“A big round of applause for the future prime minister of India,” a woman’s voice boomed over an open ground on the side of the national highway, about 350 km north of Bengaluru.

Rahul Gandhi’s helicopter had landed here, outside Shiggaon town in Haveri district, on the evening of May 4, moments after gray rain clouds had blown over, leaving the sky iridescent.

This was the last of Gandhi’s election meetings on his eighth campaign trip to Karnataka, which goes to polls on May 12.

From all accounts, the party, which is fighting to retain its last major state, faces a steep challenge – Karnataka has never re-elected a government since the mid-1980s. Yet, the mood among Congress workers that evening was uncharacteristically buoyant. Even the party’s candidate from Shiggaon, Sayad Azeempeer Khadri, who nearly choked on stage while pleading voters to end his three-term losing spree, which he compared to the exile of Ram and Sita, greeted Gandhi with aplomb. “We welcome the future prime minister of India,” he said.

Four days later, at a meeting in Bengaluru, Gandhi was asked about the possibility that he become the prime minister. He said it depended on how well the Congress performs in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. “If the Congress party is the biggest party, yes.”

In Shiggaon, Gandhi began by framing the election as part of a larger national contest. “This isn’t just an election for Karnataka,” he said. “It is a battle between two ideologies.”

On one side, he said, was the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party, which was spreading hate in the country, and wanted to rule Karnataka from Nagpur, the headquarters of its parent organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. On the other side, he claimed, was the ideology of the Congress party, which believed in the leadership of the people of Karnataka, and was inspired by the philosophy of Basavanna.

He referred to the 12th-century reformer, Basava, with the respectful honorific anna or brother, as is customary in the state. On an earlier trip, he had faced ridicule for calling him Basava ji and mispronouncing his vachanas or sayings.

Now, he seemed better prepared.

“Two words explain Basavanna’s philosophy,” he said. “Nuddidante nadde. Do what you say.” The crowd broke into loud applause. “The prime minister folds his hands before Basavanna’s statue, garlands it, but does not know the meaning of these two words,” he continued, pausing at the end of every sentence to allow Rajya Sabha member BK Hariprasad to translate it into Kannada.

“Wherever he goes, he makes many promises, grand promises.”

“Narendra Modi will create two crore jobs for the youth every year,” he said, raising his hand and holding up two fingers.

“Narendra Modi will deposit 15 lakhs in every bank account.” The crowd did not need any translation – it cheered lustily.

“Narendra Modi will ensure the right price for farmers.”

He spoke with emphasis, with confidence, barely glancing at his notes. It helped perhaps that the lines were simple and repetition had made them familiar.

Gandhi had even improved his voice modulation. He was mocking and deadpan in turns. He raised his palm, nodded his head, and asked: “15 lakh mil gaye?” You got the 15 lakhs?

The Congress public meeting in Shiggaon, Haveri district.

Invoking icons

The next morning, 250 km south of Haveri, in the small industrialised city of Tumakuru, the Prime Minister began his speech by reading out from notes.

Speaking in Kannada, he paid his respects to the land of the Kalpatharu, the people of Tumakuru, the priests of the Siddaganga mutt, and to “all the great people born on this soil”. Among them he named the nuclear physicist Raja Ramanna and the medieval era sculptor Jakanacharya.

While Gandhi had fallen back on Basavanna as a pan-Kannada symbol, Modi invoked local icons, local memories – a sign of better research.

Everything about the Modi meeting was bigger, more spectacular. It was held in a stadium, fitted with LCD screens and multiple cameras, which swept over tightly packed crowds. A row of buses, parked some distance away, had brought in people from around the district.

Modi began with a sprinkling of Kannada but he quickly switched to Hindi. For the first time on the campaign trail, however, he had a translator at hand. In February, at his first election meeting in the state, many BJP workers had walked away while he was still mid-speech, unable to understand the Hindi. The party seemed to have realised even Modi’s theatrical oratory needed local language to work.

Language barriers aside, Modi remained the consummate orator.

“Look up every election the Congress has contested, from the time of Indira Gandhi, in every election, the Congress party has chanted” – his voice dipped and he began to roll imaginary prayer beads – “poor, poor, poor, poor, poor, poor…”

The crowd broke out into applause. Modi waited for it to die down before speaking again. “Now that the son of a poor mother has become the prime minister, the Congress has stopped taking the name of the poor. It has realised it can no longer fool them by blowing dust into their eyes.”

Unlike Gandhi, who stuck to short sentences, Modi spoke in complex sentences, shifting his gaze at every turn of phrase, gesticulating, pausing, clapping his hands, doing everything needed to make a point.

Raising both his hands in the air, he said: “My brothers and sisters in Tumakuru, my brothers and sisters in Karnataka….”

Then, waving them, he continued: “...brothers and sisters who farm across my country…”

He sliced the air with his left hand: “...today please think…”

And pinched it with the fingers of his right hand: “...how Congress leaders, day and night…”

He shifted his gaze to the right: “...talk about farmers’ loans, farmers’ loans…”

Twirled his hands in a lasso-like move: “...to do politics over it…”

And dug the air in a sign of gathering something: “They are doing this to get votes.”

At every punctuation, there was a shift in gesticulation: “But answer once, after Independence, in 70 years, the maximum time, the Congress has ruled, one family has ruled, what did you do, that my farmer got steeped in debt and was compelled to commit suicide. You had the opportunity to rule for 70 years. If you had paid attention to the farmer, them my farmer brothers and sisters would not have faced such difficulties.”

But for all his theatrics, Modi was recycling an old script. He blamed the Congress for all India’s ills. The crowd did not walk away. But it did not break into Modi chants either.

Politics is local

From all accounts, constituency-level factors will decide the Karnataka elections – not the speeches of national leaders. The concerns of most voters are local. But it is still interesting to see how voters perceive national leaders.

In Haveri town, a young shopkeeper praised Modi’s mann ki baat speeches. “It touches here,” he said, pointing at his chest, “because he speaks straight from the heart.”

But in Tumakuru, a young hotel management graduate, roughly of the same age, chuckled that Modi had finally met his match in Karnataka – not Rahul Gandhi, but chief minister Siddaramaiah. “Modi is not scared of anyone, but he is scared of him,” the young man said.

Recognising Siddaramaiah was the best foil to Modi, the Congress has placed its chief minister at the forefront of its election campaign. His acerbic, combative statements, positioning himself as the regional, subaltern leader who is thwarting the dominance of BJP’s Hindi-speaking central leadership, continue to create a stir on social media. But on the ground, in the last leg of the campaign, Siddaramaiah is tied down to the Chamundeshwari constituency in Mysuru district, where he is locked in what appears to be a close contest. It has been left to Gandhi to crisscross the state.

A small but enthusiastic crowd listened to Rahul Gandhi's speech in Doddaballapura in Bengaluru rural constituency.

In Shiggaon, Gandhi spent a considerable part of his speech mocking Modi’s claims of fighting corruption. He brought up the fugitive diamond merchants and bank defaulters Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi – but to little effect. The only time the crowd stirred was when he mentioned BJP leader and former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa, who had faced corruption charges, and even served jail time.

“Achcha, just a few days ago, something strange happened,” he said. “For the first time in his life, [BJP President] Amit Shah spoke the truth. He said on TV the most corrupt government in the state was Yeddyurappa’s government.”

Loud cheers went up. But, instead of building on the momentum, Gandhi made a baffling switch. He brought up Union road minister Nitin Gadkari’s comments on how Karnataka had the best roads. And then even more bafflingly, he spoke about the Prime Minister’s proclivity to garland Ambedkar’s statues. All in quick succession.

In contrast, Modi remained lucid throughout. He came to the topic of corruption right at the end. Cleverly sidestepping the opposition’s barbs, he made the dubious claim that his government had saved Rs 80,000 crore by using the 12-digit number Aadhaar to make direct benefit transfers into the bank accounts of people.

Gandhi praised Karnataka government’s food schemes and claimed not a single person in the state went to bed hungry. But Modi came prepared with locally relevant boasts – he reminded the gathering that months after taking charge as prime minister, he had visited Tumakuru to inaugurate a food processing park.

A procession of BJP workers heading to the stadium in Tumakuru to listen to Modi.

Invoking Modi

Over his half hour long speech, Gandhi mentioned Modi 35 times. Modi did not mention him by name even once.

At the end of his speech, Gandhi said: “I will fight him and we will defeat him in Karnataka.” Not just in Karnataka, he declared that Congress would defeat BJP in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the three states which go to polls later this year. “And in 2019, we will defeat Modiji in Delhi,” he said.

He said this in a constituency where the Congress has lost the last three assembly elections – and looks most likely to lose the fourth.

Still, many Congress workers said they were impressed with Gandhi’s confidence.

“He has improved,” said a man in his fifties, who identified himself as a Congress worker of 30 years. “But he needs to do much better. He needs to speak loudly, with more enthusiasm, more vigour. How else will he defeat Modi?”

All photographs by Supriya Sharma