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Journalist Prabir Purkayastha explains how, in the election in the major state of Karnataka, India’s far-right Hindu-nationalist ruling party BJP won the most seats, even while it got fewer votes than Congress. He also discusses the attacks on leftist and secular forces

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BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News, I’m Ben Norton. The major Indian state of Karnataka held its Legislative Assembly election on May 12. And India’s far-right Hindu-nationalist ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, known by the acronym BJP, dominated the vote. The BJP won 104 seats while the Indian National Congress won 77 seats. And the local state party, JD(S) Janata Dal (Secular), won 37 seats. 

Karnataka is a massive state, with more than 60 million people, and many analysts said whoever wins this state in this election will likely win the general election in India in 2019. In response to the election results, BJP National General Secretary, Ram Madhav, declared that the far-right party’s “southward march” had begun.

Joining us to discuss this is Prabir Purkayastha. Prabir is the founder and editor of the website, NewsClick. Thanks for joining us, Prabir. 


BEN NORTON: So can you analyze these results, please? Are you surprised that BJP did so well, and why do you think Congress lost seats? 

PRABIR PURKAYASTHA: Well, let’s first get some of the other statistics over here- that BJP actually had two percent less votes to Congress, but it did have many more seats. Congress has lost seats, BJP has gained seats, but it does not commensurate to the vote figures that they had. So, in this case, what we have to say is that Congress had relatively broad distributed votes because JD(S) and Congress contested against each other. 

Therefore, they actually did not get commensurate with the vote proportion, the number of seats. While BJP, which had contested across the state- but it concentrated strength in certain pockets, therefore got really more seats. I would say that, in that sense, this is not really a victory for the BJP, and a huge, shall we say, “southward march.” BJP had actually won Karnataka about five years back- ten years back. So this, in that sense, is not the first time that they’re in the reckoning. 

What we have instead, is really a hung assembly. But JD(S) and Congress have come together and have staked their claim to form the government. Unfortunately, the governor has called BJP to form the government with the minority, while JD(S) and the Congress would together have a majority. So, in that sense, now we have to see that in the horse-trading that may take place right now, but the BJP can buy some of the families, if not to side with it, at least to be absent, and therefore secures an artificial majority, as it were, despite the fact that have lost the elections, in the sense that they have not got a majority. 

Yes, they have gained ground in terms of the last elections, but the last election was also the context they had a desperate performance as a government. Their Chief Minister was found to be extremely corrupt. And this is true, that this time as well, it’s the same Chief Ministerial candidate. And a lot of the corrupt figures, which had been widely perceived to be sheltered by the BJP leadership, have really come back into BJP. They haven’t done well in the elections, at least those corrupt sections which are called the “Bellary brothers,” and they are selling, shall we say- really, family and friends have not done well, though they got the BJP ticket. 

So, I think I would still say it’s mixed results. At the moment, what we do see is that the governor is playing a role which is not expected of a constitutional authority. So, he’s a BJP man and he supported the BJP in terms of forming the government. And this, in some sense, is a violation of the constitutional propriety, of calling the majority- those who can form a majority have a majority in the assembly, not calling them to form the government. This is one part of it. 

It is true that this is an indicator what the BJP will do with the 2019 elections? I do not really think so, because Karnataka, in spite of what you said, sixty billion- in Indian terms, sixty billion is not as big a figure that it might appear. You have the UP, which is far bigger than this, you have a number of states which are much bigger than this. And what we will see also is a mini general election in a couple of months, in which three states will go to the polls. And that will probably be a more clear indicator because they’re all in the north, and this is going to decide which way BJP’s fortunes are going to go. 

So, I do not think that this can be counted as a clear, shall we say, victory for the BJP. It does not- I would say that the Congress has lost ground in terms of seats, though it hasn’t lost ground in terms of votes. In fact, interestingly, Congress has got more vote this time than they did last time. So, this therefore is- I would not call it either a “southward march” for the BJP or consider this as a precursor to the 2019 general elections. 

BEN NORTON: Yeah, those are important correctives. Of course, many media outlets tend to be hyperbolic about these kinds of things, to sell copies, to get more readers. And of course, BJP, for its own political gain, tried to claim victory. But you raise several important points there.

So, can we analyze, why do you think that Congress isn’t doing better at a time when demonetization, the policy carried out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was a complete disaster, when there are all these horrific scandals, rape scandals, involving members of BJP in Kathua, up in Kashmir, and in and other parts of the country? Why do you think Congress and other parties, specifically left-wing parties, are not doing better? 

PRABIR PURKAYASTHA: Well, one part of it is, yes, Modi still has some credibility, even though it’s a waning one, at the moment, in India. It is also true that, while the Modi government faces anti-incumbency, in terms of its failed policies, in terms of all that you’ve described, it’s also true that the Congress ran Karnataka for five years. And though it did give certain kinds of, shall we say, health facilities to the poor, nevertheless their ability to retain their seats also shows that Congress is not as strong in electioneering, as it were, or strategically doing the elections as the BJP is. 

And I would say there is a huge element of the kind of money that BJP has collected. It’s outspent its rivals by four-is-to-one, five-is-to-one in these elections. And a lot of the money is also not visible today, because it comes to the equivalent of the super PACs in the U.S. It’s not really connected- or it’s not really showed as election expenses. And a lot of that goes to strategize, to a Cambridge Analytica equivalent in terms of micro-targeting of voters, identifying which seats they need to swing in order to get a majority. 

So, it’s that kind of, shall we say, more modern election tactics, if you will, not the mass politics that we are familiar with. And I think that’s where the BJP has a decisive edge. It is true that the BJP’s and Modi’s, shall we say, electoral capital is dwindling. But as I said, the Congress also has its own problems, and therefore that itself, by itself, does not give them that edge. 

But I do think that, in the North, where they have also incumbents- BJP has incumbent parties over there. Most of the states- BJP has been running this for ten, fifteen, one, two years. I think you will see a much sharper swing against the BJP, because the central government’s incumbency and the State Government’s incumbency will go both against the BJP. 

Coming to the left, I think we have to understand that in Karnataka, the left has always been very weak. So therefore, that should not be taken as a criteria. And we had also- the left, as a whole, has decided that in places where it does not have too much to gain in terms of seats, it will prefer to put up a few candidates and then support whoever can defeat the BJP in these constituencies. And therefore, that electoral tactics of the left means that they will only contest for a large number of seats where they have strength. Otherwise, they would really strategize to defeat the BJP, rather than try to get ephemeral or minor electoral victories. 

Again, in Karnataka we traditionally didn’t hold the seat, we used to hold what about ten years back, we have coming second then, we have come second this time, also. I think that this is- sort of for the left, Karnataka has never been particularly strong. But I do think that secular democratic forces in Karnataka did come together to fight the BJP, and that’s one of the reasons the BJP has not done as well as it thought it would in terms of votes. 

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and in terms of the attack on the left that’s been ongoing by BJP, and not just attack in terms of the actual physical attacks organized by RSS forces and other hyper-nationalist forces, we’ll get to that after this question. But I’m curious, of course, Karnataka is not the only example. We saw in February, in Tripura, that the Communist Party – Marxist, the CPM, was handed a pretty resounding defeat by BJP in what had traditionally been a left stronghold. 

So, if we take a step back and look at the general politics of India, and we can see, unfortunately, a rise in these far-right nationalist forces, and we can see a weakening in, as you mentioned, leftist secular forces. So, taking a step out of Karnataka and looking at the nation as a whole, why do you think BJP is dominating in parts that had traditionally been left strongholds like Tripura? 

PRABIR PURKAYASTHA: Well, Tripura is a very small state. And there are limitations on what state government can do in terms of creating employment, providing facilities, partly because it’s also- in terms of logistics, it’s also a state which is very difficult in terms of communications, transport, etc. So, a government running there for twenty years also has this added competency issue, that it has not done- created more jobs, has not done more, etc, etc. And the fact that it has really pulled up the population in terms of education and other facilities does not go to circumvent the problem of creating employment, and particularly for the middle class. 

Yes, it’s also true that there is today a rising tide of what I would call hate politics, in which we assert- certain sections assert that being Indian means minorities must be suppressed. Secular forces are anti-national, left is anti-national. And this hyper-nationalism, as you called it, combines with this religious identity politics, if you will, which is the Hindutva Politics. It’s not religious politics, but really, religious identity politics masquerading as religion. 

And this, combined with nationalism is a discourse we need to defeat. If you can’t defeat this, if you can’t say that this is what is- is not nationalism for India, is not nationalism for the people, but it’s really nationalism of the of the rich, and it’s the nationalism of the upper segments of society, including the upper caste. As you know, there are serious caste divisions in the country. Unless we can break that, shall we say, narrative of the right, then we will find, as secular forces, honest left forces, left democratic forces, we will find that we will not be able to defeat the BJP 

In this, we also need to think about- what is the economic program that BJP takes? And that’s where they are, at the moment, the weakest, which is how they’re trying to really counter, by not talking about what they haven’t done and what they have delivered. But instead, talking about how we are becoming strong, we are able to fight Pakistan, we are suppressing all dissent which is antinational. 

So, this hyper-nationalist narrative is being really set against what I will call a development and democratic narrative. And don’t forget, BJP, or Modi, came into power on the basis of being a development person. He was- he identified himself with development and said, “Congress has not developed the country, I will.” Those promises are no longer what he’s talking about. Instead, his basic refrain has been, anti-nationalists should be defeated, if the congress wins, if left wins, this means Pakistan will win, China will win, etc, etc. So, these kind of narratives need for us to combine the economic issues, the economic agenda, with also the political, social, secular, social agenda. And how to bring this together is really the challenge you face. 

BEN NORTON: We’ll have to end our discussion there. I’m Ben Norton, I was here with Prabir Purkayastha, we were discussing the politics in India and the election in Karnataka, which happened on May 12th. Thanks for joining us, Prabir. 


BEN NORTON: Reporting for The Real News, I’m Ben Norton. 

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Prabir Purkayastha is an engineer and a science activist in the power,
telecom and software sectors. He is one of the founding members of the
Delhi Science Forum and serves on Newsclick's editorial board. He has
written and published extensively on a number of science and
technology policy issues.