In the recently concluded Assembly elections in Karnataka, the only region to buck the anti-incumbency trend against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a big way was Bengaluru. The BJP improved its vote share by five percentage points in Bengaluru where, ironically, anti-incumbency against the BJP government seemed most visible. Prior to the elections, there were intense debates about the “crumbling civic infrastructure” and the hit that ‘Brand Bengaluru’ had taken, especially after the September 2022 floods. In fact, multiple pre-poll surveys had recorded high anti-incumbency against the government. But the results bore no evidence of this. On the other hand, the BJP improved its seat tally by one.
Fearing high anti-incumbency, the BJP denied ticket to its three-time MLA Aravind Limbavali from Mahadevapura, which houses the city’s IT corridor and was severely flooded in 2022. Instead, the party fielded his wife. Though BJP leaders had mostly given up hopes on that seat, the party won by a huge margin of 44,501 votes as against the 17,784 votes-lead by which it had won in 2018.
On the other hand, two Congress MLAs especially faced a tough challenge. While former Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president Dinesh Gundu Rao won from Gandhi Nagar by a narrow margin of 105 votes, Sowmya Reddy lost the Jayanagar Assembly seat by the slimmest of margins — just 16 votes.
The BJP’s internal assessment credits this feat to the three-part roadshow by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that covered nearly all the 28 Assembly seats in the city. However, the reality seems far more complex and points to a strange stagnation in the city’s politics for over a decade now.
The city has always seen pro-incumbency in favour of incumbent MLAs — of the 28 MLAs who have won in 2023, 20 have served at least three consecutive terms and three more at least two consecutive terms. In 2019, four MLAs — three from Congress and one from Janata Dal (Secular) — defected to the BJP, won by-elections and became ministers in the BJP government. All four of them won back their seats in the recently concluded Assembly polls, indicating the importance of the candidate over the party. MLAs seem to have a stranglehold over Bengaluru. They dominate its politics completely and have sidelined the local government. The city’s civic body is without an elected council for over two years now.
This coupled with what is known as adjustment politics, which most political leaders of the city are accused of, has ensured votes in favour of incumbents. Leaders across political parties are accused of forming a cabal and fielding weak candidates against each other. This has created a situation where most constituencies are held by one party and there are no credible challengers from the other parties. It is in this manner that incumbents are encouraged. Union Home Minister Amit Shah had said multiple times at party forums that there was an urgent need to put an end to ‘adjustment politics,’ but ticket distribution in the city did not reflect this and seems to have held the BJP in good stead, as the results show.
However, beyond these local reasons, there seems to be a committed vote base for the BJP in the city. For instance, the party has won all the three Lok Sabha seats in the city since 2008, when the delimitation of constituencies was carried out. Before that, the Congress consistently won one of the two Lok Sabha seats in the city.
While the “crumbling city” narrative is usually set by the middle-class resident welfare associations, techies, industry icons and Twitterati, it is also true that the same segments are considered a strong base for BJP.
There are two other reasons why the BJP may have fared better in the city in the Assembly polls. One, it carried out an aggressive campaign in the Old Mysore region to woo the Vokkaligas. This paid some dividends, with the party seeing a marginal increase in vote share in the area, which includes Bengaluru. Second, the 2023 mandate for the Congress seems to have come from the rural areas and the poorer parts of the State which were severely hit by price rise. Bengaluru, the economic engine of the State, has the largest chunk of middle class voters and may be relatively better off compared to other parts.