Nineteen years after the shocking defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on May 13, 2004, political pundits are still looking for a concrete reason behind what happened this time in the Karnataka assembly elections.
In Karnataka, the Congress won a massive mandate since the 1989 elections. It won 135 seats, while the BJP got only 66 seats, and the Janata Dal (Secular) 19 seats.
However, after the BJP lost in the state assembly elections, experts on TV channels argued that Indian voters often vote differently for the assembly and parliamentary elections. The problem is that most of the experts, who were discussing the developments in the south, were from north India.
For example, a premier English channel in its 9 pm debate on May 20, the day the new Congress government took oath in Karnataka, had half a dozen experts who belonged to north India. They discussed why opposition leaders were not so strongly present at the swearing-in ceremony of the new government in Bengaluru.
These panelists only discussed opposition unity or the lack of it. But they didn’t talk about the disunity in the NDA in the last three years. It lost all the oldest allies of the Sangh parivar – Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Janata Dal (United).
Almost all of them argued that the electorate in India usually votes differently in the assembly and in the Lok Sabha polls. They were also quick to cite an example of how the BJP did so well in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, when it had lost the assembly elections just five months earlier in these three states.
After analysing past election outcomes, these experts concluded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a fair chance to return to power in 2024. However, if these experts cannot explain the past developments in Indian politics, how can they predict the future correctly?
Lost elections and broken alliances
In 2004, the lethal duo of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani were voted out of power when there was no 1977- and 1989-like smouldering anger among the masses. The imposition of the Emergency, mishandling of the Bofors issue, and the Ram Mandir movement led to the fall of the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi governments in those two elections. At the time, there was absolutely no such strong feeling against the BJP.
At the time, the GDP was high, unemployment rate and poverty numbers were low, as compared to the last few years of the Narendra Modi regime. There was also no ‘India Against Corruption’ campaign, which the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had to face in 2014.
Yet the saffron party lost the elections and that too without any pan-India opposition unity and formidable face to challenge the oratory and organisational skills of Vajpayee and Advani.
It was only in Tamil Nadu and Bihar that the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) joined hands with the Congress. The DMK was an NDA constituent till the end of 2003. It crossed over to the Congress camp just on the eve of the 2004 Lok Sabha polls as the BJP befriended the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). It was the same AIADMK which withdrew support to the Vajpayee government in 1999 and the latter lost the no-confidence motion by just one vote.
But despite these instances of the BJP losing elections in the past, some experts cite the example of how the 2019 terrorist strike in Pulwama and subsequent bombing in Balakot helped the BJP stage a comeback in the Lok Sabha polls. This is true, but at the same, this argument raises a counter-question: Are the people of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and even Punjab in the north less nationalistic? Why did they reject the BJP in 2019, and in Tamil Nadu and Punjab in 2014?
In 2019, the UPA swept the polls in Tamil Nadu winning 38 out of 39 seats. This was in contrast to its 2014 performance when it had failed to open its account in the state. The AIADMK, which fought alone, had won 37 seats then.
Similarly, in Punjab, the state bordering Pakistan, Congress won the maximum number of seats (8), followed by two each by SAD and its alliance partner BJP, and one by the Aam Aadmi Party. In 2014, too, the SAD-BJP alliance won four seats against six. The alliance broke up after the Union government enacted three farm laws in September 2020.
A disunited ruling establishment
This factor appears to have led to the BJP’s loss in Karnataka, apart from other significant economic and social issues such as price rise, unemployment, and corruption.
When the powerful Vajpayee-led NDA lost, despite being supported by more than half a dozen strong state-level parties, how can it be said so easily that the “friendless” BJP would stage a comeback in 2024.
Those who do not see beyond the Hindi belt should know how a small political blunder by the BJP in South India cost it so dearly in 2004. The BJP, as mentioned earlier, joined hands with the DMK in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. But when the Jayalalithaa-led AIADMK won the 2001 assembly elections, the Sangh parivar started cozying up with the then chief minister.
DMK supremo Karunanidhi was left with no option but to go with the Congress, its rival during the heydays of the Tamil crisis in Sri Lanka.
The duo won 35 out of 39 Lok Sabha seats while the AIADMK-BJP coalition drew a blank in the 2004 elections.
In addition, the turmoil in the saffron camp in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra caused by the toppling game hardly comes into the discussion. Nor these experts take into account the changing scenario in Bihar after Nitish Kumar switched sides. Most of these TV channels end up questioning whether the Bihar chief minister would ever succeed in his efforts to unite the opposition.