A thumping Congress victory against the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party in the Karnataka state assembly elections offers the grand old party to work on two important strategies ahead of the 2024 general elections. These include planning for the upcoming state assembly elections, and building a broader ideological alliance for a national-level political opposition that would require a Congress-anchored role to counter the BJP.
As more seat-wise vote share data becomes available, more political analysts and scientists will write on what influenced Congress’s massive victory in Karnataka and what led to the BJP’s downfall.
One of the key takeaways from the election results was the “diminishing electoral returns for Hindutva”, wrote Hindustan Times’ Roshan Kishore. This has empirical resonance now, not just in Karnataka, but for all states across South India. This may be representative of a common sentiment across the southern states, where the BJP currently has no vital electoral standing.
These states include Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, whose rankings were high on our index where any state-campaign driven by the sole need to polarise, or divide voters on communal lines, has not worked for the BJP.
It also says a lot about the limited capability of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own electoral charisma, particularly in the state assembly elections.
In Karnataka, we could see how the divisive electoral narrative had limited reach or acceptance among voters. Similarly, in West Bengal, too, where Prime Minister Modi’s name was also pretty much on the ballot, and where the BJP’s electoral campaign pivoted around communal polarisation, targeting Muslims, the voters chose Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress.
There are other socio-economic factors as well, that are driving the more vulnerable, poorer sections to vote against the BJP.
In an analysis written on May 10, this author had argued that in a largely urban constituent-based voting population in Karnataka, most voters may prefer to go beyond identity-based markers to vote on key local socio-developmental issues. This may lead them to consider issues such as corruption, enhanced ‘access equality’, especially among the marginalised, socially poorer/low income groups for voting in favour of a political party. And, how that may ultimately determine the final electoral outcome in favour of the opposition.
The Wire’s Ajoy Ashirwad provided a few of these causative pointers, too, from his ground reportage in Karnataka. With the results now out, one can safely say that these observations were validated.
Decentralise electoral management in states, empower local leaders
Seeing the Congress’s victory in Karnataka as a resounding victory of the Bharat Jodo Yatra and Rahul Gandhi’s own electoral appeal (post the yatra) offers an important moment of critical reflection – as against getting carried away – for the party’s own path ahead.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra, as argued earlier, may have helped the grassroot-level Congress party workers and the larger party cadre to find some solidarity and share a common sense of optimism during Rahul Gandhi’s padayatra, but to equate that ‘good feeling’ with the fact of becoming the ‘main reason’ for a resounding state-level electoral victory is committing a huge disservice to both, the party’s own internal electoral machinery anchored by Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar, and the role of other socio-economic factors such as price rise, unemployment, high corruption that mobilised a protest vote against the BJP.
The Congress, and particularly the Gandhi family, may very well continue to do what they have done so far in the months ahead too and see what has worked for their party’s electoral appeal in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka (and in cases of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh during the last assembly elections).
The Gandhis’ conscious or unintentional effort (whichever it may be) to trust a decentralised political machinery at the level of the state and promote it has reasonably worked well in taking on a more ‘centralising’ power-hungry Modi-Shah-led BJP. Even in other states where the regional parties have outstripped the BJP, from the TMC in West Bengal to the LDF in Kerala to AAP in Punjab, a decentralised political planning mechanism with a locally accepted leadership guided by an electoral agenda pivoting around ‘socio-welfare’ objectives for the local population as a combine has done well against the BJP.
It also speaks volumes of the increasingly ‘electorally aware’ Indian voter, who does well to distinguish her vote on issues that matter in a municipal election versus a state assembly election versus a national-level election, and doesn’t go by much of what the mainstream media peddles as news or what the rhetoric says. Yes, (social) identity-based markers (from caste to class to religion to ethnicity) do matter, but they are increasingly finding lesser relevance as a sole factor catalysing into a majority vote for any given party or leader.
From the Congress’s perspective, this is important as three important state-level elections are coming up next: in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. Two of these states are currently being run by Congress-led governments. In MP, the BJP could deflect the elected MPs to its party and topple the Kamal Nath-led Congress government.
Taking cues from its recent electoral successes, the Congress will do well to entrust and empower the local state leadership while ensuring a solidified campaign against the BJP. Any effort to ‘implant’ candidates or place ‘top-down’ leaders or political managers in charge, as done by the Gandhis earlier (in Punjab and in other states), may backfire as it is doing for the BJP. ‘Centralising’ electoral management at the state-level or municipal elections doesn’t really seem to work no matter what power or money you may have as a ruling party.
A message for the opposition to counter the BJP
Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, which are almost a year away, it’s crucial to ask whether the Karnataka election results, or any recent opposition electoral victories, offer a vital message for the opposition to take on the BJP.
It is worth noting that based on what we have seen over the last few election cycles, Karnataka’s own state election results may have a marginal or almost no real effect on other upcoming state assembly elections.
Studies based on seat-wise vote share patterns (for one party versus another) for each election after another has been driven by too many complex, context-dependent factors, and to say one election victory can drive any significant change at the national level polls may seem too far-fetched (or ill-informed from a macro-analytical exercise).
There is still, however, a larger message or signaling effect of the trend these election cycles indicate for the opposition parties – especially the Congress as the main gravitating anchor – to muster the ‘confidence’ they desperately need to take on the BJP’s electoral bandwagon in 2024 and also present an alternative vision for the electorate to see.
Ideologically, a counter-intuitive electoral agenda to BJP’s majoritarian-communally divisive campaign would require the opposition parties, surely anchored by the Congress, to build their 2024 campaign around a more socially cohesive, developmental agenda, bringing up the needs and concerns of the most vulnerable sections of society. Issues such as unemployment, price rise, social security, women reservation, etc. will require a clear focus in the opposition’s campaign manifesto. These issues also need to be articulated well in the manifesto.
What Prime Minister Modi earlier dismissed as ‘revadi politics’ may be nothing but the cornerstone of India’s deeply stratified electoral campaign trajectory push, where any sensible, large campaign, from a state to the national level, may need to acknowledge the issues facing its electorate, and at the same time offer an alternative political economy paradigm that is vital for different groups, particularly the marginalised, ‘aspirational’ mobility through productive jobs, enhanced social security, human capital developmental investments such as healthcare and education, and public support for localised interventions.
Deepanshu Mohan is an associate professor of economics and director at the Centre for New Economics Studies at Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, OP Jindal Global.