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Victory in Karnataka State Election Boosts India’s Congress Party

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Victory in Karnataka State Election Boosts India’s Congress Party

While all opposition parties celebrated the BJP’s defeat, some of them are alarmed by the prospect of a revived Congress.

Victory in Karnataka State Election Boosts India’s Congress Party

Supporters of the opposition Congress party wave flags to celebrate early leads for the party in the Karnataka state elections in Bengaluru, India, May 13, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

In a major shot in the arm ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections, India’s main opposition party, the Congress, wrested control over the southern Indian state of Karnataka from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in last week’s assembly election.

A mid-sized state that accounts for 28 of 543 seats in India’s Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian Parliament), Karnataka has been the Hindu right’s only base in southern India. The BJP’s defeat in Karnataka is a setback to its efforts to gain a foothold in southern India.

The Congress gained a clear majority in the 224-seat assembly by winning 135 (60 percent) of the seats, while the BJP’s tally came down to only 66 from 104 in the last assembly election, held in 2018.

Despite falling short of the majority mark of 113 in the 2018 Karnataka elections, the BJP had formed the government in 2019 by engineering defections in the ruling Congress-Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) coalition. In the recent election, Congress made massive gains both in terms of seat and vote share from both the BJP and the JD-S.

While the BJP’s outgoing chief minister, Basavaraj Bommai, tried to assign the blame to the local unit in his attempt to save Modi’s image of invincibility, opposition parties joined the chorus in attributing the defeat to Modi.

“It is a decisive mandate for the Congress and an overwhelming vote against the prime minister and not just the BJP because the architect of BJP’s campaign was the prime minister. It was the prime minister’s road shows, the prime minister’s speeches, the prime minister’s video messages… The campaign of the BJP in Karnataka was of the PM, by the PM and for the PM and all those three have been rejected,” said Congress veteran Jairam Ramesh, a former Union minister.

This is the second state assembly election success that the Congress has tasted in recent months, the previous one being in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh in northern India last December. While Himachal is a small state with only four Lok Sabha seats, a Karnataka victory was long considered crucial for the Congress to regain its lost strength.

First, a Karnataka victory would send out the message that Modi’s mission of ensuring a Congress-mukt Bharat, or an India free from the Congress, stands a distant dream yet.

Second, it should energize the Congress party and its cadres in states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Telangana, where state assembly elections are due later this year. Of them, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are currently ruled by the Congress.

Third, Karnataka is one of the states that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra – a south-to-north journey covering India’s length – went through a few months ago. A Congress defeat would have been portrayed by the BJP as the people’s rejection of the Nehru-Gandhi family scion, who has been at the center of the BJP’s attack at the national level. Gandhi addressed 17 rallies in Karnataka, energizing party workers.

And fourth, the health of the Congress is considered crucial for the prospect of the opposition forces, as it is with the Congress that the BJP has a direct fight in the largest share of Lok Sabha seats. The parliamentary elections of 2014 and 2019 recorded historic lows for the Congress, India’s grand old party.

The poor state of the Congress encouraged opposition parties having competitive interests with the Congress, such as the north-India based Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and eastern India-based Trinamool Congress (TMC), to undertake national expansion drives, primarily aimed at replacing the Congress as the BJP’s main rival in different states.

That rift remained visible even on the day the Karnataka results were announced. TMC chairperson Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, did not mention the Congress in her tweet congratulating the people of Karnataka for vanquishing “brute authoritarian and majoritarian politics.” In West Bengal, a rejuvenated Congress could upset equations in six or seven Lok Sabha seats.

Akhilesh Yadav, whose Samajwadi Party (SP) is the BJP’s main rival in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with 80 Lok Sabha seats, also did not name the Congress in his message. “This is a strong mandate of new positive India against inflation, unemployment, corruption and animosity,” he wrote.

Evidently, opposition parties were trying to use the mandate against BJP to their own advantage but were wary of the Congress making gains in their respective strongholds.

Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) leader K. T. Rama Rao, a minister in Karnataka’s neighboring Telangana state, reflected this contradiction in his tweet. He was quick to thank “the people of Karnataka for rejecting ugly & divisive politics” of the BJP and dismissed in the same tweet any possibility of the results having any impact in Telangana. There, the Congress is the BRS’s main rival in the assembly election due later this year.

A revived Congress is also likely to dampen the prospect of the alternative opposition alliance one without the Congress that parties like the TMC, the SP, and the BRS are trying to stitch up.

For the Congress to pitch itself as a decisive challenger to the BJP in 2024, the party needs to keep performing well in the coming assembly elections. The Congress will need an image makeover of the party, from being seen as a declining force to a rising one, to earn the people’s trust as a force capable of providing a stable government at the center. Past examples show different polling patterns of the same electorate in assembly and parliamentary elections. Despite the Congress winning more assembly seats than the BJP in the assembly elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan in 2018, the 2019 parliamentary election saw the BJP winning 25 of 28 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka, 28 of 29 in Madhya Pradesh, and 24 of 25 in Rajasthan.

Nevertheless, the Karnataka results are important also from another perspective. Over the past year and a half, Karnataka had earned a name for having provided the country with the third model of Hindu right rule, after Modi’s home state of Gujarat and the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Anti-Muslim propaganda in Karnataka peaked over issues like the hijab ban on educational campuses, the use of loudspeakers for prayers at mosques, cow vigilantism, disputes over places of worship, and legislation restricting religious conversion and cattle slaughter.

However, at an early stage of the assembly election campaign, the BJP had prioritized development over the Hindu nationalistic pitch. As the poll date came closer, Modi himself took the lead in bringing the Hindu nationalist rhetoric back to the center of their campaign.

The Congress kept its focus mostly on corruption charges against the state government and, except for the last-minute electoral promise of banning fringe Hindu right groups like Bajrang Dal, mostly stayed away from the secular-communal debate.

Does the Karnataka failure despite the BJP’s high-pitched campaign on communal lines reflect a saturation point for the tactics?

The state assembly elections due later this year may tell us more.