Karnataka polls: Has Congress found a winning formula?

For the BJP, it is a time to step back and reassess

INDIA-POLITICS/KARNATAKA Silencing critics: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi speaks to journalists in Delhi after the Congress victory in Karnataka | Reuters

No sooner had the last vote been counted in Karnataka than talk in political circles became about the national impact of the results. A jubilant Congress, looking at the big picture, immediately inflated the central leadership’s role in what was a campaign powered largely by state leaders. “The results offer the first electoral evidence of the impact of the Bharat Jodo Yatra led by Rahul Gandhi,” said Congress leader Shaktisinh Gohil. “The Congress did remarkably well in the seven districts and 51 seats that the yatra passed through, and the BJP got just a handful of seats. We will see similar results in other states and in the Lok Sabha polls.”

The party also dubbed this a failure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had campaigned extensively in the state. “He made the election a referendum on his own popularity and failed miserably,” said Pramod Tiwari, Congress deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha. “The BJP’s loss is Modi’s failure.”

The winners, however, would be wise to remember the 2018 state elections, where the BJP did not get a majority. The following year, in the Lok Sabha elections, it won 25 of the 28 seats. The BJP, in fact, draws solace from past electoral data that shows that voters differentiate between state and Lok Sabha elections. The BJP has seen this trend―bad in the state elections, great in the nationals―in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal.

What the Congress does gain from Karnataka, though, is confidence ahead of a busy election season. The party feels it has found a template that works at least in state elections―focus on local, state-level issues, avoid attacking Modi, do not engage with hindutva, and project local leaders. This plan is expected to be replicated in the upcoming state elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana.

At the national level, however, Congress leaders admit that the party has to be wary of the BJP turning the elections into a ‘Modi vs who?’ situation. Also, it is felt that hindutva and hyper-nationalism would work more in the north.

What worked in Karnataka and recently in Himachal Pradesh were the guarantees the Congress gave to voters. Party leaders said that this model could be an effective counter to the BJP’s welfarist agenda. Also, they felt that, at a time of an economic crisis, voters might not appreciate nationalistic chest-thumping.

The Karnataka win is also expected to bolster the Congress’s efforts to form a united opposition for the Lok Sabha elections. However, any claim it makes to gain leadership of this space will find resistance from players such as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. In fact, the Trinamool Congress chairperson has said that, while she was ready to back the Congress in its strongholds, she would expect it to back her by staying away from Bengal in 2024. The Congress would be expected to be more accommodating of the aspirations of opposition parties. It understands the need to stoop to conquer.

For the BJP, it is a time to step back and reassess. Some of its slogans, for instance, seem to be losing their steam. The ‘double-engine’ promise did not work in Himachal either.

Also, the party lost several reserved seats in Karnataka despite having projected itself as the champion of dalits and tribals. As part of this, the BJP has tried to appropriate the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar and had installed a dalit and then a tribal as president of India.

Another setback is that the BJP now has no government in south India. This perception of being a north-Indian party and still an outsider is likely to hurt its chances in the Telangana elections.

BJP leaders said that party units in states going to the polls have started holding meetings to plug the gaps in messaging and are reaching out to estranged voters. BJP chief ministers have already explored the option of tweaking their welfare schemes―the BJP had called them freebies, but voters in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and now Karnataka have wholeheartedly accepted them.

“How far can they (Congress) fulfil promises that would require Rs50,000 crore?” asked BJP spokesperson R.P. Singh. “And what will be the financial condition of the state after that? This is a new trend in politics. The Election Commission and the courts are deliberating on the issue [of freebies].”

Another area of concern for the BJP is that it needs stronger leaders in the states. Basavaraj Bommai did not cut it as a leader; the party would need people like Yogi Adityanath and Himanta Biswa Sarma to make up its second line of command.

The immediate fallout of the Karnataka elections will be that in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the party could go for careful social engineering to include leaders from various caste groups. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje and Raman Singh would still be prominent, but there will be others alongside them.

The Karnataka jolt could also impact how the BJP engages with the opposition. The anti-BJP parties have claimed that there is now an unprecedented bitterness in government-opposition relations. They have accused the BJP of misusing investigating agencies to go after them and wonder if the situation might change after Karnataka.

A lot could happen after Karnataka. Or perhaps not. What is for sure is that both national parties have a lot to think about ahead of a crucial election season.