Lessons from Karnataka: for the Congress, the BJP and the rest

The outcome in Karnataka has set the tone for national politics in the run-up to the 2024 General Elections when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will seek a third straight term in power

May 13, 2023 04:05 pm | Updated 05:31 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Congress workers celebrate at the party office after the party’s decisive lead in the Karnataka Assembly elections.

Congress workers celebrate at the party office after the party’s decisive lead in the Karnataka Assembly elections. | Photo Credit: PTI

The outcome in Karnataka has set the tone for national politics in the run-up to the 2024 General Elections when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will seek a third straight term in power. Congress has defeated the BJP in two States in a span of five months - Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. Later this year, the Congress and the BJP will battle for Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The Congress had won all three in 2018, but it lost Madhya Pradesh to the BJP following defections later.

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In Karnataka, the Congress effectively tackled the BJP framework of politics which is a combination of welfarism, caste representation and Hindutva. Welfare promises of the Congress were closer to people’s lives. Between D. K. Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah, the Congress pushed back against two allegations that the BJP usually raises - that it is hostile to the Hindu faith, and its Anglicised liberalism does not accommodate backward castes while it “appeased” the Muslims. Mr. Shivakumar is a religious Hindu who does not mince words when it comes to speaking up for Muslims; Mr. Siddaramaiah is a champion of caste justice. Added to this combination was the relentless campaigning by party president Mallikarjun Kharge, who is a Dalit from the State. Rahul Gandhi openly spoke about caste justice in Karnataka - a historic first for the Congress party.

The BJP tried to expand its social base among various castes and may have succeeded to some extent, but the Congress still could outsmart it. The Congress did not shy away from questioning exclusions based on both caste and religion, and was rewarded for it. The BJP’s model of caste inclusiveness and religious exclusiveness faced a major setback.

Congress organised its campaign better than the BJP, which is very rare. Two general secretaries of the party, K. C. Venugopal and Randeep Surjewala who is also in charge of the State, kept factionalism in check and messaging on track for an extended period of time and stayed put in the field - another rarity in the party in which absentee overlords abound.

Mr. Venugopal, who is now in charge of the organisation, was in charge of the State during the 2018 Assembly election, and the coordination between the two galvanised the party. Mr. Surjewala’s affable but assertive style resolved several flare-ups between the two doyens in the State Congress through the election season. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra had stirred up the party in Karnataka, and the momentum was sustained into the election. Mr. Kharge own team of advisers such as RS members from Karnataka Syed Naseer Hussain and Gurdeep Sappal kept close tabs on the campaign at a granular level. In contrast, the BJP was struggling to get its campaign in order, and its messaging was muddled in the face of strong anti-incumbency. 

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For the Congress, the question is whether it can replicate the same dynamics in terms of leadership, ideological framework and coordination between State and national leadership in the forthcoming Assembly elections. The outcome in Karnataka will potentially quell rebellions in the Congress units of Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and encourage dissidence in BJP units, particularly in Rajasthan where former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje wants to be announced as the CM candidate. 

The BJP will have to decide whether it will encourage State leaders to take charge in Assembly elections or keep all campaigns dependent on Mr. Modi’s charisma and whirlwind tours. That is not an easy choice to make, as no national leader wants strong regional leaders who have the capacity to be autonomous.  An equally important lesson for the BJP to ponder is about its capacity to reach out to linguistic minorities - this is the second high pitched campaign that it loses among them. In 2021 it lost West Bengal in a comparable manner. Karnataka should spur the BJP to accommodate particularities of a place than offer a national magic potion.

If the BJP should draw the lesson that its tricks in the Hindi heartland and the west may not work in other States, its opponents should be aware that Karnataka’s outcome is not necessarily an indicator of what might happen in saffron strongholds. Mr. Yeddyurappa himself said during the campaign that Hindus and Muslims should live “like brothers and sisters” and controversies around hijab and love jihad were “unnecessary.” Also, Assembly elections are no indicators of parliament outcomes. The Congress was wiped out in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, barely six months after it won the Assembly elections. 

Karnataka outcome supports the theory that triangular contests are disappearing fast - at the constituency level and the State level. The JDS, now diminished, may find it difficult to survive without power for five years. Single caste, single family driven politics is the most delegitimised form of politics at the moment, and similar parties in other parts of the country could draw appropriate lessons from the crossroads that the JD (S) is currently at, after alternating between the BJP to the Congress to preserve its privilege

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