When the BJP sits down to assess what went wrong for it in the Karnataka Assembly elections 2023, it would do well for the party to go back to 26 July, 2021 — the day BJP’s tallest leader in Karnataka, BS Yediyurappa, resigned as chief minister with tears in his eyes.
That day marked the beginning of the BJP becoming a victim of its own positive prejudice.
Positive prejudice — a phenomenon that has created myths and hype — far exaggerated the reality around the BJP and its most reliable and prominent face — Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
What followed was a series of missteps and bad decisions that has led to a poll debacle for the saffron party in the only southern state it has ever held power in.
Blame it on positive prejudice
Whether it was rendering its own government unstable after pulling down a coalition government, or forcing old war horses out of the electoral field, to picking candidates in the apparent confidence that they would alter Karnataka’s political landscape forever — all of the BJP’s decisions came from a sense of overconfidence devoid of an understanding of ground realities.
Blame it all on positive prejudice. The positive prejudice that makes people believe that any strategy implemented by the BJP is gold, that the BJP is an unstoppable force, an undefeatable election-winning juggernaut that can do no wrong when it comes to electoral jousts.
Positive prejudice that BJP’s narratives are beyond counter, and all its leaders are political geniuses who can sway elections with their presence and appeal.
While some of it could be true to an extent, most of it is hype, propelled by the mainstream media.
Congress stays true to itself
With its stunning victory in Karnataka, the Congress has busted the hype surrounding several of these positive prejudices around the BJP and even its key vote catcher — Modi.
The overwhelming mandate that Congress has received is a testimony to the fact that even voters see through how much of the appeal is real and how much of it is hype.
Throughout its campaign, the Congress systematically debunked one hype or myth after another, countering the BJP effectively, calling out several bluffs, and sticking to its stand even when others didn’t see the logic in it.
When the results of the Karnataka Assembly elections 2023 came in on Saturday, 13 May, the Congress found that the voters of Karnataka had backed its decisions resoundingly.
Busting myths and hype
1. Narendra Modi alone is enough to win elections
With all its local leaders sidelined, the BJP made Prime Minister Modi the face of the party’s campaign. From campaign material to election rally speeches, from outreach programmes around the “Modi government” to roadshows, the BJP’s campaign was a through and through a “Modi show” in the hope that the “Modi magic” will sway voters and win them the election even in the absence of formidable local leaders.
None of that worked.
In contrast, the Congress put its local leadership at front and centre to reiterate the purpose of the Assembly elections, even asking if Modi would resign as prime minister and come work as chief minister of Karnataka.
With issue-centric campaigns, the Congress was able to bust the myth that Modi alone is enough to win elections for the BJP. Leaders of BJP like JP Nadda talking about “Modi’s blessings” did little to help.
2. Rallies, roadshows can swing votes
For nearly a year now, the Congress, with its many campaigns, had put the incumbent BJP on the backfoot. When central leaders of the BJP began their own campaigns, the two-day roadshow of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bengaluru was hyped as a “gamechanger” that would tilt the election in the saffron party’s favour.
Not much change was seen in either voter turnout, nor were there grand changes in seat-holding in Bengaluru. If anything, the BJP lost the Govindarajanagar seat to Congress and indulged in a tug-of-war with the Congress over Jayanagar seat.
In his rallies, Modi raked up several emotive issues, yet none seemed to have changed public opinion that appears to have been shaped months before elections in Karnataka. The crowds at the rallies and road shows barely converted into votes.
3. Communal rhetoric will sway voters
If calls for the economic boycott of Muslims and a ban on the hijab for college-going girl students, or spinning a “Uri Gowda-Nanje Gowda” story over Tipu Sultan were not enough, Modi led from the front in propagating the “chant Bajrang Bali” idea and endorsing the controversial film “The Kerala Story” during his election campaigns — all in the apparent hope of ensuring communal polarisation.
While the Vokkaligas of Old Mysuru region rejected the Uri Gowda-Nanje Gowda narrative, the communal pitches did little to even retain all seats in the BJP’s bastion of Coastal Karnataka. Ideological hardliners of the BJP like CT Ravi lost their seats, busting the myth that communal rhetoric will sway voters from real ground issues.
The Karnataka election results tell you that voters saw through the smokescreen of communal rhetoric and sought accountability on real issues.
4. Congress ‘blunder’ over Bajrang Dal
It wasn’t just the BJP, but even several mainstream media columnists thought the Congress call for a ban on the Bajrang Dal in its manifesto had sounded the death-knell for the party.
Even as Prime Minister Modi invoked Lord Hanuman numerous times in his rallies and leaders of the BJP made a beeline to Anjaneya temples, attempts to equate the Bajrang Dal with Bajrang Bali simply didn’t stick.
The Congress stuck by its decision and, in turn, saw massive consolidation of not just minority voters, but also of rights activist groups.
The Congress busted a myth attached to the Bajrang Dal — that it is a group that enjoys the support of all Hindus. Attempts to mainstream an outfit that many BJP leaders themselves deem “fringe” simply fell through.
5. Remarks about Modi will cost you an election
In the past, when Congress leaders made personal remarks against Modi, it helped the BJP build a narrative against the party, deeming it “elitist and disrespectful”.
However, this time around, with Mallikarjun Kharge as its chief, the Congress was at an advantage. Even an attempt by Prime Minister Modi to accuse the Congress of “abuse culture” — something he has succeeded with in the past — was tactfully handled by Priyanka Gandhi.
Instead of going on the defensive, the Congress went on the offensive, calling out Modi for “crying” and making everything about “himself”. That was the end of Modi invoking personal attacks.
In one swift move, the Congress seemed to have shown other Opposition parties how best to counter allegations of “personal remarks” against Modi.
6. Congress factionalism costs it elections
The Congress is often accused of being a divided house with too many leaders with too many ambitions. With two prominent leaders being its face in the Karnataka campaign, the debate over Congress factionalism marring its electoral prospects has been hitting headlines for months now.
Given that the situation is out of hand in poll-bound Rajasthan, the Congress in Karnataka, too, was viewed with scepticism. But the one success story for the Congress in the Karnataka Assembly elections 2023 has been its leadership’s ability to put up a united front despite differences.
From projecting both Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar as faces of the campaign, to drumming up PR stunts to display unity, the Congress went the extra mile to keep bad blood between leaders from coming in the way of its electoral triumph.
7. Nobody can manage booths, campaigns like BJP
The BJP often touts its booth management as its strength. This election, the Congress broke the myth that it can’t enthuse its cadres as much as the BJP does at the booth level and manage elections.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra, led by Rahul Gandhi passing through Karnataka, set booth-level activities in Karnataka ringing and a war room helmed by former IAS officer Sasikanth Senthil sustained that momentum throughout the election period.
If the BJP’s campaigns were a superhit in the past, the Karnataka Assembly election was abuzz with the Congress’s sustained and impactful campaign, largely designed by its strategist Sunil Kanugolu and his team INClusive minds. The myth of the BJP being the narrative-setter was busted months ago in Karnataka.
8. Irrespective of results, BJP will form government
The biggest hype of them all. Until a week before polling day, if you asked any leader or worker of the BJP in Karnataka, they would have one phrase to tell you: “Even if we win just 95 seats, we will form the government.”
Call it confidence or utter disregard for electoral process, this feeling had also seeped into public discourse with many voters reiterating the phrase — “how does it matter who you vote for? Ultimately, the BJP will come to power by hook or crook”.
With its landslide victory, the Congress, it seems, has shattered that myth. The Congress in Karnataka has won more than twice the number of seats won by the BJP this election.
Defections, “operations”, a “Plan B” — luring MLAs will do little to tilt the electoral fortunes in favour of the BJP, given the wide gap in seats.
With its consistent busting of myths and the hype built around the BJP, thanks to the positive prejudice it enjoys, the Congress in Karnataka may have just set up an example for others to follow — whether at the state or the national level.