Karnataka provided the only southern comfort for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was the only State in south India that followed the national trend of endorsing a second term for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The scale of the victory that the BJP achieved in the face of a Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance was truly spectacular. Never before has the BJP achieved such a high strike rate in the State. Nor has Karnataka seen a victory of such a big scale in the competitive party system which has existed in the State since the 1980s. By winning all but three seats, the BJP swept all regions of the State. The Congress and the JD(S) were left clutching on to one seat each, and an independent backed by the BJP completed the Karnataka contingent.
Reasons for the BJP’s surge
What explains the surge of the BJP in Karnataka? First, the CSDS-Lokniti post-poll data indicate that the level of satisfaction with the Central government was reasonably high. Close to three-fourths of the respondents said they were satisfied with the BJP-led government’s performance at the Centre. As opposed to this, only two-thirds said they were satisfied with the Congress-JD(S) government’s performance in the State.
Second, the Modi factor appears to have played a key role. More than half the respondents in the State hoped that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be re-elected. He led Congress president Rahul Gandhi by over 20 percentage points. More importantly, over half of those who voted for the BJP said that they would not have voted for the party if Mr. Modi had not been its prime ministerial candidate. This explains why all 27 BJP candidates sought votes in Mr. Modi’s name.
Table 1: Modi factor in Karnataka remained as strong as it was in 2014 and was far more intense than the rest of India
Third, the Congress-JD(S) alliance stitched by the leadership did not really work on the ground, whether among party cadres or party supporters, especially in the old Mysore region of Bengaluru and southern Karnataka. In this Vokkaliga heartland, the traditional fight has been between the Congress and the JD(S). In this election, by fighting together, the two parties opened up the space for the BJP to emerge. The post-poll data indicate that six out of every 10 Vokkaliga votes went this time to the BJP. In the recent past, this Vokkaliga vote was divided among the three players. With two of them joining hands, the BJP thus became the beneficiary of those Vokkaliga votes which were not in favour of the alliance. Commentators had suggested that the combined vote share of the Congress and the JD(S) would trump the BJP. This did not work as political developments since the last election have swayed the mood in favour of the BJP. The belief that the alliance came together to merely deny the BJP a chance to come to power may well have caused sympathy among a segment of voters in favour of the BJP. Further, at the constituency level, the rivalry between the cadres of the Congress and the JD(S) led to a lacklustre campaign. Within both the Congress and the JD(S) there was unhappiness with the choice of candidates. All the infighting within these parties could also explain their collective poor performance.
Table 2: How castes and communities voted in Karnataka
Fourth, in northern Karnataka, the BJP ensured a consolidation of the Lingayat, upper caste and non-dominant Other Backward Classes (OBC) vote in its favour. Post-poll survey data indicate that close to nine of every 10 Lingayat voters endorsed the BJP, and the party was able to do well both among the non-dominant OBCs and the Dalits. The Hyderabad-Karnataka region was considered a strong base of the Congress. Its prominent national leader, Mallikarjun Kharge, who has never lost an election was defeated this time.
Finally, the Congress-JD(S) alliance failed to present the voters with a positive agenda. This explains why it could not garner the support of younger voters, the educated segments of society, and those who have high exposure to the media. Among these sections, the BJP secured a much higher percentage of votes. The defeat of prominent leaders of the alliance including Mr. Kharge, JD(S) patriarch Deve Gowda, former Congress Union Ministers Veerappa Moily and K.H. Muniyappa, and Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy’s son Nikhil Gowda indicate the intensity of the sweep of the BJP.
Table 3: BJP had a 20-pct pt lead over Cong-JDS among youngest voters
Impact of the result
This election result might directly impact the stability of the alliance government in the State. It is only a matter of time before the blame game for the election defeat is out in the open. The Congress will need to deal with factionalism within the party.
Meanwhile, the BJP must be on the horns of a dilemma. It would like to go in for a mid-term poll if the government were to fall. Yet, given the fact that the House has barely completed a year, there could be stiff resistance from the sitting MLAs who may not be keen to go back to the voters to seek a fresh mandate. The State is clearly heading towards a phase of political uncertainty.