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Opinion: I Congratulated Sonia Gandhi For Karnataka 5 Months Ago

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It was December 13, 2022. Sonia Gandhi was standing a few feet away, just outside Gate 12 of parliament. The solemn annual ceremony to pay tribute to the nine people killed in the deadly attack on parliament 21 years ago had just concluded. Some MPs were making it back to their cars, while some of us were headed to the Central Hall for a quick cuppa.

As Mrs Gandhi passed by, we exchanged advance Christmas greetings and I said, “Congratulations.” Gracious as ever, she replied, “Thank you so very much.” With a playful grin, I asked her, “What am I congratulating you for, Ma’am?”. She replied, “Our Himachal Pradesh win, of course”. (Congress had just won the Himachal elections). “No,” I said, “These are congratulations in advance for the Karnataka election results!”. Beaming, she whispered, “Don’t say it too loudly, elections in Karnataka are still many months away and the people in my party may get overconfident”.

That was five months ago. I am no psephologist but let me give myself a self-congratulatory pat on the back for calling it right. In January 2023, I wrote, “It is also an important, almost necessary, condition for the Congress to win the Karnataka polls in 2023. They will. A win in the southern state in 2023 will be just the tonic the Opposition needs before 2024.”

Now that we have a new government in Karnataka, we are hearing three common refrains from the BJP. One, this was a state election, why blame Modi for the loss? Two, the Karnataka election was fought on local, not national issues. Three, these results will have little impact on 2024. 

1. ‘This was a state election, why blame Modi for the loss?’ 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi: 19 rallies, six roadshows

Home Minister Amit Shah: 16 rallies, 15 roadshows

BJP president JP Nadda: 10 rallies, 16 roadshows

Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani: 17 rallies, two roadshows

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister: Nine rallies, three roadshows

Assam Chief Minister: 15 rallies, one roadshow

Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister: 13 rallies

Estimates suggest the BJP organised over 9,000 rallies and 1,300 roadshows in the build-up to the Karnataka election. Modi was the face of the campaign. Full-page ads featured his mugshot blooming from the lotus. The model failed in Bengal in May 2021. Karnataka was a repeat telecast.

2. ‘Karnataka election was fought on local, not national issues’

Unemployment is a national issue. Social harmony is a national issue. Price rise is a national issue. Making multiple promises on governance and breaking them is a national issue.

Anywhere in India, a young student pursuing her education must have the freedom to wear the clothes she is most comfortable in. Anywhere in India, you cannot dictate citizens on how to dress, what to eat, and whom to love. Anywhere in India, seeking votes in the name of religion is unacceptable. No wonder someone quipped, ‘double engine’ in reality is ‘trouble engine’.

Unemployment and price rise were among the most important issues in Karnataka (the other two were social harmony and general non-performance). According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the labour participation rate for youth in Karnataka was 13% compared to 18% pan-India. The state ranks 17th among 22 major states in the gender inequality index. So, we are not surprised that in the recent elections, only 10 women won out of 224 assembly seats. Of the 28 seats in Lok Sabha, the state has only three women MPs.

Three days before voting day, the Congress ran a full-page advertisement in local newspapers with the headline, “They robbed the state, they robbed your savings.” The ad highlighted how prices of essential items like rice, milk, wheat, eggs, petrol, LPG cylinders, had shot up between 2014 and 2023. Simple, effective communication. No number of multiple portraits popping out of petals could beat this.

3. ‘These results will have little impact on 2024’

There is enough data to suggest that people vote a little differently between state elections and Lok Sabha (national) elections. But it would be inaccurate to say that voting patterns are completely contrary to each other. Karnataka and Bengal are not outliers. In the space of two years, the Prime Minister fronted the campaign in both states. The BJP was consummately defeated. Let me stick my psephological neck out once more and predict that later this year Mr Modi will try it once more. Telangana. The result for the BJP will be just as calamitous.

(Derek O’Brien, MP, leads the Trinamool Congress in the Rajya Sabha)

Additional research: Ayashman Dey

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.