“Ee baari nirdhara, bahumatada BJP sarkara” (It is a majority BJP government this time). Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan for the 2023 Karnataka polls reverberated in the streets of Bengaluru. The saffron party’s most popular leader had set out to fight the mounting anti-incumbency against the Basavaraj Bommai government. But in vain. The results stunned the saffron brigade into silence even as the Congress swept to victory with 135 seats, while the ruling party finished a distant second with 66 seats. The only saving grace is that its votes share has remained intact at 36 per cent.
The BJP's humiliating defeat is a wakeup call to the saffron party that is bracing for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Bommai, who won the Shiggaon seat for the fourth time, said he solely was responsible for the defeat. “I accept people’s mandate with humility. There could be many reasons for the defeat. We will introspect to identify our shortcomings. The BJP is not an election-oriented party and is committed to nation building. We will continue our work, while we prepare for the Lok Sabha polls next year,” Bommai said.
He criticised the Congress for blaming the BJP’s poll debacle on Modi’s “ineffective” campaign. “The Congress has lost elections across the country. This defeat is not Modi’s defeat as he is a national leader and was here only to campaign for the party.”
As many as 13 sitting ministers were defeated hinting that anti-incumbency was at play, while the Congress’s five big poll guarantees—Rs 2,000 per month to women heads of families, 200 units of free power, Rs 3,000 per month to graduates, Rs 1,500 to diploma holders, 10kg free rice per person per month to every BPL family and free bus travel for women—dealt a death blow to the BJP even in its traditional bastions, like the Lingayat belt. The party won only 16 of the 50 seats in Kittur Karnataka, 14 fewer than last time, and five seats in central Karnataka against 23 in 2018.
Insiders point to the leadership vacuum that plagues the state BJP and the over reliance on the "Modi magic", for its loss. Lingayat strongman B.S. Yediyurappa is the lone mass leader in the party. The BJP, which has been accused of playing Lingayat politics, has made several bids to broadbase the leadership. It appointed three deputy chief ministers—Dr Ashwathnarayana (Vokkaliga), Govind Karjol (dalit) and Laxman Savadi (Gaaniga Lingayat)—and elevated Nalinkumar Kateel, who belongs to the numerically small but significant Bunt community. Bommai, a Sadar Lingayat, was picked as the successor to Yediyurappa. However, the party is yet to get a popular face to lead it in the state.
The defeat has brought the focus back on the need for grooming local leadership and the quality of candidates. Many newbies lack ideological commitment to the party and that is threatening to change the composition and the nature of the BJP. It gave tickets to 75 new faces but only 14 managed to win. In a bold move, the party denied tickets to 18 sitting MLAs and some senior leaders who had previously enjoyed power and position. However, it failed to tackle the rebellion post ticket distribution which cost the party dearly. It lost loyalists and influential leaders like Savadi, which caused a huge dent in the Lingayat votes. Savadi won the Athani seat in Belagavi on a Congress ticket after BJP put up party hopper Mahesh Kumathalli a second time. He also helped the Congress bag two more seats in the district.
Another major blunder by the BJP was the decision to focus on new territories like Old Mysuru while failing to sense the undercurrents in its traditional bastions like Kittur Karnataka, where the exit of Lingayat leaders like Savadi and Jagadish Shettar (Banajiga) had split the Lingayat vote. In Old Mysuru, the BJP’s aggressive pursuit ensured a triangular fight. But D.K. Shivakumar’s silent campaign projecting himself as the next chief minister shifted the Vokkaliga votes from the JD(S) to the Congress, decimating Deve Gowda's party to 19 seats.
The BJP’s hindutva plank helped energise the cadres in the coastal districts but failed to galvanise support elsewhere. The party had hoped to cash in on the Bajrang Dal debate triggered by the Congress manifesto hinting at banning the outfit. But the communal polarisation helped Congress consolidate the Muslim votes. The Congress elevating dalit leader Mallikarjun Kharge as its president helped the party garner dalit support.
Many sitting MLAs who had been elected multiple terms, like K.G. Bopanna and Appachu Ranjan from Kodagu, Assembly speaker Vishweshwara Hegde Kageri in Uttara Kannada, were given tickets despite them facing anti-incumbency. They lost. A significant number of defectors from other parties, too, lost. Party loyalists, however, feel that it could be a blessing in disguise. “Many workers have slogged for years, but are still on the sidelines. They need to be rewarded as this is not party of the dynasts but of the ordinary workers,” said a leader.
Introducing new faces is a good start as it helps remove deadwood and prepares young leaders for a long haul, according to a senior BJP leader. In Udupi district, for instance, all five seats were won by the BJP and four candidates were fresh faces. The flip side to the exercise is the party failing to quell rebellions in many districts by disgruntled leaders that led to the loss of even winnable seats. In Puttur, the party replaced sitting MLA Sanjeev Matandoor and chose Asha Thimmappa Gowda, a former zilla panchayat, president over Arunkumar Puttila, who was a ticket aspirant in 2018, too. Puttila contested as an independent which led to a split in the BJP votes and the Congress candidate Ashok Kumar Rai won the seat.
The assembly results have shown Karnataka moving towards bipolar polity with the poor showing by the JD(S). Moreover, the poor show in the assembly polls may not affect the BJP’s performance in the Lok Sabha elections. While the party was reduced to 40 seats in the 2013 assembly elections, a year later it won 17 of the 28 Parliament seats.
Again in 2018, the BJP won only 104 seats in the assembly elections, but it won 25 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The party hopes that the lessons learnt from the assembly poll debacle and another round of Modi blitzkrieg will help it in the general elections next year.