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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 21, May 20, 2023

2023 Karnataka Election Verdict and a Shifting Political Discourse | Badre Alam Khan

Saturday 20 May 2023, by Badre Alam Khan


by Badre Alam Khan *

Since the 2014 Lok Sabha election- perhaps for the first time - it appears that the Karnataka election verdict has shown that the communal narrative around electoral politics is now changing. If one could read and decode election results closely, it can be safely argued that political discourse has now shifted from the Right to Centre if not towards the Left. The majoritarian politics led by the BJP-RSS combined has faced stiff opposition and the communal narrative constructed by the mainstream media (godi media) has been now challenged by the Congress Party to a large extent if not entirely in this election. The Congress Party got a comfortable majority by securing 135 seats (for the first time since 1989), while the BJP managed to get 66 and Janata Dal (Secular) -19 seats out of total 224 state Assembly seats. As a matter of fact, the BJP has lost its electoral space in the Southern part of India.

 The political commentators have underlined that the BJP and their party leaders have foregrounded communal issues such as the ban on hijab, halal, Bajrangbali (discourse around banning Bajrang Dal, as raised by the Congress Party), love-jihad, Azan (use of loudspeaker in Mosques) terrorism and communal narrative of history around Tipu Sultan, etc., during the height of election campaign. However, polarizing techniques and communal issues have not been translated into electoral outcomes. On the contrary, the Congress party and their leaders have raised everyday issues like jobs, poverty, increasing prices, issues of reservations, education, and corruption during the tenure of BJP rule and other genuine issues confronted by the poor people in Karnataka. Put simply, Congress Party’s leaders have consistently raised the failure of the BJP, to address the genuine concern of people, especially minorities, Dalits, Tribals, and other marginalized social groups. In this respect, Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey has also underlined that unemployment, poverty, price rise, corruption, reservation, etc., remain deciding factors for voters. While foregrounding these issues during the election campaign, the Congress party and its leaders have impressed voters and cornered maximum electoral benefits (for further details see, The Hindu, dated May 15, 2023, P-10).

During the incumbent BJP rule in Karnataka, minorities like Muslims and Christians have been routinely targeted by communal forces, especially by vigilante groups. The communal and fringe elements have also vandalized the religious places of Muslim and Christian communities, as documented by human rights bodies in several reports. However, no concrete actions have been taken by the incumbent government against the vigilante groups. Contrary to the advice of PM Modi in the Hyderabad national executive meeting of the Party in 2022 (in which he urged the party workers to reach out Muslim community), however, it is unfortunate to note that the BJP had not given any single ticket to a Muslim in the recently held in Karnataka election. Apart from communal issues, the BJP and their leaders raised national issues (hyper-nationalism) and stressed the need for a double engine government for the development of the state, while the Congress party during the election campaign has mostly foregrounded the local issues, regional aspirations of people and everyday problems of the masses, as stated above. The electoral outcome has indicated that local issues (move around secular demands rather than emotive issues) have triumphed over communal and national issues. While addressing the media after the result, Rahul Gandhi said that the Karnataka election has clearly shown that the “Politics of love” (Mohabat ki Rajniti) triumphed over the “Politics of hate” (Nafrat ki Rajiniti).

 I am not going to discuss the complexities of local issues and the nitty-gritty of electoral chemistry that worked at the local levels in Karnataka. In this piece, I will try to understand and highlight what will be the larger electoral impact of the Karnataka election at the national level and other Assembly elections, scheduled to be held in December in States like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Telangana. And secondly, I will try to explore how the Karnataka election has pushed the electoral agenda around the genuine concern of the subaltern masses.

 Let me add here the caveat, it would be too early to say that BJP led by PM Modi will decline at a national level and his influence will be reduced now, as a section of political commentators have underlined. For the Congress party and the opposition parties still, Delhi is a long way to reach (speaking metaphorically, Delhi durast hai ). However, it is clear that communal issues no longer seem to be relevant in electoral politics and to capture the imaginations of people, as has been seen during the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha and several State elections. The Karnataka election verdict has provided opportunities and it can be used as catalysts force to unite all opposition parties (social justice parties, regional parties, and left parties) in the upcoming days. In doing so, they (leaders of opposition parties) can challenge the communal narratives and stop the “Hindutva Juggernaut” at the national level in 2024. However, it will not be an easy political battle in the upcoming times.

Across the world especially after Covid-19, Right-wing populist governments have also been facing a crisis and their electoral strength is declining now we can see the rise of liberal and democratic parties in the USA and other countries. The defeat of Donald Trump in the USA Presidential election can be cited as a case in point. The changes seen at a global level will also have an impact elsewhere; India cannot be exceptional in this regard. In other words, populist leaders and parties (especially the Right-wing) across the world have been now facing challenges amidst the rise of genuine aspirations of people which move around everyday issues of livelihoods and survival. Karnataka election experience has vividly reminded us that now people are more concerned about everyday livelihoods rather than religious and communal issues.

 Now, it is important to understand the manner in which discourse has been to a large extent shifted from communal issues to everyday life issues confronted by subaltern masses. The recent Bharat JodoYatra (unite India march) launched by the Congress party under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi has no doubt brought secular issues (jobs, rise of prices of essential commodities, corruption, and plunder of resources by corporate houses) to the center stage of India‘s politics. It is a fact that Yatra led by Rahul Gandhi has created discourse around secular issues and posed major challenges to the communal narrative of the BJP-RSS in the larger public domain. The fact cannot be ignored that, Bharat Jodo Yatra which covered various constituencies of Karnataka has made a huge impact and given electoral dividends to the Congress. The defamation case against Rahul Gandhi (which led to his disqualification from Member of Parliament) has also been capitalized by the Congress party in the Karnataka election.

 Apart from the Congress Party, the role of the social justice parties and Left parties to counter the communal narrative of the BJP in the larger public domain cannot be underestimated. Besides, ongoing protests led by Wrestlers at Jantar Mantar (Delhi) can be cited as an example that has also triggered resentment against the BJP in the public domain. More importantly, recent Satya Pal Malik’s statement about the Pulwama terror attack has also created discontent against the BJP. To put it differently, the communal narrative set by the godi media and the BJP-RSS combined has been now challenged not only by the Congress Party but also by the combined efforts of the opposition parties, civil society groups, and people at large.

In short, perhaps for the first time since 2014, it appears that to large extent if not completely, the Congress Party along with opposition parties and tireless efforts of civil society groups have vehemently challenged the communal narratives of the BJP-RSS. The Karnataka election verdict has taught an important lesson to political parties, if the BJP wants to sustain and capture the imagination of people in upcoming elections, it should focus on genuine issues and problems of the gullible masses. Falling to do so, any Party including BJP will face further electoral consequences in the upcoming elections. However, the electoral experience of the North and South cannot be identical. The communal mobilization and politics around religion have given more electoral advantage in North India to the BJP, and therefore, it cannot be entirely rejected. But the Karnataka election verdict may impact other state elections scheduled to be held in December 2023.

 To counter the BJP communal narrative at the national level including state-wise, it is extremely important to set an electoral agenda around secular issues. While setting discourse around material needs, the Congress and Opposition parties should not follow the ‘soft-Hindutva’ approach and compromise with secular values and social justice, as enshrined in our Constitution of India. Karnataka election verdict has shown that the people of the state are not interested in religion and communal politics rather they would support those parties that will make a commitment to address the everyday problems rather than foregrounding emotive issues. Therefore, one can say that political discourse is now shifting from the Right toward the Centre.

(Author: Badre Alam Khan has a PhD from the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi)

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