In the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hopes to be seen as a pan-Indian party, the southern state of Karnataka played a significant part.
Often referred to as BJP’s gateway to the south, Karnataka, BJP leaders believed was the one state where its presence would herald its entry into other southern states. The party’s intensive efforts to garner attention in states like Telangana, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala seemed hinged on its Karnataka outreach.
Never have we seen an attempt as aggressive as the one made by the BJP’s state and central leadership in the last month, to retain power in Karnataka. It is precisely for such motivations that the BJP’s biggest ever defeat at the hands of Congress since 2004 will hurt the party much more than any other in the recent past.
It would be premature to conclude that what happened in Karnataka is likely to continue as a trend up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
However, it can be safely said that with the loss in Karnataka, the saffron party’s poor run in augmenting, or even retaining, its national footprint has continued. Since 2019, ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second tenure began, the BJP has lost Bihar, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Delhi, Maharashtra – until it broke the Shiv Sena to come back to power – and now, Karnataka. These are significant losses. Recent by-polls have indicated that its appeal has shrunk in Odisha and Telangana where it performed surprisingly well in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Thus it is clear that an united opposition in many of these states is a worry that will loom large over BJP as it goes into 2024.
Ground reports suggest that the prime minister’s popularity is still holding strong despite BJP’s waning appeal. However, the opposition parties’ strident efforts to join forces could still throw a spanner in the works for the BJP.
Consider this: Although the BJP has prided itself as a cadre-driven, disciplined organisation, it still had to face electoral defeats in the home states of its party president J.P. Nadda and the national general secretary of organisation B.L. Santhosh – officially the number four in command the party – who held the reins in Karnataka.
While too much cannot be read into Karnataka’s electoral outcome, it also should not be understated. Here are some things that the results do say.
One, the outcome is a clear indication that Hindutva, as BJP’s political strategy to consolidate Hindus, in itself is insufficient to overcome perceptions of mis-governance and indifference towards people’s immediate issues.
The B.S. Bommai government had been under immense attack for alleged corruption and has been accused of responding poorly to these allegations throughout his tenure. Instead of addressing the issues, the BJP raked up communal controversies around hijab, halal, and azaan. A significant number of its leaders frequently indulged in anti-Muslim remarks to polarise the electorate along religious lines, even when people complained about survival issues in the light of the pandemic.
Hindutva surely has great appeal in the northern states but it may still backfire if the absence of BJP’s welfare push.
Two, the results also indicate that the BJP’s other political formula to represent hitherto unrepresented and under-represented communities may not work in its favour every time, especially when such political outreach is seen to be cosmetic.
The BJP has had some success in employing such a social engineering model in states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. But in Karnataka, it may have simply backfired.
To overcome the palpable anti-incumbency sentiments against the BJP, the Bommai government attempted to rearrange the existing reservation system at the last minute. The idea was to appease two dominant communities Lingayats and Vokkaligas, along with the marginalised Adivasis and Dalits by introducing sub-quotas. That was done by scrapping the existing 4% quota for backward Muslims.
None of these tricks worked in the party’s favour as it was perceived merely as an electoral gimmick by a non-responsive government. Moreover, the polarising nature of the new reservation system only cemented the BJP’s impression as a divisive force among all communities.
Three, price rise and unemployment are two issues that will catch up sooner or later nationally.
Across Karnataka, people complained about price rise, especially the manifold rise in the prices of an LPG gas cylinder. Similarly, people also spoke about how the government has failed to generate employment. Many blamed the lack of industrial development during Bommai’s tenure to high commissions allegedly taken by government officials and ministers.
The two issues reflected that people neither had savings, nor enough money in their pockets and were thus insecure. These issues are likely to dominate the elections and could be taken up by opposition parties with gusto in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls.
Four, Congress will likely learn from its own experience in Karnataka.
It ran an effective campaign around people’s issues, promised a welfare model, remained nimble-footed in its responses to government policies, and set a political agenda through vivid images and relatable social media campaigns. At the same time, internal differences among leaders were buried to put up an united fight. This helped energise workers on the ground.
Congress also planned ahead and its strategising helped it emerge as a credible alternative to the BJP. This was a far cry from its campaign in Gujarat, Punjab, or any other BJP-ruled state.
While Nadda has performed poorly in his latest run, Mallikarjun Kharge has come out shining in the first ever elections he has faced as the Congress president. The fact that the Congress high command let the state leadership steer the elections and actively collaborated with it during the campaign is an indication that empowered state-level leaders are better placed to drive the party’s narrative and strengthen its organisational strength.
In contrast, the BJP’s house came across as faction-ridden. As a result, the leaders often gave contradictory statements. With its rhetoric swinging between Hindutva and development promises, its political narrative was unclear to people. This is quite unusual for the Modi-led BJP that is perceived as a party that speaks in a united voice, is disciplined and committed to its cause.
Ahead of 2024 polls, the BJP, too, like the Congress, may have to get its act together.
Five, the victory in Karnataka could boost Congress’s chances to be accepted as an anchor of a possible united front.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has already been making headways to gather up a political front that is centred around the Congress. However, some of the regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, or even Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati have been reticent in accepting Congress’s centrality. The Karnataka win will likely recalibrate some of those national dynamics.
Eventually, the Karnataka results are yet another reminder that the road to Delhi passes through states. And that the 2024 Lok Sabha elections are not yet a done deal.