Suddenly, the smiles have disappeared from the faces of Congress leaders in Karnataka. They have got shifted to the faces of state BJP leaders who were till now crestfallen and clueless about the 12 May assembly election. And they are saluting Narendra Modi for it.
Whether their smiles will remain intact after the 15 May counting of votes is not clear, but Modi’s juggernaut, ripping through Karnataka like a loaded missile, has pumped up BJP cadres with new confidence to face the election.
Having addressed 14 adrenaline-pumping rallies of his scheduled 21 in Karnataka so far, Modi has not only brought the BJP back to the game but changed the rules of the competition. This is not enough to bet your last shirt on a BJP victory, and there is nothing to suggest that the Congress has turned its tail in anticipation of a defeat. But reports from ground zero and the body language of the Congress leaders are pointing to their utter confusion despite their public bravado.
Modi has rattled the Congress, leaving its leaders traumatised and tearing their hair in frustration, wondering what hit them and terrified what’s coming next.
In what appears to be—but what may not really be in the end—a neck-and-neck race, the Congress at one point seemed to have its full nose ahead in the election. But now, only the tip of that nose is visible, and the party’s earlier self-satisfied confidence, almost bordering on arrogance, is now replaced by a lingering doubt and even a sense of doom.
Modi turns tables
If a smug Congress has been accusing the BJP of being divisive, corrupt and throwing its election promises on development out of the window, Modi has been turning the tables with deadly precision by tearing Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to pieces for the same things and worse. On all four days of his final offensive, Modi was his belligerent best, blasting the Congress for not only its leech-like dependence on the dynasty but also rank corruption, caste manipulations and vote bank hypocrisy aimed at mollycoddling minorities.
The sincerity and timing of the BJP’s so-called exposure on Sunday of Siddaramaiah’s alleged links with a Ponzi scheme fraudster are questionable, but it surely has rubbed salt on the injury of the Congress.
Facts? Not for elections
Some of Modi’s utterances at his well-attended Karnataka rallies may be of doubtful veracity and their interpretation in the local context is admittedly dubious. But when hyperbole is a deliberately chosen tool of rhetoric, the narrative doesn’t—though it should—come wrapped in a certificate of authenticity. If you want to remind the BJP’s chief honcho and virtuoso campaigner that poetic license has no political equivalent, save yourself the trouble. Modi is in no mood to win prizes for the best standards in political oratory: What he wants to do is to win friends and influence voters. Modi may or may not repeat in Karnataka the success of his final blitzkrieg in last December’s Gujarat election, but the man is clearly enjoying himself, achieving what he intends to in some degree. He is forcing the Congress leaders to be on the defensive, keeping them constantly busy reacting to what he says at each rally. Before Modi’s arrival on the scene, it was the BJP which was on the defensive.
Like all seasoned campaigners, he picks his subjects to suit the region where he speaks, but he does it with a finesse rarely seen in politics. With a histrionic display of maudlin sentiment, which Indira Gandhi had once shown in abundance with much success, Modi keeps his audiences engaged, entertained, angry and thinking.
His barbs are pointed, even if personal, and his anecdotes are entertaining and his delivery is even-paced. Like a music maestro employing crescendo and diminuendo at the right time, he raises his voice in one sentence and lowers it to a whisper in the next, with the right gesticulation of hands to complete the effect. Throwing an occasional, 180-degree, sweeping glance at the audience to gauge their mood, he picks his words and pauses at intervals to let his diatribes sink in.
All this makes his listeners believe that he believes in what he says. This is in stark contrast to the lacklustre speeches of Rahul Gandhi who delivers them with the unsmiling face of a robot on autopilot.
In general, the role of the campaign in some elections may be somewhat limited in its influence on voter preferences with a good proportion of the electorate making their choices even before shouting matches begin. But what the Congress must be—and clearly is—worried about now is the possibility of the Modi campaign supplying further momentum to the BJP in the days that are left for polling. In an even fight, or what seems like one, any influencing factor is worrisome for parties.
A close look at the results of the last 2013 Assembly election in the state reveals that as many as 49 seats were won by margins of fewer than 5,000 votes. Of these, 29 had margins of fewer than 3,000 votes, and 12, fewer than 1,000 votes. In the earlier elections in 2008, which saw five parties in the field, 64 seats had margins of fewer than 5,000 votes.
As for the Congress’ campaign, Rahul Gandhi’s ninth leg of campaigning on Monday would be followed by rallies by Sonia Gandhi on Tuesday. But Modi knows—as do BJP leaders—who can talk better if talking can tilt results. If Modi loses Karnataka, it won’t be because of lack of trying.