Despite Modi

Print edition : May 31, 2013

Narendra Modi at an election rally in Mangalore on May 5. Photo: R. Eswarraj

THE definition of magic is said to be the ability to hide one’s talent. Narendra Modi, widely regarded as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s magician in Gujarat and its biggest pan-India star, hid his talent well when he campaigned in Karnataka. But this time the magic did not happen.

Modi visited Karnataka twice, addressing meetings in Bangalore (April 29) and Mangalore and Belgaum (May 2), all BJP strongholds. He drew cheering crowds and galvanised the party faithful, but failed to help the party buck the anti-incumbency mood and salvage its flagging fortunes.

His ineffectiveness was most glaring in Mangalore, the headquarters of Dakshina Kannada district. Over the past two decades Dakshina Kannada and the neighbouring Udipi district had become bastions of Hindutva.

Puttur, the hotbed of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh activities, is in Dakshina Kannada district and hardly 20 kilometres from Mangalore. The electorate here, thanks to religious identity politics, had become polarised on communal lines, making it an ideal setting for Modi’s kind of politics. But he failed to consolidate Hindu votes here; the BJP lost three—Mangalore North, Mangalore South and Puttur—of the four seats it held. The Congress won seven of eight seats in the district.

In Udipi district the party fared no better, winning just one of five seats. The two coastal districts together netted the BJP eight seats (of a total 13) in 2008, but just two this time despite the Modi ‘magic’.

Modi also failed to deliver in urban Bangalore, exploding the myth that urban middle-class youth had bought heavily into his policies. The BJP won just 12 of the 28 seats in Bangalore Urban district as against 17 in 2008. In Belgaum, Modi hardly caused a ripple, with the BJP’s tally dropping by one, to eight (of the district’s 18 seats).

The common thread in his three speeches was the “policy paralysis” at the Centre, the performance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his government, and the actions of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi.

In Mangalore, Modi flirted with the issue of cow slaughter and the ‘pink revolution’ (export of meat). He accused the Congress of wanting to revoke the cow slaughter ban Bill brought by the BJP, as part of its vote bank politics.

With Lok Sabha elections less than a year away, the BJP would have wished for more from Modi. For a start, he did not visit the State enough to be really in the thick of the campaign. According to party insiders, Modi had been advised not to get too involved, lest he be stuck with a losing cause. But with ambitions of being a pan-India leader for the party he could not afford to stay away completely, lest he be labelled scared.

According to political pundits, including the historian Ramachandra Guha, this half-hearted attempt has not done him much good. Said Guha: “He probably made the same mistake that Rahul Gandhi made in Gujarat. His image managers probably told him not to get too much into a losing cause.”

Modi would have been better advised to get himself acquainted with the ground realities in the State by campaigning energetically and exhibiting his oratory skills, and in the process broadening his image. That he did not do so, say observers, was an indication of his timidity to take up a tough challenge.

Ravi Sharma

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