Unpacking the Karnataka election: Key takeaways and the road ahead

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They have turned even policy failures such as the infamous demonetisation into political capital, while policy moves such as the aberration of Kashmir’s special status are popular way beyond the usual suspects of BJP supporters. Despite everything, BJP is still India’s largest political party, a juggernaut that will take the joint strength of all its rivals to defeat.

Indian electoral politics is an enigma. There are no easy, simple ways to understand and analyse its modus operandi. But this very enigma also keeps hope alive for its 1.4 billion citizens. The hope for the continuance of democracy, with all its constraints, at a time when political reconfiguration across the world is increasingly shifting towards more authoritarian governance.

It is in this context we should see the recently concluded state assembly election in Karnataka, held on 10 May and results declared on 13 May. The winner was the Indian National Congress (INC) under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, while the loser was the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With total registered voters numbering over fifty-two million and a more than 73 per cent turnout, the election marked the highest-ever participation in Karnataka and well above the national average.

The election gained attention from across the socio-political spectrum for multiple reasons. First, Karnataka was the only state in south India governed by Bharatiya Janata Party and, as such, projected as the testing ground for Hindutva politics in the south. Second, the idea of a double-engine government – the same party in power both at the Centre and in the state for more efficient governance, an idea advocated by the BJP – had been tested. Third, the election was explicitly a measure of the electoral popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Since the 2019 Lok Sabha election, which saw the emphatic victory of the BJP spearheaded by Modi and Shah, the BJP has suffered several electoral setbacks at the state level, including and perhaps most notably in West Bengal in 2021. The onus was, therefore, on them to make sure that there were no stones left unturned for retaining the party in power in Karnataka. Modi alone did more than twenty election rallies and six road shows, the most among top BJP leaders. Four, and perhaps the most important, an outcome in its favour would have provided BJP with a much-needed push to consolidate its position and electoral strategies for next year’s national election.

For the Karnataka opposition, in this election, primarily Congress, which ran in all seats, the stakes were equally high, if not higher. This was primarily because India’s ‘Grand Old Party’ has taken severe blows since losing national power in 2014 in both state and national elections. Serious questions have been raised about the credibility of the Congress leadership, the Gandhi family in particular and, more specifically, Rahul Gandhi. Critics relentlessly targeted him for his apparent lack of political acumen. He has even been suspended from parliament by court order, by many seen as an example of being outsmarted by the ruling party. Congress attempted some damage control last year when for the first time in 24 years, it elected as its president someone not from the Gandhi family, though many still doubt that the baton has really passed. The Karnataka state election thus was a serious test for the Congress leadership, both centrally and in the state. And because a favourable election outcome will have meant a much-needed rejuvenation of trust among Congress leaders and party workers in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election next year. As political scientist Gilles Verniershas pointed out, state election results are not predictors of future national contests but provide a moral boost to party organisations and facilitate fundraising for future campaigns. And lastly, the outcome of the Karnataka election is significant and attracts attention because it is seen to be boosting the chances of a united opposition alliance to stall the juggernaut of Modi-Shah-led BJP’s Hindutva politics.

With Congress’s win, BJP and allies today rule less than half of India’s states and less than half its population. The Congress and allies rule about one-third. The question is whether the ground under BJP’s Hindutva politics has started to give in.

 

Shifting grounds?

The election outcome was surprising, although polls had long suggested an improved tally for Congress. However, while polls and exit polls pointed towards a hung parliament, the final result gave Congress a stronger mandate than expected. Out of 224 seats, it won 135 – a solid majority. More importantly, perhaps, Congress secured almost 43 per cent vote share, a record in the last 34 years. BJP, on the other hand, received 36 per cent of the vote and won 66 seats, down from 104 seats in the outgoing assembly. However, BJP’s vote share remained the same as in the last state assembly election. It only lost in the number of seats. The great loser in this election was the third major party, the Janata Dal (Secular). This party had been projected as the ‘king-maker’ but came down from 37 seats to 19 and from 18 per cent to 13 per cent in votes. It was their worst performance in over two decades. In other words, support for BJP remains largely intact while opposition votes have converged around Congress to deliver more seats.

So, what led to this electoral outcome? Undoubtedly, BJP faced an initial disadvantage in Karnataka. This was because the party assumed power in 2019 after the collapse of an improbable coalition government formed by the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) under H.D. Kumaraswamy following the resignation of several lawmakers. Besides, since 1985, no incumbent party has been re-elected in Karnataka. To overcome this challenge and combat the ‘anti-incumbency’ factor, the BJP launched a vigorous campaign led by Prime Minister Modi. But anti-incumbency cannot alone explain the outcome. There are multiple and interconnected factors. First, BJP’s Hindutva narrative did not quite work in this election. When BJP tried to raise anti-Muslim sentiments, Congress refused to play ball. BJP activists at various points campaigned for an economic boycott of Muslims, a ban on the hijab for college-going girl students, peddled an old, ahistorical story of how Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan was killed by Hindus and not by the British, and endorsed the controversial ‘The Kerala Story’ film. But these communal pitches seem to have failed even in BJP’s bastion of coastal Karnataka. In addition, the decision made by the BJP government to eliminate the 4 per cent reservation for Muslims categorised as Other Backward Classes was perceived as an additional attack on the minority population. The move was opposed despite Chief Minister B. Bommai’s justification that the Constitution does not permit reservation based on religious lines and that the community could avail of reservation benefits under the 10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections. The matter was brought before the Supreme Court, and the state government opted for a strategic retreat and declared it would not enforce the decision. But the damage was done by then.

Ideological hardliners of the BJP, like C.T. Ravi, lost their seats, busting the myth that communal rhetoric will always sway voters. Much of the credit for this outcome has been given to a mature, coherent, and politically savvy Congress leadership that refused to jump to the bait and automatically attack any anti-Muslim expression. The other side of the coin here is that while doing so, the Congress leadership also challenges BJP’s claim to be the voice of the Hindus. Congress has traditionally not invoked religious idioms in its political rhetoric, but here it included chants of ‘Bajrang Bali’ (which refers to Hanuman, the Monkey God) and flooded cyberspace with Hanuman symbols. In fact, the Congress’s national website shows Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka leaders P.C. Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar under a giant statue of Bajrang Bali. Congress even took a dig at Prime Minister Modi for equating the militant Hindu nationalist organisation Bajrang Dal with Bajrang Bali. Also, as a direct consequence of BJP’s Hindutva agenda in a state of approximately 13 per cent Muslims, the continued socio-economic assault on the community led to further consolidation of the minority votes in favour of the Congress. This was more visibly noticed in the Old Mysuru region at the cost of Janata Dal (Secular), which usually banks on the VM (Vokkaliga-Muslim) factor to win big in the region. Despite the JD(S) taking a firm stance on the hijab issue in an attempt to secure more Muslim votes, the community shifted their support to the Congress out of concerns that JD(S) might form an alliance with BJP.

While a Hindu rhetoric has been appropriated by other claimants, assigning the cause of BJP’s defeat to a slipping grip on Hindutva alone would mean overlooking factors such as internal divisions in BJP, corruption allegations, and the lack of credible regional leadership after the departure of former BJP Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa.

Some genuine economic grievances among voters may have swayed many away from BJP and Hindutva. Many farmers, especially from the Vokkaliga caste in the southeast parts of the state, blamed BJP for the widespread agrarian distress. For many, this economic distress was linked to communal politics, and they blamed the latter for the former. According to the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, a farmer-led pressure group, farmers faced difficulties selling their produce because of an economic ban on Muslims, many of whom are merchants. Another illustration of the potentially negative impact of Hindutva concerns on public sentiment is the enactment of the 2020 legislation prohibiting cow slaughter, which subsequently contributed to the emergence of cow protection vigilantes. The cattle market in Karnataka, which serves as a crucial source of income for farmers who rely on small-scale cattle husbandry to supplement their crop-based earnings, was adversely affected by cow slaughter laws and vigilantism. As it turned out, for Karnataka voters, the rising prices of basic commodities and economic concerns weighed more than BJP’s Hindutva agendas, especially in the northeast and southeast regions of the state.

Third, the election outcome also reflected issues in the leadership dynamics of both the major parties. Congress has faced numerous challenges in several states over the years due to the intervention of the party high command, resulting in the appointment of incompetent leaders to oversee the Provincial Congress Committee and state election campaigns. Despite their poor performance, these individuals were often re-nominated due to a lack of understanding by the party high command. However, the recent appointment of Mallikarjun Kharge as Congress President has helped to resolve this issue, or at least to a certain extent. Kharge is a capable and astute leader who deeply understands the state’s political landscape and can distinguish between effective and ineffective politicians. This development gives the Congress a reason to be optimistic about future electoral gains.

By contrast, the BJP is currently facing similar intrusion by its high command, causing significant damage. Since 2014, the state party and state government have been under the complete control of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. During state election campaigns, Modi and Amit Shah dictate which themes to be emphasised and disregard the local knowledge that state-level BJP activists possess. The central BJP leaders have placed confidence in their vast campaign funds and Modi’s impact as an orator. However, Modi’s speeches during the campaign focused mainly on his vision and national-level issues, ignoring state-level concerns that mattered to voters. Rahul Gandhi used this when in one of his election rallies, he pointed out to Modi that ‘this election is not about you’. BJP’s approach was ill-judged, as surveys show. Modi and Shah’s previous use of inducements to topple opposition state governments in Karnataka also created problems for their party this time because it had turned the state BJP into a battleground for factional fights between turncoats and loyalists. The imposition of new, unpromising candidates by national BJP leaders also contributed to the party’s poor performance in the election.

 

The way ahead

Congress’s Karnataka win generated much hullabaloo and enthusiasm among opposition parties. The efforts to raise a common platform and fight the 2024 national election together have intensified. It is increasingly clear to leaders of opposition parties that even if they rule their own states, as long as the opposition parties remain divided, they will continue in the shadowlands of disadvantage in the eternal negotiations for central funds. A striking example is how the funds for the rural employment programme have not been coming to opposition-run West Bengal due to ever-new bureaucratic hurdles – despite being promptly released to other states.

Another aspect made clearer after the Karnataka win is that no opposition platform can efficiently challenge BJP without active Congress participation. It is the only opposition party that can muster credible candidates and an organisation to bolster chances in every state and every constituency in the country. Other parties have their strongholds too, and seat sharing will require tough negotiations. But at least all significant opposition leaders seem to have acknowledged that any tactical alliance must include Congress. Of course, whether they will succeed in joining forces is another question altogether.

It is also apparent after the Karnataka election that religious – and here we mean Hindu – symbolism and promotion of Hindu causes will likely be more prominent in the future. In some ways, the cultural project of Hinduisation of India that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has promoted over several decades has prevailed. For RSS, the Hinduisation of India was always more important than political power alone. It was always about creating space in public India for Hindu symbols and concerns and ensuring the promotion and protection of Hinduism and Hindus as opposed to any neutral or ‘secular’ stance. With Congress having the fresh and exciting experience of having used a form of ‘soft Hindutva’ and not only gotten away with it but actually won a large and significant state, it seems unlikely that others will not try the same.

One damper on the prospects of opposition unity and electoral success is the realisation that the Karnataka Congress is uniquely mature. This could be seen, for instance, in how the two prominent leaders, who both clearly wanted to be chief minister of the state, came to an agreement within days. In other states, factional struggles have dragged out for weeks, ending in dramatic gesturing, defections, and rapidly dwindling public trust. This might well happen again among state leaders with unbridled ambition, however much the Karnataka example may suggest otherwise.

A second damper is the power of the BJP, including its massive war chest and the immense popularity of Narendra Modi himself. Even if this did not translate into electoral success in Karnataka, as many have pointed out, national elections are quite different, and Mr Modi has a position as no other prime minister has had since the days of Indira Gandhi. His face is everywhere; he is immediately recognised by everyone around; he is widely respected; he is a skilled orator and a prolific political operator; along with his right-hand man Amit Shah, he has constructed a formidable political machine. They have turned even policy failures such as the infamous demonetisation into political capital, while policy moves such as the aberration of Kashmir’s special status are popular way beyond the usual suspects of BJP supporters. Despite everything, BJP is still India’s largest political party, a juggernaut that will take the joint strength of all its rivals to defeat.

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