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Does Narendra Modi matter in Karnataka?

Veeraraghav T M TMVraghav

Updated: May 6, 2013, 1:46 PM IST
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"I think you will have to reduce 20 to 30 seats for the Congress from your projection. Apparently, Congis are getting loose motions after Narendra Modi's Bangalore campaign". I received this message as I was on a train to Bangalore and it was from an old college friend who lives in Mumbai. It's one of those messages that I often get from friends who have suddenly begun believing that Modi is an instant solution to any problem. They are not affiliated to the Sangh Parivar, neither do they subscribe to a right-wing ideology; they seem to be just bowled over by the Modi story and his propaganda machinery.

In most cases those who send these messages are people who work very hard in their cubicles, live in guarded apartment complexes in concrete jungles that we call cities. Their socio-political contact is dominated by either a tweet or maximum by a Facebook post. I usually choose to ignore these messages but this time in the context of the Karnataka elections, it may actually be an interesting question to ask: does Narendra Modi matter?

Statesmanship and political appeal is not just about the aura that a politician carries or his image, it's more importantly about connecting with the voter. Modi's success in Gujarat was because of his connect with the Gujarati voters and not just on the social networking sites. The question is whether he can invoke the same kind of emotion from voters in other states. It is unfair to expect the same intensity of support he gets in Gujarat but, if he is to be a true national leader, he needs to connect with the masses beyond his home state.

To achieve a mass appeal that will translate into votes in an election, a national politician needs to take head on the issues which appeal and confront the local electorate. The prestige of a politician cannot be solely dependent on flowing oratory filled with big picture stories and propaganda. It stems out of an ability to empathise and feel the issues relevant to the electorate being addressed. So, to answer whether Modi matters in Karnataka, the fundamental question that requires answering is whether Modi addresses the issues that confront the electorate in the state.

Modi's speech in Bangalore had the usual oratory, fanfare and media focus. What it failed to achieve though was to take on the most pertinent issues faced by the BJP in Karnataka. For instance, he chose not to speak about Yeddyurappa and the terrible perception battle the BJP is fighting. Every other national leader from the party has virtually apologised for what had happened and that's because the overall theme of the BJP campaign in the state has been an admission of failure and an effort to correct it. Most observers have pointed out that the theme of apologising and admitting failure goes down well with the Karnataka electorate. In not taking on that one major issue, Modi's campaign seemed to give an impression of an aspiring prime ministerial candidate re-enforcing that he is relevant beyond Gujarat rather than a national leader trying to help his party win what is seen as an unwinnable election. It is to take ownership for a situation in not just one state but in every state that's a key trait of a true national figure and with it should come an impression of connecting with the voter beyond classes, language, regional and sub-regional divide. I consciously chose not to mention religious divide because when that factor comes in, the Modi debate reaches a dead end.

One theory that I have often heard in Karnataka is the possibility of Yeddyurappa and the BJP going back to each other after the Assembly polls. That possibility does make it tricky to refer to Yeddyurappa's exit as the exit of problems from the party. But, this can be no reason for not even touching upon the issue during an election campaign. Is it not important for the cadre and the voter to know what an aspiring prime ministerial candidate of a party has to say about what happened in their state? This omission becomes even more pronounced in the overall context when every BJP leader has been speaking about it.

Be that as it may, there was another interesting omission in Modi's campaign and that was a reference to Vajpayee. Karnataka, especially north Karnataka, had what many have called a Vajpayee wave in 2004. Even now when you travel to the BJP heartland around cities like Hubli and Dharwad, people speak of Vajpayee as the icon of the voter. Yeddyurappa may have been the politician who delivered the Lingayat vote but it's Vajpayee who they saw as the statesman. In the minds of voters beyond Gujarat, Vajpayee remains the most towering personality from the BJP and even Advani, during his election campaign speech in Bellary, had tried to use the Vajpayee governance card. So it's quite difficult to comprehend why speaking about good governance, Modi did not mention Vajpayee. There could be many reasons for this omission. One analysis is Modi's own discomfort with Vajpayee after 2002. But the real reasons are best known to the politician himself.

In the overall analysis, one question continues to be raised in murmurs even within the BJP. Why was Modi here? The choice of his campaign venues were designed only to cater to a certain audience. He held rallies in urban Bangalore, Mangalore where the right has historically evoked strong emotions and Belgaum where the Marathi versus Kannada divide has dominated politics. These are places where the BJP is strong and Modi's campaign may not be a catalyst to the end result. If it is to just send the twitter timelines flooding and give him a sense of going beyond Gujarat then it has succeeded. He is a polarising figure but his ability to go beyond just his image and connect with the electorate across the country remains in question. Karnataka cannot be a big test of Modi's abilities as a vote-catcher beyond Gujarat but it was a test of a politician's ability to grow from a regional or polarising figure into a national leader. In the ultimate analysis, Modi may still have a long way to go to achieve that and the most important point is that he will have to learn to connect with the grassroot electorate beyond urban centres. Vajpayee was an example for the BJP and it's important for the Modi brigade to realise that just mere image does not bring in votes. Achieving true national status cannot merely be about claiming to have one. Yes the cadre gets enthused by him but I wonder if his voter will be more than just the tweeters.
First Published: May 6, 2013, 1:46 PM IST

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