Game on for 2024, as BJP exits South India and Congress re-surgestext_fields
The defining image of Karnataka Elections 2023, came long before the election campaign even started. It was a short video that went viral during the Bharat Jodo Yatra of the Congress – of Rahul Gandhi jogging on the road, with Siddaramaiah and DK Shivkumar, jogging along on either side of him. This clear show of unity between the two tallest leaders of Karnataka Congress told the voters in Karnataka that the Congress had finally got its act together. That became the tipping point for several voters across Karnataka, cutting across regions, castes and communities.
The result is there for all to see – a resurgent Congress in Karnataka, sitting comfortable at 135 seats, a massive 55 seat gain from 80 seats in 2018. Its vote share has climbed to a very healthy 43%. A tired looking BJP exiting power, chastened by the voter, has fallen from 104 to just 66 now, but retaining its vote share at 36%. Numerically and in terms of vote share too, the JD(S) has fared the worst, its strength falling almost by half, from 37 to just 19, its vote share crumbling to just 13.3%. But even as analysis pours in about Karnataka itself, this result has significant implications at the national level, in the context of the remaining major state elections coming up in 2023, and in the run-up to the 2024 General Elections as well. Implications for the BJP, the Congress, and for the rest of India’s opposition parties.
First, the BJP
Divisive politics failed
For the BJP, giving importance to divisive politics failed in Karnataka. The average voter was neither interested in, or impressed by the hijab ban, or by the cancelling of Muslim reservations, nor the last minute reference to the bogey of ‘love jihad’ after the release of the film ‘The Kerala Story’. Interestingly, BC Nagesh, Karnataka’s education minister and the man behind the hijab ban, lost his election from Tiptur constituency in Tumkuru. His support for text book revision, his statements denigrating the Bible and Quran in comparison to the Gita, simply did not attract enough votes.
It seems BJP gave primacy to issues related to ideology, but elections have to be fought practically, tactically and on real state-level issues. And here, it was a tactical error to back CM Basavaraj Bommai. The stigma of heading a ‘40% sarkara’, and himself being labelled as the ‘PayCM’ did the maximum damage to the BJP. The suicide note left behind by contractor Santosh Patil at a hotel in Udupi, accusing BJP leader KS Eshwarappa of demanding 40% commission, created a negative impact that the BJP could not shake off. Denying Eshwarappa a ticket didn’t help, because voters blamed Bommai for the corruption in the state. A leadership change before the elections may have reduced the damage, but that’s only wisdom in hindsight. Besides, there is no clear tall BJP leader in sight at the state level, after the side-lining and exit of BS Yeddyurappa.
Modi, Hindutva and ‘Double-Engine’ - limited appeal in South
The other big learning for the BJP is that while PM Narendra Modi is a reliable star campaigner in North India, it's not the case in the South. And without a presentable state leader, the ‘double-engine’ rhetoric doesn’t impress either. In the last 24 hours, non-BJP parties and memesters have made a meal out of ‘BJP-Mukt’ (meaning BJP-Free) South India. This should be a major concern for the BJP’s top leadership in Delhi, and for the RSS think-tank in Nagpur as well. Their presumption was that BJP has started making significant inroads in Southern India, but in fact, progress if any, has been slow, and certainly not translating into numbers. Karnataka, the one state where the BJP had a significant presence, was being seen as a ‘laboratory’ for BJP’s ‘south strategy’. But that has hit a roadblock. The realisation has to be that each southern state needs a separate strategy, there is no one formula that will fit all. And that state elections are about local issues, and about each state’s unique caste and community equations, and finding state leaders equal to the to the task. Parachuting in the PM can be the icing on the cake, but not the cake itself.
South India can Upset 2024 election maths
The biggest implication of the Karnataka loss is how it could impact the 2024 General Election. While the BJP had drawn a blank in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra in 2019, it had significant success in Telangana, with 4 seats. But, by far its biggest success was in Karnataka where they walked away with 25 out of 28 Lok Sabha seats. But that was well before the Bommai government started to undo the BJP‘s clout in the state. While national level elections are a very different ball-game, where the Modi factor does count (or rather, the absence of a viable political alternative to Modi and the BJP), it seems extremely unlikely that the BJP will be able to repeat this 25/28 performance. Add to that the exit of Nitish’s JD(U) in Bihar, which by bringing the RJD-Congress-JD(U) back together alters the maths in that state completely. Also keep in mind that in 2019, in Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP, Haryana, Delhi, Uttarakhand and Himachal, the BJP won practically every seat on offer. So it can’t better its performance in those states. Therefore, returning to its 2019 number of 303 Lok Sabha seats may now be a challenge for the BJP, especially with Karnataka seemingly slipping out of hand. The only silver lining for the BJP is that they have retained their 36% vote share in the state
Next, let’s look at the Congress.
Siddu and DK United
The smartest thing the Congress did, as mentioned at the start, was to ensure that Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar, presented a united face, allowing the Karnataka voter to opt for the Congress. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, as a recent show of Congress strength, also bolstered the party’s image. Analysts mention TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor repeatedly at the national level. But it works at the state level too. Anti-incumbency doesn’t kick in unless the opposition is seen as a winning option, around a strong state-level leader. Also, behind the scenes, credit must go to the quiet but persuasive role played by political strategist S Kanugolu in keeping DK and Siddaramaiah together. The Congress would hope this equation doesn’t unravel, or at least not before the 2024 results are in.
Managing Caste Equations
The Congress was also smart enough to play up local issues, especially the issue of corruption, which it was practically handed on a platter. But more significant was how the Congress managed caste and region. In this, Mallikarjun Kharge, Siddaramaiah, and DK Shivakumar, complemented each other through the campaign. Kharge and Siddaramaiah are tall SC leaders. Kharge, now elevated to Congress President, was also instrumental in bringing the Hyderabad Karnataka region. Siddaramaiah is being credited with working very hard on the ‘AHINDA’ vote, or the Minority-Backward Classes-Dalit vote. And DK Shivakumar was able to wrest away much of the Vokkaliga vote, that has traditionally shown faith in the JD(S). Apart from ‘management’, just seeing a united and focused state leadership, inspires confidence in the voter, and many chose not to split their vote, and picked the Congress over the JD(S). Ultimately, this cost the BJP dearly, even as it held on to its own vote share.
But… will Congress Apply Learnings at National Level?
First, the need for a strong state-level leadership, and a united leadership. Many of us would not be able to recall the names of Congress state leaders in UP, Bihar, Gujarat, Punjab, Odisha, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Andhra or Assam. Only limited recall in Maharashtra and Bengal. And in Rajasthan, where there are two tall leaders, Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot, we know they are sworn enemies. And Rajasthan goes to the polls this year. With such a visibly divided house, it is likely that the voters will switch back to the BJP. So, while the Congress did sort out its state leadership issues in Karnataka, things are grim in the rest of the country. And it’s not just about state elections; even to galvanise the party cadre for the 2024 General Election, strong state leaders are needed. The Congress debacle in Punjab is a recent example of how power can slip away when leadership issues go unresolved. Certainly, the Congress has a latent vote share in almost every Indian state, but over the last few Lok Sabha elections they have failed increasingly at harnessing that vote.
Finally, India’s other Opposition parties.
In the run-up to 2024, there is the unresolved matter of a united opposition. How does the Karnataka result affect this? Well, it can cut both ways. One fall-out could be - this result makes the Congress arrogant yet again. That would be unfortunate. The Congress party’s largely Delhi-based think-tank is often detached from ground realities in various states; and as we have just examined, the Congress does not have the same strengths in other parts of the country that it has in Karnataka. In any seat-sharing discussion if the Congress demands a greater share than is logical, pointing at its Karnataka performance, that would be a mistake. While the Congress could take down the BJP in Karnataka, re-building the same strength, is at best, work-in-progress in most states. For the same reasons, the Congress would also want to think twice before demanding a Congress PM candidate, as a pre-condition for opposition unity.
At the same time, leaders like Mamata Banerjee, who are not as excited about having the Congress as part of a united opposition, should also take a good look at the Karnataka result. The fact is, that it does show that when it gets its act together, the Congress is the one party that can take on the BJP in many states. It would make sense for other opposition parties to acknowledge that ability and to back the Congress in those states. Similarly, when it comes to seat-sharing in sensitive states like Bengal, Telangana, UP, Bihar and Telangana, where a state-based party and the Congress are traditional rivals, it would require some cool heads and for some ‘give and take’ for matters to be resolved. The Karnataka result should be seen as a morale booster for India’s non-BJP parties, and not a trigger for a fresh round of ego clashes between the Congress and the other parties.