The Karnataka election win has given a jolt to Rahul Gandhi’s Congress in its quest to unseat Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a national vote next year. But it still faces a long road ahead.
The victory in Karnataka over the weekend was one of the most significant for Congress against Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in major state elections since he took power nearly a decade ago. Now the question is whether Gandhi can build on that momentum in the five remaining state assembly elections before the 2024 vote.
It won’t be easy. Karnataka was the only southern state that Modi’s party had managed to win, and the next elections take place mainly in BJP-dominated regions in the north and west.
Here are the main takeaways from the Karnataka elections.
Congress stays relevant
Karnataka was the first test at the polls for Gandhi since he was found guilty in March of making defamatory remarks about the prime minister’s last name at a campaign in the same state four years ago — a verdict he has appealed. He was ousted from parliament soon afterward.
Congress made the case a big part of its campaign, telling voters that the BJP and Modi were attacking freedom of speech in India. Gandhi, a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who has often been seen as a reluctant politician, also showed a greater desire to win: Ahead of the vote, he completed a 2,170-mile trek from southern India to the north, presenting himself as a man of the people.
Congress has suffered two straight general election losses and seen more defeats than victories in state assembly polls since 2014. It has struggled to connect with voters while facing questions on whether it can unify a disparate number of regional parties into a coherent coalition to take on Modi next year.
Limits to Modi charisma
Modi turned up in Karnataka several times during the campaign, blasting Gandhi for coming from what he described as a royal dynasty. Yet the message had less of an impact in Karnataka, which has never voted the same party into government twice since 1985. Voters focused on corruption allegations against the BJP leaders in the state, which they have denied.
The results show the BJP’s strategy of appealing to the Hindu majority had a limited impact with voters. Before the polls, authorities banned Muslim women from wearing head-scarves in educational institutions and removed an affirmative action plan for the community.
During the campaign, Congress vowed to ban Bajrang Dal — a Hindu right-wing outfit with ties to the BJP — for promoting religion-based hatred. The prime minister told voters to voice their support for the organization when they enter polling booths, which failed to resonate more broadly.
In a victory pledge, Congress said the new government will boost water supply, build elevated flyovers and complete the metro railway in the state capital of Bengaluru, which has struggled with stalled infrastructure projects. Home to the local offices of Intel Corp., Amazon, and IBM, Bengaluru is experiencing traffic bottlenecks and flooding during the monsoon that forced some CEOs last year to ride tractors to reach offices. Though the BJP swept 16 of the 28 seats in the Bengaluru region, the Congress-led government will have to manage voter concerns of unrestricted development and a lack of governance.
Developing Bengaluru will be crucial as it’s set to take over India’s capital Delhi to become the second-highest generator of income tax revenues in the country after financial hub Mumbai.