T K Arun
If you poison the water to catch fish, the fact that the person who performed the vile task caught fewer fish than others does not penalise the culprit, nor does it remove the toxin from the water. The fact that the BJP caught fewer fish than the Congress in Karnataka should not take attention away from the substantive challenges to democracy that remain in India.
The BJP’s defeat in the state is a morale boost for the Congress, gives it a stronger hand in the run-up to other key state elections due later in the year and reverses the shrinking of its space that it has been experiencing in the national Opposition. The election results demonstrate the importance of strong leadership at the state level. While Congress spinmeisters would be at work to attribute the victory to Rahul Gandhi and his Bharat Jodo Yatra, it is significant that Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge ascribed the Congress performance to collective leadership.
If the Congress leadership has any sense, it would let the newly-elected MLAs decide who the chief minister should be, instead of imposing a nominee of the high command on a reluctant state unit. We all know to what glory high-command high-handedness led the party’s Assam unit. Presenting the local unit’s preference as the high command’s choice, while letting larger considerations shape the local unit’s choice, is an art of leadership. The artisan has the floor, right now.
For the BJP and its imperious leadership, the rebuff from Karnataka is on many fronts. Prime Minister Narendra Modi might speak of himself in the third person, but he does not, in the end, have divine powers and cannot perform miracles. People, on the whole, still value governance and public morality, and dislike cynical games such as taking away someone’s quota in education and jobs to distribute it among others. Discredited also is the notion that it does not matter if the local leadership lacks steam because the engine from Delhi simply throbs with nuclear energy.
In any election, the incumbent starts with a disadvantage. However well-run a state might be, there would be a degree of disgruntlement among certain sections of the people, who would vent their feelings at the hustings. This should inform our evaluation of the BJP’s vote shares in the elections.
In 2018, when that disgruntlement was directed against the Congress and former chief minister Siddaramaiah, the BJP got its own votes and the protest votes of the disgruntled. The incumbent Congress presumably got its core vote. In 2023, the disgruntled vote went to the Congress, while the BJP revealed its core vote.
BJP’s success in failure
In 2018 and in 2023, the BJP vote share remains at the same level, 36 per cent, while the Congress’ vote share has gone up from 38 per cent to 42 per cent, by the precise margin of decline in the Janata Dal (S)’s vote share from 17 per cent to 13 per cent.
The Bommai government has been not just the worst BJP government in the state or the country, but also one of the worst governments by any party. Its reputation for corruption is a convenient excuse for the BJP’s central leadership to pass the buck for the party’s defeat to the state leadership.
If, despite the level of disgruntlement such a government would have evoked, the BJP still got the vote share it had secured in 2018, when its vote share was enhanced by the anti-incumbency vote against the Congress, the BJP’s core support base has gone up. The notion that its effort to polarize Kannada society has failed holds no water. The BJP has, indeed, made inroads south of the Vindhyas.
Tough challenges for Congress in Karnataka
The challenge for the BJP’s opponents is not just to win elections, but to build democracy, combat the ideology of a homogeneous nation, based on an ahistorical version of Hinduism shorn of diversity and centered on majoritarian nationalism.
If political leaders believe that welfare handouts and promises to ban fringe organizations can compensate for failure to take on the challenge of building democracy, they would only serve the Hindu majoritarian cause.
Building democracy entails not just mouthing the Preamble to the Constitution, but refashioning policy and the law to privilege democracy over undemocratic conduct entrenched in tradition and religious practice. The notion that the Constitution’s minority rights protect Muslim or Christian personal laws that are at odds with the principles of gender equality, equality with members of other religious communities and equality of individuals is not just plain wrong but is also ammunition in the hands of the proponents of majoritarian ideology. It must go.
To be secular is to make hard choices to deepen democracy, even if that involves provoking a reaction from sections of entrenched privilege in minority communities. It also means elevating eradication of caste from an annual chant on Ambedkar’s birthday to an active, ongoing, multi-faceted agenda, advanced in the spheres of religion and ritual, social conduct and cultural practice.
If Karnataka election results divert attention away from such hard choices, democracy in India would continue its ongoing slide.
The article was first published in The Federal as Karnataka win a morale booster; Congress’ real challenge is to rebuild democracy
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