The Karnataka election results have shown how easy it is to change the narrative of an all-conquering Bharatiya Janata Party. It is not as if the BJP has not lost elections since 2019. It has lost many big states. It has won majorities in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Assam, apart from smaller states like Uttarakhand, Goa, Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. In many northeastern states, it piggybacked on local parties which need central funds for survival. Double engine does have a political significance in these states. They tend to ally with whoever is in power at the Centre.
Haryana needed a post-poll alliance by the BJP to form a government. The Congress has won its first “big state” post-2019 in Karnataka, but it did win Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand and Maharashtra in alliances with like-minded parties. The BJP succeeded in overthrowing the Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh governments midterm but so did the opposition manage to oust the BJP in Bihar. This is apart from the fact that other opposition parties have won in West Bengal, Kerala, Delhi and Punjab. If one discounts the continuing noise of an invincible BJP repeated ad nauseam by the news channels, the political situation is quite evenly balanced.
The fallacy of predicting the next election result on the basis of the previous one has been proven repeatedly. The Indian electorate does not give its unbridled loyalty to any party. Countries like the US may have safe states. The same is not true of most Indian states. Even in states which seem “safe” for a political party, the experience of the Congress in Delhi and Andhra Pradesh as well as the CPI(M) in West Bengal shows that the difference between the natural party of governance to electoral decimation is only one electoral cycle. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that the BJP is, or will be, immune to the harsh judgement of the Indian electorate.
The Karnataka election, however, is remarkable in one respect. Many political commentators felt that the Congress had scored an own goal by raising the issue of the Bajrang Dal. The prevailing wisdom was that attacking right-wing fundamentalism would lead to a decline in the Congress’s vote share and an increase in that of the BJP. This inference relied on the presumptions that the electorate is inherently pro-Hindutva and that progressive politics is a losing ticket. The other part of this prevailing wisdom was that elections ought to be fought by the Congress but without the Congress challenging the BJP and the media narrative of a divided and sectarian India.
Anybody who has been involved with politics at any level in India knows that a simplistic analysis of voter behaviour – while it may make for attractive headlines – is inherently inaccurate. Vote banks and caste support – while there are often trends of a caste or group favouring one party or the other – only provide part of the answer. A voter is a member of a caste or a community as well as a member of a gender and of an economic class. Does a 21-year-old have the same political loyalties as a 70-year-old of the same community? The media hysteria, or more accurately, the media-magnified BJP PR of “Modi magic” and the party’s invincibility seeks to simplify the voter’s complexity into a one-dimensional byte of information. This does a great disservice to Indian democracy.
The Congress’s campaign, as well as its organisational strength, resulted in a lead of seven percentage points over the BJP in Karnataka. In many ways, the start of the Congress campaign was the Bharat Jodo yatra, which may not have been avowedly electoral in its goals but could not but help have a political and electoral impact. Of the 20 constituencies it passed through, the Congress held 5 seats in 2018. This has now increased to 15 seats. According to a Hindustan Times report, the party’s “strike rate” in these seats was 24% in 2018 and 76 % in 2023. The same report says that the strike rate for the remaining seats in Karnataka has also increased from 37% to 59 %. The constituencies covered by the yatra have shown a disproportionate gain for the Congress. This is perhaps a more telling statistic than most. The complex voter with her layered identities seems to have been affected by this old-fashioned padyatra for the cause of fraternity and secularism. It shows one thing clearly – ideological clarity is the way forward for the Congress.
As political parties enter the home stretch towards the 2024 general election, there can be no foregone conclusions. In fact, to suggest that a BJP victory is certain is only to participate in the BJP’s propaganda. Over the past two decades, no general election has gone as per expectations. 1996, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2019 all had big surprise elements in the margins of victory and defeat. The Modi show has now gone on for a decade. It can’t help but lose popularity.
Sarim Naved is a Delhi-based lawyer.