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Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Will the double-engine rhetoric work in Karnataka?

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Double-engine sarkar (government) is a term that has steadily crept into the political lexicon in the last nine years, since Narendra Modi became prime minister (PM). The double-engine rhetoric is part of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s armoury in every state election, designed to convince the voter that only when the same party rules at the state and Centre will the benefits of development reach the people. It also mirrors the PM’s larger than life persona where Modi remains the BJP’s trump card in every election, from municipal to national. But here is the intriguing question being posed in poll-bound Karnataka: Can the PM’s popularity overcome the anti-incumbency being faced by a relatively weak BJP government in Bengaluru?

The Modi personality cult which is at the heart of the double-engine outreach is, in one sense, a double-edged sword. While it gives the BJP a clear edge in a presidential style national election, it also exposes the limitations of a political model which is focused on a single individual.

So far, the double-engine campaign has met with mixed success. In Himachal Pradesh just six months ago, the BJP government was unable to retain power despite the PM’s bombastic appeal that a vote for the lotus “will come directly to Mr Modi’s account as a blessing”. By contrast, in Gujarat where elections were held at around the same time, the double-engine strategy was a resounding success. Gujarat is, of course, sui generis: It is the PM’s home state and a BJP-dominant party state where the party has been in power for more than 25 years.

Where does Karnataka then fit into this double-engine propaganda? In the last few years, the BJP government in Bengaluru has been battered by a slew of corruption allegations. The double-engine tag means that the Centre too can’t entirely escape the corruption taint. The PM’s rousing “na khaoonga na khane doonga (won’t eat or let anyone eat)” anti-corruption slogan loses its moral sheen when lawmakers are caught with cash or when a Karnataka contractor association hurls accusations of 40% commission being demanded for clearing projects. Even if the charge is unproven, the figure has stuck in the public discourse.

The man in the hot seat, Karnataka chief minister (CM) Basavaraj Bommai, is a soft spoken, genial politician, hardly a mass leader like the man he replaced in 2021, BS Yediyurappa. The former CM is a rarity in the BJP’s existing power structure: A regional satrap with a base of his own, especially amongst the influential Lingayat community. The attempt to push Yediyurappa into a margdarshak mandal style retirement mode hasn’t quite worked and the party has been forced to accommodate him as a star campaigner.

Moreover, while the BJP grapples with a leadership deficit at the state level, the Congress in Karnataka is uniquely blessed with a plethora of well-entrenched local leaders. The resourceful DK Shivakumar and the crowd puller Siddaramiah may not see eye to eye, but, are, paradoxically, the Congress’s Kannadiga double-engine, two leaders with the political nous and grassroots connect that the BJP can’t quite match in Karnataka.

Siddaramaiah, in particular, enjoys huge goodwill for his pro-poor welfarist programmes as CM; in interior villages, it isn’t unusual to hear voters cutting across Karnataka’s traditional caste fault-lines express a desire for Siddaramiah as CM and Modi as PM. Which explains why the BJP has been forced to turn to PM Modi’s now familiar campaign blitzkrieg as the last throw of the dice. BJP president JP Nadda has even said, “I appeal to the people to vote for the BJP so that Karnataka is not deprived of the blessings of Modi ji”. The BJP president’s statement exposes just why the double-engine concept is fraught with danger, politically and constitutionally, in a vast and diverse federal polity such as India.

The Constitution is designed to protect a federal compact by ensuring that the Centre responds to all states in a non-discriminatory manner. In Indira Gandhi’s era, that promise was betrayed by a domineering Centre that routinely misused Article 356 to dismiss Opposition state governments. In the Modi era, cooperative federalism is again in danger: Several Opposition-ruled states allege that the Centre is partisan and vindictive, misusing central agencies to settle scores or deny funds. Politically, this is reviving regional sentiment in states with a history of cultural distinctiveness: Mamata Banerjee’s successful Bengal 2021 campaign is a good example. Unsurprisingly, the Congress has attempted to stir Kannadiga pride on a variety of issues, including by craftily manufacturing a local brand Nandini versus Amul proxy milk war.

It is this emotive Karnataka versus Centre narrative that should worry the BJP’s political managers beyond just this election. Karnataka, after all, is seen as the BJP’s gateway to the South. But if the perception grows that the double-engine model is actually a remote-controlled Delhi-centric governance system, it is bound to embolden more southern state governments and leaders to prey on regional anxieties.

The Modi personality cult which is at the heart of the double-engine outreach is, in that sense, a double-edged sword. While it gives the BJP a clear edge in a presidential style national election, it also exposes the limitations of a political model which is almost obsessively focused on a single individual. Karnataka is a pointer to the future where state elections are fought with increased vigour on hyper-local issues, while general elections become a referendum on leadership.

Post-script: Amid all the debate over a BJP double-engine sarkar versus a Congress local leadership, there could yet be a twist in the tale. Three of the last four elections in Karnataka have thrown up hung assemblies, and twice the Janata Dal (Secular) leader HD Kumaraswamy has been CM. Sitting in his vast farmhouse on the outskirts of Bengaluru, he chuckles: “Yes, I am the joker in the pack but remember you often need the joker to win a card game!”

Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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