The State Assembly polls in Karnataka have brought much-needed relief to the Congress. With 135 seats and 42.9 per cent vote share in the 224-member State Assembly, a gain of 55 seats and 4.8 per cent vote share respectively over the 2018 results, the Congress has ample reasons to celebrate. The BJP has not lost significantly on the vote share front — sliding just about 0.35 per cent from its 2018 performance.
But it has come down by 38 seats to 66, winning some by a low margin, as in Jayanagar (Bengaluru) where the difference between the BJP’s C Ramamurthy and the Congress’s Sowmya Reddy was a mere 16 votes. However, the fact that a dozen ministers lost indicates a vote against dubious governance as well. The political fine-print is highly instructive. For the Congress, what worked in Karnataka was that the party has a strong organisation boasting of about 75 lakh workers and credible leadership in Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar. The central leaders adopted a supporting role and stayed away from stoking distant issues such as Adani-Hindenburg or even Rahul Gandhi’s own disqualification from the Lok Sabha. Instead, the Congress ran an entirely localised campaign focusing on the State Government’s alleged corruption, “40 per cent commission” and “payCM” slogans while stressing on its welfare guarantees including 200 units of free power, ₹2,000 for the female head of a family, 10 kg free rice to every member of a BPL household, ₹3,000 for unemployed degree holders, ₹1,500 a month for diploma holders for two years and free bus rides for women. The encouraging results give the Congress a morale booster and a winning template for Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh later this year.
The BJP would do better to read the verdict as a rejection of its “one size fits all” approach that relies heavily on Hindutva and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popular appeal. While the PM’s last-minute campaigning may have helped the BJP consolidate the urban vote, especially in regions like Bengaluru city where the party won 16 of the 28 seats, the lesson to be learnt here is that its Hindutva formula can fail without a strong local leadership and provincial narrative. The BJP gave confused signals in first removing BS Yeddiyurappa, which divided its Lingayat support base, and then resurrecting him just before the elections. The local Government’s poor performance and corrupt image further diminished its prospects, a gap that could not be filled by the PM’s last-minute push.
However, the temptation to extrapolate the Karnataka verdict and declare, as West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has done, that this signifies “the beginning of the end of the BJP”, should be resisted. As seen in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where the Congress won in 2018 Assembly and lost spectacularly in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, voters make a clear distinction between the federal and provincial elections. It would be a mistake to over-interpret the Karnataka verdict.