Why Congress's Victory in Karnataka Is Particularly Significant

The clarity with which people voted for Congress can be seen in JD(S)'s rout outside its sphere of influence. This win also shows that BJP’s constant attempt to polarise the electorate along religious lines failed this time.

New Delhi: Resentment against the B.S. Bommai government has been writ large, with Congress cruising towards a comfortable majority in the 224-member Karnataka assembly.

With over 135 seats in its tally, Congress has clearly emerged as the sole force representing the desire for a change that many ground reports had pointed to in the run-up to the polls.

The victory is particularly significant for the Congress because it defeated a Bharatiya Janata Party that is currently in its peak under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2013, when it had secured 122 seats to form the government, it was up against a beleaguered BJP without a prominent national face. Moreover, in 2013, the BJP’s social coalition comprising Lingayats, ST Nayakas, and Dalits had broken after its tallest leader B.S. Yediyurappa and Adivasi face B. Sriramulu temporarily exited the party because of internal differences. In 2023, however, both Yediyurappa and Sriramulu were among the star campaigners of the saffron party.

The grand old party ran an energetic campaign that focused on material issues of people, like price rise, unemployment, and an alleged surge in corruption in Bommai’s term.

Congress’s campaign was also aided by a collective effort on the part of its leadership. While D.K. Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah resolved their differences – even if momentarily – central leaders Mallikarjun Kharge, Rahul Gandhi, and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra spent significant time holding small rallies and events to connect with voters.

The party’s backend was also on the ball and mounted an effective social media campaign, spinning a political narrative around welfare and inclusive development. The credit for this should also go to planning and year-long efforts by state-in-charge Randeep Singh Surjewala, AICC general secretary (organisation) K.C. Venugopal and campaign manager Sunil Kanugolu. 

Congress workers celebrate in Karnataka.

By the time the elections came, the Congress had already emerged as the only credible challenger to the BJP’s alleged misrule. In fact, the clarity with which people voted for the Congress can be seen in Janata Dal (Secular)’s rout outside its sphere of influence. In the past elections, JD(S) candidates in northern Karnataka – mostly rebels from the two national parties – undercut the Congress to hand BJP an advantage in many seats. However, this time around, most contests in northern and central Karnataka turned out to be bi-polar between the BJP and the Congress, with the latter benefitting singularly from the anti-incumbency on the ground. 

The Congress retained its stronghold Kalyana Karnataka, while it wrested multiple seats from the BJP in the saffron party’s stronghold Kittur Karnataka and central Karnataka. At the same time, the Congress emerged as the biggest party in the JD(S)’s bastion Old Mysore region. The Wire had earlier reported that the Congress will have to gain a number of its seats from the Old Mysore region and Kittur Karnataka to secure a comfortable majority. 

Also read: Jinxes, Vote Share, Diversity and All the Questions That Loom Large Over Karnataka’s Poll Results

Even as the Lingayat factor was overemphasised, it turned out that Vokkaligas tipped the scales in Congress’s favour.

JD(S) chief and former prime minister H.D. Devegowda is considered the tallest leader among the Vokkaligas, and kept his party in good stead in the areas where the community is in significant numbers because of such an emotional connection. However, the community appears to have shown their anguish against the increasing dominance of one family in the JD(S). With the 91-year-old Deve Gowda largely out of action, his son H.D. Kumaraswamy has alienated a large number of senior leaders, and at the same time tightened his family’s grip on the party, a former senior JD(S) leader had told The Wire. 

The JD(S)’s poor performance is best reflected in the way Kumaraswamy’s son Nikhil Kumaraswamy was rejected by the Vokkaliga-dominated electorate in Ramanagaram. Interestingly, the constituency is considered to be a safe seat for JD(S), and was held by Nikhil’s mother Anita Kumaraswamy in the outgoing assembly. Both H.D. Kumaraswamy and his brother H.D. Revanna won their respective seats – Channapatna and Holenarasipur – by slender margins. 

The Congress, on the other hand, increased its vote share from a little over 38% to over 43%, consolidating the votes of those who wanted to dislodge the Bommai government. The BJP retained its 2018 vote share of around 36%, but the JD(S)’s colossal losses in northern Karnataka hurt its electoral prospects. The BJP lost many of its previously-held seats because of the bipolar contest between the two national parties almost everywhere outside Old Mysore. The 8% vote share gap between the Congress and the BJP was wide enough for the grand old party to secure a comfortable majority. The saffron party may have increased its vote share in the Old Mysore region by a small margin but could not lift its overall vote share because of the losses in northern Karnataka. 

Many of the BJP heavyweights lost.

G.Somasekhar Reddy in Bellary City, R.Ashoka in Kanakapura, V.Somanna in Varuna, B.Sriramulu in Bellary Rural, C.T. Ravi in Chikamagalur, Muragesh Nirani in Bilgi, and K. Sudhakar in Chikballapur were among the senior BJP leaders who lost. 

On the other hand, D.K.Shivakumar won his seat Kanakapura with a margin of over 1 lakh votes, while Siddaramaiah, too, secured his seat Varuna by over 40,000 votes. However, Jagadish Shettar who had recently switched to the Congress lost his seat, Hubli-Dharwad Central, one which he had won six consecutive times. Laxman Savadi, the former BJP deputy chief minister who had joined the Congress, won from Athani despite the saffron party leader Ramesh Jarkhioli’s efforts to defeat him. 

The Congress appears to have consolidated a large section of votes from the poor and the middle classes, which may mean that it was successful in building its support over and above its AHINDA (OBC, minority, and Dalits) votes. In fact, Congress leader Venugopal summed up the Congress’s victory as a mandate given by the poor against BJP’s supposed pro-rich policies. 

BJP’s constant attempt to polarise the electorate along religious lines failed, as even hardline leaders like C.T. Ravi also had to face defeat.

The Congress will now have to take a tough call in choosing between Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar for the chief minister’s position. At the moment, however, BJP’s chief strategist and national general secretary (organisation) B.L. Santhosh will have a lot of explaining to do in front of the top leadership. Santhosh handled all aspects of BJP’s electoral strategy in 2023 – from ticket distribution, bringing in new faces to booth management and campaigning. 

A day ahead of the results, Santhosh dismissed a survey that predicted Congress’s emphatic win, and tweeted, “One of the pollsters who has given least numbers for @BJP4Karnataka in exit polls has 53% samples from voters below Rs 10K income. In that group if demography is taken into account you can guess the reason for least numbers.”

The remark betrays a particular disdain for the preference of the poor. Indeed, the “below 10K income” group appears to have spoken in the assembly polls emphatically.