Cong conquers Karnataka with 136 seats
The Indian National Congress won Karnataka's assembly elections with a comfortable majority, winning 136 of the state's 224 assembly seats. The party's vote share is the highest in Karnataka since 1989, securing them their fourth state. This victory is a morale booster for the Congress, as it gains a resource-rich state and the confidence to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party in head-to-head contests. The BJP won 65 seats, and the Janata Dal (Secular) slumped to just 19 seats.
The Congress’s charismatic local leadership and a compelling narrative of welfare and anti-corruption propelled the party to its biggest assembly election win in nearly five years on Saturday, when it comfortably crossed the halfway mark in Karnataka, won the largest vote and seat share in a generation, and firmly shut the door on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) gateway to southern India.
The Congress won 136 of the state’s 224 assembly seats, the first time in a decade that a party has crossed the halfway mark in the state. The BJP was outgunned, winning 65 seats and facing reverses in five of the six main regions of the state. The third player in the state, Janata Dal (Secular), slumped to just 19 seats, with members of the party’s first family also losing their traditional strongholds, raising questions about the party’s political relevance in years to come.
The Congress’s emphatic victory is the first in a big state since December 2018, and gives the party its fourth state, and at 43%, its vote share is the highest in Karnataka since 1989, when the Ahinda (minorities, Dalits and backwards) coalition was a key ingredient of its support base. Not surprisingly, it was the Ahinda factor that was at play again, reflected in the party’s five guarantees — 200 units of free power, monthly assistance to women and young people, free bus rides for women, and free rice for poor families — and personified in socialist leader Siddaramaiah, 76, who was one of its principal campaigners.
“The result of this election is a stepping stone to the Lok Sabha election,” Siddaramaiah said. “The people of Karnataka wanted a change because they were fed up with the BJP government.”
The party dramatically improved its performance in every region in the state, sweeping the Bombay Karnataka and central Karnataka regions, felling the JD(S) fortress in the Old Mysuru region, and giving the BJP a neck-and-neck fight in Bengaluru, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi held two roadshows in a last-minute campaign blitz before polling day. Even in coastal Karnataka — the only part of the state where the ruling party was able to hold off the Congress’s onslaught — the party made inroads, winning the Madikeri and Virajpet seats for the first time in 20 years. It’s vote share in every region was in excess of 40%.
“This is a victory for the cadres,” said an emotional Shivakumar, the state party chief, breaking down on live television. He won his Kanakapura seat with a margin of more than 100,000.
One of Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar, 60, will be the state’s next chief minister, with the former considered to be the front-runner.
It was also a personal victory for Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge, who hails from Karnataka and was one of the faces of the campaign. In the Hyderabad Karnataka region, where Kharge hails from, the Congress won26 of the 40 seats on offer (the BJP won 10) and 46.4% of the votes, the highest across regions.
“Those who wanted to make ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ (Congress-free India) spoke many things against us but today one thing has come true and that is ‘BJP Mukt Dakshin Bharat’ (BJP free South India),” Kharge said.
Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra spent 22days in Karnataka and passed through21of the state’s constituencies. The party won 16of these, suggesting that despite Gandhi’s and the party’s insistence that the march was apolitical, it may be contributing some political dividend. “We promised the state five things, and within the first cabinet meeting, we will make these promises a reality,” former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi told reporters in New Delhi.
The BJP’s gamble of generational change and hardline Hindutva came a cropper.
The verdict came as a shock to the party which was hoping to buck a three-decade-old political tradition of the incumbent being voted out. The party’s vote share dipped from 36.4%in 2018 to 36%, and its seats plunged from 104 to 65. It lost ground in almost every region of the state, including in the central Karnataka and Mumbai Karnataka areas where its traditional Lingayat base appeared to have fragmented and its gamble of retiring former chief minister BS Yediyurappa and banking on a hardline Hindutva strategy backfired. At least 14 sitting ministers lost their elections and as did some leaders who led the charge for Hindutva issues, such as CT Ravi from Chikkamagaluru.
“...I take responsibility for this debacle. There are multiple reasons for this. We will find out all the reasons and strengthen the party once again for Parliament elections,” said Basavaraj Bommai.
But worse news was in store for the JD(S). The regional party that nursed aspirations of playing kingmaker in a close election lost its pockets of influence in the northern and central parts of the state and shrunk in the south. With 19 seats and 13.3%vote share, this was the party’s worst showing since its first election in 1999, a far cry from 2018 when HD Kumaraswamy became chief minister with support from the Congress after winning 37 seats.
The scale of the party’s decline was made clear by the loss of family borough Ramanagaram from where Kumaraswamy’s son, Nikhil Kumaraswamy contested. The former CM himself won by nearly 16,000 votes from Channapatna. Almost every community other than the one party patriarch and former prime minister HD Deve Gowda hails from, the Vokkaligas, appeared to have abandoned the party, a phenomenon analysts credited to the party’s public and cynical pursuit of power instead of focussing on its traditional strengths, farmer welfare and rural populations.
“I accept defeat and victory with equanimity. However, this defeat is not final, my struggle will not stop, I will always be with the people. I thank the people who have blessed our party,” Kumaraswamy said.
Coming less than a year before the 2024 general elections, the victory in Karnataka is a morale booster for the Congress, which gains a resource-rich state and the confidence to take on the BJP in head-to-head contests. In 157seats where the national parties were in direct fights, the Congress won 104and the BJP 53. The party will take heart in its strong local campaign headlined by its two tallest local leaders, its pithy campaign slogans of “40% sarkara” and “Pay CM” that painted the Basavaraj Bommai government as corrupt and struck a public chord, and its programme of five promises that married key constituencies of young people, women, unemployed and poor people. This helped the party stitch together a rainbow coalition that won over rural and urban voters alike — the party won 46urban seats and 63rural seats — and revive its alliance of backwards, Muslims and Dalits, or Ahinda, for the first time in half-a-century. Even its late-season gambit of likening the Bajrang Dal to the banned Popular Front of India appeared to have clicked, with massive Muslim consolidation behind the Congress in coastal and southern Karnataka regions.
With at least five other assembly elections to go this year, in addition to the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress will attempt to replicate its successful strategy of grassroots mobilisation, compelling local issues, and promoting regional satraps to take on the BJP. Siddaramaiah made a similar national pitch when he asked opposition parties to unite across the country. “I hope all non-BJP parties come together and see that the BJP is defeated. I also hope Rahul Gandhi becomes Prime Minister of the country,” Siddaramaiah said.
The victory will also boost the party’s stock in a national Opposition formation and help it stave off prospective challengers such as the Aam Aadmi Party and Trinamool Congress in the opposition space.
“The Congress’ triumph in Karnataka is a shot in the arm for a party starved of electoral wins. Act 1 was winning the election, but don’t underestimate the importance of Act 2: the Congress high command will need to be enormously clever to satisfy the demands of the party’s notoriously factionalised state unit,” said Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow and director, South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.
For the BJP, the weight of history — trying to overturn a 45-year trend of voting out the incumbent — ended up being too much. The party made a string of missteps, beginning with the removal of Yediyurappa, who built the party in the state, in 2021 and replacing him with Bommai. A strategy that had worked for the party in states such as Gujarat and Uttarakhand backfired in Karnataka as Bommai’s government was saddled with allegations of corruption and bribery, especially after a contractor died by suicide and named a senior BJP minister. Nor did Bommai’s enthusiastic acceptance of some of the more hardline aspects of the party’s Hindutva pitch work.
In its campaign, the party tried to effect a generational change but this triggered rebellion. In a state where the BJP has traditionally accommodated various shades of Hinduism and a multitude of sects and mutts, the harder edge to its campaign didn’t click anywhere except in the coastal Karnataka region where religious polarisation has a decades-old history. The party tweaked the reservation matrix but to little avail, and was also unable to find a response to the Congress’s aggressive campaign on corruption, and has now lost its toehold in the south.
“Karnataka has defeated the BJP’s politics of centralisation and polarisation, and its model of exclusionary development. In the process, the idea of Karnataka has won,” said A Narayana, a political analyst.
For sometime now, it has been clear that Karnataka’s would be the Congress’ election to lose. That it didn’t has implications both for it and for the battle for 2024.