Saturday 15 April 2023

A Karnataka win is key to Rahul’s 2024 dreams (The Sunday Guardian)


A BJP defeat in Karnataka would echo around the world, for the state is the southern fortress of the BJP, and losing it would convey an impression of vulnerability in 2024.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a much loved Prime Minister, and overall growth rates during his tenure were good. Even the Opposition was resigned to another five years of the NDA government. And then, in 2004 the voting figures resulted in a Congress-led coalition forming the Union Government. As things stand, it seems an impossibility for the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be bested in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, but memories of 2004 are driving Rahul’s efforts at an encore through a united front against the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. A still disunited Opposition is raising their poll planks of economic hardship and Chinese belligerence on the border. In order to wipe away memories of the corruption associated with past governments, the Congress Party in particular has been trying to tar the BJP with the same charge of corruption that was so successfully brought against the UPA in 2014. Congress rule implies that once again it will be the writ of 10 Janpath that prevails in South Block. After all, in effect the Congress high command comprises just Sonia Gandhi, Rahul and Priyanka, although their hold has been weakened by the post-2014 lack of access to power at the Centre. In Rajasthan, most Congress MLAs had refused to obey the apparent desire of the party high command to replace Gehlot with Sachin Pilot. The Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka triumvirate had then accepted that if nominated Chief Minister, Pilot would lack the numbers needed to get anywhere near a majority within the state Congress Legislature Party. However, the soft corner that Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka have for Pilot remains, which is why he has once again been tacitly permitted to rebel against Gehlot, despite the harm that such a reopening of wounds not yet healed would do to the party’s prospects for a repeat victory in Rajasthan.
The focus of the triumvirate is less on Jaipur than on Bangalore. Inserting himself into a position of leadership over the other parties opposed to the BJP is a priority for Rahul Gandhi. In such a task, defeating the BJP in next month’s Assembly polls in Karnataka is essential. The calculation is that a victory in Karnataka would diminish the view within anti-BJP voters in several states that a vote for the Congress would be wasted, as it was considered too weak in all but a very few states to seriously challenge the BJP. A win in Karnataka, those around the triumvirate believe, would once again tempt the minorities into the Congress basket and away from the attraction of regional or sectarian parties.
After Gehlot’s “closet revolt”, were the Congress to secure a majority in Karnataka, there is speculation that AICC president Mallikarjun Kharge may become the Chief Minister of Karnataka, leaving Siddaramaiah to decide whether he should serve under Kharge or remain outside what A.K. Antony calls “the cool shades of power”. D.K. Shivakumar, who heads the state unit of the Congress, has already gone on record that he would be happy to serve under Kharge. Rather than say that a shift by him from central to state politics was out of the question, Kharge has remained silent, as has the Congress high command. In a party which Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka dominate, being the AICC president is to have responsibility without power. Meanwhile, although the hold of Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains strong over the national electorate, the Opposition is calculating that economic conditions will worsen as the Lok Sabha elections approach, and that the dagger thrusts from China on the border would multiply. In the meantime, they plan to intensify their efforts at pinning corruption charges on the BJP leadership.
Whether corruption charges gain traction or the economy and the China factor follow the dismal trajectory mapped out by the Opposition, only the future will tell. Rahul, Mamata and Kejriwal are each looking to the economic situation to unlock votes for themselves. In Karnataka, the BJP leadership gave an unexpected promotion to Basavaraj Bommai, and the present Chief Minister’s political fortunes depend on what voters decide in a month. A BJP defeat in Karnataka would echo around the world, for the state is the southern fortress of the BJP, and losing it would convey an impression of vulnerability in 2024. The same international newspapers and television channels that for years have claimed that “democracy is dead” in India will forget having ever said so, and celebrate the defeat of the BJP in its southern citadel as a triumph of the very same democracy that they have so often declared to be extinct. A Congress victory in Karnataka would assist Rahul Gandhi in his efforts at overtaking Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal as the acknowledged leader of an anti-BJP opposition alliance during the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Not so much for the Prime Minister, but for the ex-MP from Kalpetta, a lot rides on the May 2023 Karnataka Assembly results. Rahul clearly shares the view of Jairam Ramesh that the Congress Party ought to be the leader of the opposition alliance, and is looking to a win in Karnataka to make the leaders of other anti-BJP parties accept that logic. Were he to face a disaster in the form of a BJP victory in Karnataka, or a googly in the shape of the AAP seat tally nearing double digits, Rahul’s quest for leadership of the opposition space may continue to be an impossible

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