The Congress's convincing victory in Karnataka has come as a morale booster for the beleaguered party, which finds itself embroiled in financial scandals, embarrassed by errant ministers and hampered by an uncooperative opposition. The results have also sent out a strong message to the party’s sceptical allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) -- that it is not yet a spent force. With the win in Karnataka, the Congress is now in power in 14 States and Union Territories, while it is in coalition in one; the BJP, that ruled four States, will now preside over just three on its own and in coalition in another two.
With 121 seats in the 224-seat strong assembly, the Congress has not just secured a majority after a gap of 15 years (it last did so 14 years ago in 1999, when it won 132 seats), it has halted the march in southern India of its principal national rival, the BJP. The latter grew steadily in the last decade in Karnataka, climbing from 79 seats in 2004 to 110 in 2009. Today, with the party split three ways, it is back to where it was in 1994 -- 40 seats -- with the much advertised magic of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi failing to halt the downward spiral.
Meanwhile, though there are several contenders for the chief minister’s post, including central ministers Mallikarjun Kharge and M Veerappa Moily, the leading contender is Siddaramaiah, who was Leader of the Opposition. Congress sources in Delhi say the party’s national leadership – apparently having learnt from the past -- is not keen to move a central minister to Benguluru, and would like to leave the choice to the Congress Legislature Party in which Mr Siddaramaiah has wide support. The other contender would have been KPCC chief G Parameshwar, but he has lost his own election.
The acid test for the Congress will now be to choose a chief minister, provide stability (over the last five years, the State has seen three BJP chief ministers) and decent governance: the general elections are just a year away and it needs to improve its score in the State to compensate for the impending losses in Andhra Pradesh, where the Telengana agitation and the Jagan factor will hit the party. In 2009, the Congress won just six of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka, whereas the BJP won 19. The Congress needs to reverse that trend – and for that it would have to deal firmly with its other national problems, given the electorate tends to vote differently in State and national elections.
Here, as Congress workers burst crackers and celebrated boisterously on Wednesday on Akbar Road where the AICC headquarters and the residence of party president Sonia Gandhi stand cheek by jowl, the latter expressed her happiness with the results, attributing it to a “joint effort”. But a buoyant Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – whose resignation the opposition has once again sought – described it as an ideological victory for the party: “The people of the country know what's what,” he said, “and they will reject the BJP ideology as the results in Karnataka show.” Union parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath, describing it as an “innings defeat” for the BJP, said the verdict has exposed its star campaigner Narendra Modi: “People have now seen the real face of BJP and in Karnataka, people have discarded them lock, stock and barrel,” he told journalists outside Parliament House.