What went wrong for the Congress and what will now happen to the coalition?
It's not often that waves shake you up like the Tsunami did on India’s eastern coast almost 15 years ago.
What hit Karnataka, just like the rest of India, was a tidal wave of the Tsunami class. Even the 1977 anti-emergency wave could not do to the Congress what Modi’s BJP has achieved - reducing its single digit of nine in 2014 to a one in the state.
And, with margins that remind you of the era when Congressmen themselves used to say - “Those days, even a donkey could stand on her symbol and win with margins of one lakh plus.”
Precisely that is what one is reminded of by looking at the margin of victory of some of the BJP candidates and particularly those against whom their own party men privately said suffered from severe anti-incumbency.
Take the case of the famous Anant Kumar Hegde, whose last tweet in support of Sadhavi Pragya Thakur’s insult to the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, had to be deleted forcibly after being pulled up by party president Amit Shah. The party had even issued a show-cause notice to him and the Mangalore MP, Naveen Kumar Kateel.
“Congress leaders are fools. If they field a good candidate against him, he will win comfortably because there is so much anti-incumbency against Hegde. What work has he done apart from going and making all kinds of speeches which have only brought the image of the party down,” said a BJP leader on condition of anonymity just before nomination papers were being filed for the April 23 election for the Uttara Kannada constituency.
And this is not just one party functionary who made this comment before or during the course of the election campaign. Neither are these non-RSS workers of the party.
In the strange seat-sharing alliance of the JDS- Congress, the seat was allotted to the former.
It chose a candidate whose writ did not go beyond the district headquarters. Despite this plus point, the strength of the wave can be gauged from the fact that Hegde won the seat with a margin of 4,79,649 votes.
In other words, it is 68.15 per cent of the total votes polled, which is 11,49,609.
Similar instances of candidates who were supposed to lose out or win by a small margin but went on to win by big margins are there as the Election Commission formalises their respective victories.
But the example of Hegde stands out because of the anti-incumbency he faced in his constituency. Last year, he had to apologise in Parliament when he had said that his party had been elected only to change the Constitution. It had led to fear among the Dalits that the reservations for their communities would be removed.
So what was that tremor underneath which caused the waves to gather strength like a huge tidal wave?
BJP party men did mention during the days of the Balakot strike post-Pulwama that the issue was bound to resonate in not just urban areas but also the rural areas.
Like one bewildered Congress worker reiterated what a middle-aged woman had told him on the outskirts of Hubbali in North Karnataka: “He (Modi) has put one bomb in Pakistan.”
Even a senior leader like the former BJP chief minister BS Yeddyurappa caused a controversy when he said soon after Balakot: “Now that Balakot has happened, we are sure to win 22 seats (out of the 28 Lok Sabha seats.)”
At least one Congress spokesperson, Srikant Murthy, admitted that the Congress was not able to fight the emotional challenge thrown by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Balakot response to the Pulwama incident.
Even the state party president Dinesh Gundu Rao, in a chat, agreed that his party “did not think the undercurrent (in Modi’s favour) was this strong.”
In fact, the undercurrent was so strong as to singe even a leader of the standing of Mallikarjuna Kharge, leader of the Congress party in Parliament, despite getting a Constitutional amendment passed during the UPA regime by which the socially backward got educational benefits and employment because they belonged to the Hyderabad-Karnataka region.
Could this extraordinary tidal wave have been prevented ?
“Not necessarily. But, we could have tried to, at least, reduce the margins or, maybe, we could have even scraped through in a couple of places. At least it could have saved us this embarrassment of just one seat for our party,” said a leader who did not want to be identified. The points he made are not very different from what one has been hearing an year ago post the assembly elections which cropped the party to 79 seats.
It was during the assembly elections that Karnataka Congress party men realised the power of an instrument which they had not faced ever before particularly during the elections. That instrument goes by the name of Income Tax department.
The department officials conducted a raid on a couple of leaders who, obviously, had nothing to hide. But the raid ensured that the entire campaign machinery was paralysed for two days. Such a paralysis during the short election campaign in this era can almost defeat a candidate.
Party men, privately, admit that a number of seats during the assembly elections were lost because the BJP rival was able to open his purse strings comfortably without any restrictions. Whereas the Congress candidate was unable to even access funds because of fear of a raid by the IT officials.
“Despite that experience, our leaders did not think it fit to begin planning for this election. We had one full year to identify candidates who could have begun working in the constituencies. But the party leadership thinks we still live in that era of early 70s when a wave of the hand from Indira Gandhi would make partymen triumph at the polls,” said a party leader who, also, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Contrast this with the investment that the BJP has systematically made over a period of time.
Even before the 2018 assembly elections, the party had let loose its small band of professionals from various fields to visit their neighbouring apartments and explain what Modi had done for the country. That was one kind of an appeal.
The other was party president Amit Shah asking the booth level workers as to how much is allocated to the various corporations like Backward Classes and Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes. After the questions are answered, he would drop the line that ‘the minorities corporation would obviously be getting more.’
From the pulpit, fact or fiction is taken as nothing but the truth. It is such ‘drop-ins’ that also helped the BJP pole vault into the 1971 margins of victory when Indira Gandhi won the biggest war against Pakistan.
And then the infighting within the party to protect their respective turfs and infighting within the alliance for the number of seats. “All this raises the question about the cost of the alliance on the Congress party. And it is not only in parts of the Mysuru constituency that the JDS workers went and wholeheartedly work for the BJP. It has, obviously happened elsewhere too,” said a leader who did not want to be identified because he has observed these developments from close quarters.
The alliance with the arch rival like the JDS has, possibly for the first time, raised serious questions about the leadership qualities of the party president, Rahul Gandhi, as well. “Modi cleverely used Balakot to present himself as the man who can protect India and, instead of a presidential contest, made Rahul Gandhi look like an amateurish leader,” said Congress member.
Will this defeat help bring about some change in the attitude of the leadership ?
Said a young Congress worker: “Boss, we are yet to understand what really hit us so hard. Give us some time to restore our sense of balance.”
The BJP is hoping that the JDS-Congress alliance will break up in the next couple of days.
It also believes that the party need not even launch Operation Kamala because legislators from both the Congress and the JDS will come to the BJP of their own accord.
The only catch is that elections have been notified for the local bodies for May 28. So how can party workers go to polls and say that this time please do not vote for the Congress but instead choose the JDS?