More Modi, Less Hindu Nationalism: Reading Tea Leaves in India Vote

With how often and how fiercely Narendra Modi injects himself into elections, you would think every race — down to the vote for municipal bodies in what will soon be the world’s most populous nation — is a referendum on his standing as the leader of India.

On Wednesday, a state election in Karnataka, home to 65 million people, was being closely watched for what it might foretell about national elections early next year in which Mr. Modi will seek to extend his transformational prime ministership into a second decade.

In Karnataka, his Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., was trying to hold on to the only state it governs in the country’s more prosperous south, where its Hindu nationalist politics have found much slower reception.

Initially, the B.J.P., in addition to boasting of social welfare programs, employed its usual campaign playbook of trying to polarize the state’s electorate along religious lines. This included, as a last-ditch effort, an attempt to take benefits away from Muslims and distribute them to two electorally important Hindu castes, before the judiciary stepped in to rebuke and pause the effort.

Having seemingly reached a saturation point in how many votes can be extracted through religious division in a place like Karnataka, the B.J.P. then made the race about trust in the popular Mr. Modi. He arrived in full force, holding 19 different rallies in the state.

Among them were long “road shows” in which he rode through the streets of Bengaluru, the tech hub also known as Bangalore, in an open-top vehicle decked out in flowers and pictures of himself. News reports estimated that anywhere between 10 and 50 tons of flower petals were required for his longest road show, covering 16 miles, as supporters showered them on the prime minister.

“I did not take much profit in that, because the flowers are offered to Mr. Modi — he is like God,” said V. Manjunath, who owns a flower store.

In the final days of campaigning, even as Manipur, a state in India’s east, was engulfed in deadly ethnic violence, Mr. Modi remained focused on Karnataka. His lieutenants pushed the idea of a “double-engine government,” with the national B.J.P. government, vast resources at its disposal, helping the B.J.P. state government. The message was clear: It doesn’t matter who the state leaders are, because there is one driver, Mr. Modi.

Results from the Karnataka vote are expected on Saturday. For the opposition Indian National Congress, crushed by Mr. Modi at the national level in the last two elections, in 2014 and 2019, a win there would be a much-needed morale booster.

Congress has many things going for it in Karnataka that it does not at the national level. It has kept its ranks there largely united, and even lured important B.J.P. leaders to switch sides, while on the national level and in other states it has been mired in infighting.

It also tried in Karnataka to keep the electorate focused on issues such as rising food and fuel prices, as well as repeated corruption allegations against local B.J.P. leaders.

In one of the culminating rallies, Priyanka Gandhi, Congress’s general secretary, emphasized to those gathered that her party was focused on “your issues” — guaranteeing electricity subsidies, small payments to female-run families and to unemployed graduates, and rations to struggling families.

She contrasted such practical assistance to the B.J.P. leader’s grievance-laden efforts to portray himself as a victim despite his vast power. “Not in one program have they told you how many jobs they have created, how many hospitals they have built,” Ms. Gandhi said, taking a dig at Mr. Modi. “He has just told you the list of how many times he has been abused.”

The Congress party’s chances of forming a government in Karnataka, on its own or in a coalition, appeared high, according to opinion polls. The hard part, analysts said, would be to maintain momentum in other state elections, and to scale up its Karnataka performance in the national elections.

If Congress is to put up a fight against Mr. Modi’s electoral juggernaut in the national race, it will have to cobble together a vast coalition of regional parties that have shown they can defeat the B.J.P., and do it so that its claim on leading that coalition does not derail it.

The opposition must coalesce around key issues such as job creation and avoid a “leadership-driven unity,” said Sandeep Shastri, an academic and political analyst based in Bengaluru. “If it is a leadership-driven unity, then you have lost the battle even before it’s begun — because the B.J.P. wants it to be a leadership-driven battle, and against Modi they have no chance.”

When the Congress party veered into an issue in Karnataka that sat squarely in the B.J.P.’s comfort zone, Mr. Modi’s lieutenants seized on it.

In its campaign manifesto, Congress promised “decisive action” and even a ban on Bajrang Dal, a right-wing Hindu group that often engages in vigilante violence. The B.J.P. quickly cast it as evidence of Congress’s disregard for Hindu values and its appeasement of Muslims.

Over the past couple of years, Mr. Modi’s party and its supporters had stirred several religiously charged issues in Karnataka, whose population is about 13 percent Muslim. B.J.P. officials banned schoolgirls from wearing the hijab, curbed halal food and even called for an economic boycott of Muslims by banning them from engaging in business near Hindu temples.

The B.J.P.’s step away from those issues as the election neared, analysts said, was an admission that religious polarization was simply solidifying the support of a section of voters it would have captured anyway. In a sign of Mr. Modi’s sway with his supporters, even those who disagreed with the divisive politics pinned none of the blame on him.

Signs of that limited dividend were clear at the Shree Siddagangaa Mutt, a major temple institution of the Lingayat caste, a strong support base for the B.J.P., in the city of Tumkur.

Nationally, the B.J.P. has had success in using religious polarization to unite Hindus and minimize caste divides. But in a demonstration of how caste allegiance in Karnataka does not necessarily translate into support for exclusionary politics, a majority of the 10,000 students at the schools and colleges that the Lingayat institution runs are from other castes and religions.

“There is no question of their caste and creed — they stay together, eat together,” said Siddalinga Mahaswami, the institution’s head.

B.J.P. leaders said they had not given up on their Hindu nationalist agenda in the state, known as Hindutva, but had simply dialed it down a notch during elections.

“Without Hindutva agenda, there is no B.J.P.,” said Chalavadi Swamy, a party member in the Karnataka Legislative Council. “But aggressively, we are not taking it now.”

“In the north, Hindutva means Hindutva — everybody will follow,” Mr. Swamy said. “In South India, it’s very difficult to understand the game — the complexity is there.”

As residents in Karnataka went out to vote, Mr. Modi was already in another state, Rajasthan, which will hold an election later this year, driving through throngs of supporters as he was showered with yet more flower petals.

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