It is still a fortnight too early to predict how, if at all, the political furore triggered by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge’s “poisonous snake” jibe at Narendra Modi would impact the outcome of the May 10 Karnataka assembly poll. What is clear, though, is that despite Kharge’s assertion that the comment was directed not at Modi but at the political ideology he subscribes to, the Congress party has unwittingly provided the BJP a toolkit that it is most adept at using to its advantage in tough electoral battles.
The analogy used by the Congress president has been lapped up by the BJP. Addressing a rally in the Humnabad assembly segment of Karnataka’s Bidar district, on Saturday (April 29), Modi gave but a trailer of how he intends to milk the controversy kicked up by Kharge.
Playing the victim, Modi claimed he has been “abused by Congress leaders 91 times” but wore these swipes as a badge of honour because the “greatest sons of India like Babasaheb Ambedkar and Veer Savarkar have been repeatedly abused by the Congress”. Modi went on to claim that the “Congress had called Babasaheb a rakshas (demon), rashtradrohi (traitor to the nation); today they abuse Savarkar… they are now extending the same honour to Modi”.
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This was Modi at his devious best – comparing himself to the father of the Indian Constitution while simultaneously invoking victimhood and painting his rivals as habitual and harsh critics of the country’s foremost Dalit icon or anyone else who works in the nation’s interest.
Till now for the Karnataka campaign, Modi had to rely on purported comments made in the past by Congress leaders against him – most notably former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s “why do all thugs have Modi surname in common” (for which Rahul has been convicted in a criminal defamation case) and the ‘Modi teri qabr khudegi’ (Modi, your grave will be dug) slogan that was allegedly raised by Congress workers when Pawan Khera was detained by the Delhi Police at the Delhi airport in late February. The public response to these had been lukewarm but with Kharge’s remark having a greater recall value, Modi certainly believes his latest salvo would pay off better with an electorate that is otherwise visibly unhappy with the BJP’s Bommai government.
Backlash against Cong
The acerbic backlash against Kharge and the Congress from Union home minister Amit Shah, Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai and sundry other BJP leaders that preceded Modi’s diatribe in Humnabad also suggests that the saffron party believes it can, once again, reap incremental votes by playing up the Grand Old Party’s affront to Modi.
Par for the course in this boorish war of words is the BJP’s vicious counter-strike at its principal rival. On Friday (April 28), senior BJP lawmaker Basanagouda Patil Yatnal had likened former Congress president Sonia Gandhi with a “vishkanya” (venomous woman). Addressing a poll rally at Yelburga in the state’s Koppal district, Yatnal, a former Union minister who is the BJP candidate from the Vijaypura seat and one of the party’s star campaigners for the forthcoming polls, also alleged that Sonia “worked as an agent of China and Pakistan”.
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A livid Congress has hit back at the BJP over Yatnal’s vile verbal attack at Sonia, demanding his immediate ouster from the party and an apology from none other than Modi. Randeep Surjewala, the Congress’s in-charge for Karnataka, also recounted a litany of offensive words that had been used by Modi against Sonia in the past while also asserting that Kharge’s “poisonous snake” remark was being “deliberately twisted” by the BJP and was an affront to the Congress president, “a Dalit who has risen up the ranks from the grassroots through hard work and public service, which the BJP can neither respect nor digest”.
The irony of this spiralling slugfest that Kharge has triggered with his avoidable jab at the Prime Minister is that the Congress had, thus far, consciously avoided any comments that would allow the BJP to place Modi at the centre of Karnataka’s electoral discourse.
A senior Congress leader from the poll-bound state told The Federal that at the party’s discussions throughout March and in early April for firming up the Karnataka poll strategy it was “unanimously agreed upon by the central and state leadership that our campaign must stand on two pillars – first, corruption and scams in the Bommai government, the Nandini vs. Amul issue, the BJP’s use and throw attitude towards the Lingayat community, and other issues specific to Karnataka, and second, on our vision and guarantees for Karnataka’s electorate… it was decided that no matter how much the BJP provokes us, we will not allow Modi to dominate the discourse; even Rahul was receptive to our request of toning down his attack at Modi while campaigning in Karnataka.”
“Cong wanted to replicate HP model”
The Congress, said another party leader involved with the campaign, wanted to replicate in Karnataka the kind of highly localised campaign it ran during the November 2022 Himachal Pradesh polls instead of relying on “Modi bashing”. “We know how the BJP’s poll machinery uses any criticism of Modi to manipulate public sentiment in its favour… elections in Himachal or even those held earlier in Delhi, Bihar, Bengal, Jharkhand, etc. have shown that the BJP can be defeated when its rivals run a campaign dominated by state-level or hyper-local issues because Modi has made his state units and most BJP CMs inconsequential… right up till now, we had stuck to this plan and the voters were responding very positively; now we have scored a self-goal and, for the first time in many months, allowed the BJP to go on the offensive,” this second party leader said.
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A member of the Congress’s campaign committee for Karnataka told The Federal that his party was “confident that our poll promises, the guarantees we are giving the voters such as free travel in state transport buses for women, 200 units of free power to all households, Rs 2,000 monthly assistance to homemakers, 10 kg of free rice to every BPL household member, etc. along with the public anger against the Bommai government will win us a comfortable majority” in the 224-member Karnataka Assembly.
Kharge’s jibe could give BJP advantage
However, in light of the blitz unleashed by the BJP following Kharge’s “poisonous snake” comment, the campaign committee member said, “we still believe we will win a majority because the public has already made up its mind to vote out the BJP but it cannot be denied that such statements give Modi and the BJP an advantage… if the BJP keeps dialling up its attacks on this front, we will be forced to respond and that may derail or, at least, dilute our original campaign pitch which would obviously harm us electorally, particularly in the 50-odd seats where we are in a close contest.”
The Congress, sources said, is hoping that its leadership will not get trapped into only responding to the BJP’s attacks over Kharge’s comments. “Obviously we have given them (the BJP) a way to bait us; now it is for our leaders to avoid falling for the bait… they will provoke like Yatnal did with his remarks against Sonia Gandhi but we have to be mindful of what we are fighting for… we have a good campaign, we have worked hard; Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra still resonates in parts of the state… a man of Kharge’s stature and experience should know by now the pitfalls of fighting the BJP on a pitch decided by Modi… we should force BJP to respond to us instead of us responding to them,” said a Karnataka Congress veteran who has served multiple terms as Union minister.