaps months, before a BJP government comes to power in the state. We know we have everything going for us,” says Sriramulu. It has been over a decade since the BJP first formed a government in the state after winning 110 seats in 2008. In the current Assembly, it is the largest party with 105 seats in a house of 224, while the ruling coalition has 117 members—79 of the Congress, 37 of the JD(S) and one of the BSP.

THE CONGRESS’ MOST abysmal performance in Karnataka to date—bagging just one seat of the 21 it contested; the remaining seven were allotted to the JD(S)—is nothing short of a catastrophe. Its strike rate in one of its foundational states where it is still in power was less than half its national rate (52 won of 421 contested). Amidst the conspiratorial frisson of dissent, the party is now struggling to fathom how it can weather the opposition’s continued assault. “We are going back to the drawing board to see why the results flouted all our expectations. Our research had shown that the BJP faced anti- incumbency in almost all the 17 seats it had won in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Nothing explains the landslide victories of rabid Hindutva champions like Nalin Kumar Kateel, Shobha Karandlaje and Anant Kumar Hegde. Clearly, they all rode a wave,” says a senior Congress leader, ahead of a meeting of party legislators on May 29th. The BJP’s chief ministerial aspirant, BS Yeddyurappa, is basking in the victory along with the breakout stars of this election: 28-year-old Tejasvi Surya, the charismatic MP-elect from Bengaluru South; Pratap Simha, who won the Mysuru-Kodagu seat for the second time in a row, further loosening Siddaramaiah’s grip over the region; S Muniswamy, the former corporator who demolished a titan in Kolar; actor Sumalatha Ambareesh who created history by beating Nikhil Kumaraswamy in Mandya to become the first woman Independent candidate from Karnataka; Umesh Jadhav, the doctor who breached the northern frontier of Gulbarga, and GS Basavaraj, who robbed HD Deve Gowda of his invincibility cloak. “As far as Tumkur was concerned, I was the son of the soil. Deve Gowda parachuted into the constituency assuming he would win, but where the JD(S) lacked a narrative, we had Modi,” says Basavaraj.

“Each vote cast in the 2019 election for the BJP was in recognition of a lifetime of tapasya by the Prime Minister in service of the motherland,” says Tejasvi Surya, who won from the constituency represented six times by the late MP Ananth Kumar with a margin of 331,000 votes over Congress’ BK Hariprasad. Young and aspirational India voted for Modi, preferring performance over pedigree and lean, transparent governance over instability, Surya says. “The Prime Minister’s message resonated the most in Karnataka, a high per capita income state that is educated and progressive and has high mobile internet penetration. People here had access to information and they decided for themselves. They could see the long-term benefits of electing a strong, stable prime minister,” adds the lawyer.

“Going forward, we will act as custodians of Modi’s mottos of nationalism and development. Any MP caught straying from the path won’t go unpunished,” says Chakravarti Sullibele, convenor, Yuva Brigade

There were others who toted the Modi phenomenon around the state with abiding conviction and ensured the BJP became a catch-all for anyone looking for an alternative to the Congress. The BJP has, over the years, consolidated the votes of communities like Mogaviras, Valmikis and Madigas, adding to its traditional Brahmin and Lingayat vote banks. “There are so many other communities we need to take along with us; we are not content with what we have. Following Modiji’s message of inclusive politics and development, we will reach out to Kurubas and minorities next and win their confidence,” says RSS Southern Region Sanghachalak M Venkatram. “It is because of our five lakh-plus karyakartas and their efforts over the years that the BJP has emerged so strong in Karnataka today. Southern Karnataka, especially the old Mysore regions, has never before responded to the call of Hindutva as they have now.”

At the break of dawn on the first weekend after results day, a hundred-odd men and women, most of them in their twenties, are gathered on the banks of the River Bhima at Ganagapura in Gulbarga district for a celebration of sorts. Over the next several hours, they have a lark of a time cleaning up the dry, garbage- strewn river bed in an exercise intended as a metaphor for purging the Congress from the constituency, a stronghold of 76-year-old Dalit leader Mallikarjun Kharge, a veteran Congressman and a loyalist of the Gandhi family who had never known defeat. When the mercury hits 43°C, the volunteers retreat to the shade of an ashram nearby. They have earned their rest. For several months now, they have worked alongside thousands of other members of Team Modi, an organisation that was quickly disbanded after the polls, to grab the votes that were falling between the cracks. “We work on a different plane. We reach the youth, and others who may not readily join the RSS because it means following so many rules. We have no rules except that we do not associate directly with the BJP,” says Chakravarti Sullibele, a 39-year-old social worker and public speaker who also campaigned for Narendra Modi ahead of the 2014 General Election. The convenor of a loosely organised group of youth who call themselves Yuva Brigade, Sullibele addressed 116 rallies across the state over a month and a half. “We campaigned not for the BJP’s candidates—many of them in my opinion did not deserve to be fielded—but for Narendra Modiji. We set up a call centre that received 250-300 calls a day about the Prime Minister and his welfare schemes. From December 16 to March 23, we reached 500 villages, travelled 18,000 km, distributed over one lakh pamphlets, reached 3.25 lakh individuals in person and 35 lakh more via social media,” says Sullibele, who has emerged as an inspiration for thousands of right-leaning youth in Karnataka. Some of them now cool off under the fan, wearing teal-green Yuva Brigade t-shirts, saffron lungis, Ram-naam shawls and slogans such as ‘Uri: How’s the Josh?’, ‘I wear strength’ and ‘Bhagat Singh, the real hero’. Many work at Bengaluru’s software companies, but cannot manage to speak a full sentence in English. “We knew that middle-class India was still with Modi. We wanted to target the lower rungs from the remotest reaches of the state,” Sullibele says. His powerful speeches drew crowds in the thousands and inspired confidence in many a candidate, including the BJP incumbent MP from Bagalkot, PC Gaddigoudar. In Tumkur, Sullibele addressed meetings in Madhugiri and Koratagere, both of which contributed significantly to the BJP’s lead. “We worked on the ground as well as online—we ran thousands of WhatsApp groups across the districts. But there were also others like Postcard News and Desh Ke Liye that took Modiji’s message to the people,” he says. Most Yuva Brigade members—there are about 10,000 of them—did not prefix ‘chowkidar’ to their Twitter handles in the run-up to the elections, but perhaps it is now time. “Going forward, we will act as custodians of Modi’s mottos of nationalism and development,” says Sullibele. “Any MP caught straying from the path won’t go unpunished.”