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Redefining political histrionics

With the fiercely-fought campaign already relegated to a hazy memory, the people of Karnataka will vote today to elect the state government based on their own perception and judgment. It is difficult to ascertain whether their voting decision will be influenced by Prime Minister NarendraModi’s now familiar broadsides against the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has lost much its novelty and sting because the Prime Minister has allowed himself to repeat it ad nauseam. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s deliberately low-key but no less provocative attack on the Prime Minister and his party may not have left any strong impression in the minds of the people in the state because the political theatrics, however amusing, do not really address the issues that confront them. The campaign pyrotechnics do not serve as a reliable pointer to the way the people would vote. But the observer cannot really pry into the million minds of the Karnataka voters. He is in a better position to judge the campaign, its style and substance.

There are three and not two players in the electoral battle field in the state. The BJP and the Congress might be occupying the maximum media space, but the Janata Dal (Secular) of the father-son duo, former Prime Minister H.D.

DeveGowda and former chief minister KumaraswamyGowda, have been ploughing their lonely furrow, and they could be the ones who would tilt the balance either way. If the JD(S) get turned out in the clash of the two big parties, then clearly the winner will have an emphatic mandate. But given the social mosaic in the state, it would be unwise to dismiss the importance of the third player.

The BJP has been fighting this election with a major handicap — B.S. Yeddyurappa. The party has been literally caught on the proverbial horns of a dilemma. It could not do without him. The party’s defeat in the 2013 Assembly elections was entirely due to Mr Yeddyurappa fighting as an adversary. But it is not clear whether the voters that he had weaned away in 2013 have come back to the party with the leader. The Reddy brothers of Ballari and their aides, despite their questionable credentials, wield political clout because of their financial muscle. The BJP would need the financial ballast, but it comes with a price. It looks like that party president Amit Shah had weighed the pros and cons and he had concluded that the price to be paid for the presence of the Ballari brothers was small compared to the organisational advantages — read financial — that they brought.

Prime Minister NarendraModi’s towering presence was supposed to have swept aside the contradictions that Mr Shah had to deal with at the ground level. And the Prime Minister had put his heart and soul into the effort declaiming loudly and incessantly the sins — dynasty, corruption — of the Congress. He could not however bring himself to address the local issues because he is aware that it is not his forte. The Prime Minister would almost hit the higher pitch, which verged on the hysterical, when he attacked the Nehru-Gandhis. He has developed the image of dealing with big issues, leaving the smaller ones to the smaller folk. So we did not hear any of the smaller issues from the party’s smaller folk. They were overshadowed by the Prime Minister’s larger-than-life presence on the electoral stage. So for the BJP, there was not much of a local campaign that one expected in an Assembly election.

For Mr Modi, every election is fought on the national level. Many in the BJP believe, however wrongly, that it is this Modi power that is helping them win elections. The BJP stage was empty, and Mr Modi strode across it like a colossus despite his mega-image diminishing by the day because of its sheer familiarity. The mystique is getting eroded.

Mr Gandhi on his part had evolved an intelligent counter-strategy to match Mr Modi’s high decibel-histrionics. He answered the criticism, and he flayed the Prime Minister, without raising the level of his voice. He abandoned the anti-Modi belligerence which had been the hallmark of frustrated and desperate Congress leaders. Mr Gandhi parried every criticism hurled at him and his party by Mr Modi in a cool manner. The counter may appear ineffective and inadequate, but it is turning out that Mr Modi and the BJP are cornered when fire is not answered by fire but through a firefighter.

Mr Gandhi has also resorted to the old Congress tactic of targeting the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the BJP, and declaring that the Congress is fighting the RSS ideology. In effect, it makes the BJP, Mr Modi and Mr Shah irrelevant. They are shown to be mere puppets in the hands of the puppet masters. It is a clever but not a sound strategy. The defeat of the BJP does not become the defeat of the RSS ideology. The Hindu communalism espoused by the RSS continues to fester. If Mr Gandhi feels compelled to defeat the ideology of Hindu communalism, then he does not have to fight electoral battles. The BJP needs to be confronted and defeated on the political plane, where policies and performance are the key factors.

The positive thing that Mr Gandhi had done in this election was to give more than elbow room to chief minister Siddaramaiah, who led an energetic campaign. The Congress leader had confronted Mr Modi and Mr Shah all on his own and put up a creditable counter-offensive.

Mr Modi was fighting Mr Siddaramaiah and not Mr Gandhi. The Congress seems to be gradually moving away from the party’s supposedly centralised leadership led by Mr Gandhi and his mother, while the BJP is moving into the shrinking claustrophobic circle dominated by Mr Modi. The Nehru-Gandhis are not the centre of the Congress, but Mr Modi is the only centre of the BJP.