By Professor James Manor

The Karnataka election may eventually be seen as a watershed. It has set in motion two potential changes to the fundamentals of that state’s politics. If either or both become lasting realities, the Congress Party stands to benefit. The first, in southern districts (old Mysore), affects inter-party competition. The second, in northern and central districts, affects the social underpinnings of politics.

One other important change was the decline in damaging interventions in state politics by national leaders of Congress, alongside an increase in the BJP. Both trends are likely to continue over the longer term – again to the benefit of Congress.

The election result was a startling reversal for the BJP. The highest ever voter turnout yielded 135 seats for Congress in an Assembly of 224. The BJP won only 66 and the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) 19. This is the largest majority since 1989. It ensures that the BJP will not succeed in its customary effort to wrest power by enticing ruling party legislators to defect. Twelve BJP ministers were defeated. Let us consider the two potentially historic changes that occurred.

Southern Districts: Changing Party Competition

For decades, the main battle in this region has been between Congress and the JD-S, with the BJP finding it difficult to make gains because its main backers, the Lingayats, are present here only in pockets (some of which are sizeable). The 19 seats that the JD-S won this time marked a serious decline from its totals over the last four state elections of 37, 40, 28 and 58. It suffered from defections by leaders who were angry with the autocratic ways of H.D. Deve Gowda’s family, from embarrassing squabbles within the family, and from limited campaigning by the visibly aging Deve Gowda, now aged 90. If his health continues to decline, or if he passes from the scene, the JD-S will no longer have an iconic figure and a man who can quell strife within the family. Congress will meanwhile intensify its appeal to the Vokkaligas, the core base of the JD-S.

So the decline of the JD-S is likely to continue. That would fundamentally change party competition here, and Congress would have a lasting opportunity to reap greater rewards.

Northern and Central Districts: A Fundamental Shift in Parties’ Social Bases Has Begun

The thumping victory of Congress occurred because, alongside gains from the JD-S in the south, it captured many seats in rural maidan (plains) constituencies of northern and central Karnataka where elections are won and lost.

As Nilanjan Sarkar has noted, in rural areas, Congress increased its strike rate – the percentage of seats won divided by seats contested – from 35% in 2018 to 55% this time. Its strike rates in these crucial northern and central areas were higher: 66% in Bombay/Kittur Karnataka, 61% Kalyani/Hyderabad Karnataka, and 75% in central districts. (The rate in southern Karnataka was a healthy 62%, after only 29% in 2018.)

Its success in northern and central districts was a result of a crucial change: the BJP’s social base has begun to fragment.

Since the 1990s, the BJP in those areas has drawn heavily upon not just one but two social groups: the Lingayats, of whom we hear much, but also ritually left-hand Dalits. (In South India, all castes are divided by a left/right split.) Right-hand Dalits have long mostly backed Congress.

This time, CSDS-Lokniti found that Lingayat support for the BJP dipped to 56%, with 29-30% going to Congress. This is no trivial change, but it is not yet decisive. More important was the 63% of Dalit votes across the state which went to Congress. Most of those came from the right-hand group, but such a high percentage had to include many left-hand Dalits, a serious concern for the BJP in northern and central areas. With its AHINDA message – a Kannada acronym indicating policies to benefit disadvantage groups – Congress also won support from OBCs, adivasis (a small group in Karnataka), and a solid consolidation of the Muslim vote, much of which had previously gone to the JD-S.

The AHINDA strategy closely resembles that of D. Devaraj Urs in the 1970s which broke the dominance of state politics by the Lingayats and Vokkaligas. Urs stressed to this writer that those two landed groups contained many impoverished voters, and in his two state election victories, he received support from some of them. AHINDA today has even greater appeal among them because many landholdings have shrunk because inheritances have led to sub-divisions. The election result appears to confirm the findings of a pre-poll survey by Eedina, partly crafted by Yogendra Yadav. It indicated that less prosperous members of all caste groups responded well to AHINDA and Congress.

Taken together, these results – especially among Lingayats and Dalits — provide much of the explanation the remarkable Congress gains in the crucial northern and central districts where Lingayats are mostly concentrated.

The reasons for these changes are complex, and they are not all about caste. The dismal performance of the BJP state government mattered greatly, here as everywhere. The five promises to disadvantaged groups stressed by Congress proved more persuasive even to some less prosperous members of the landed castes than the BJP’s focus on Hindutva, national themes and Modi. Congress proposals to address unemployment were especially important because it was the biggest issue for 30% of CSDS-Lokniti respondents – sharply up from only 3% in 2018. That issue was especially important to rural voters who decide election outcomes. Unprecedented factional strife within the BJP, and its sidelining of party veterans including some key Lingayats, damaged it. Some left-hand Dalits may have changed sides after Mallikarjun Kharge was elected national Congress president – even though he comes from the right-hand group.

Whatever the causes, this change undermined the BJP’s core base in a way that poses a longer term problem for the party. That and the huge scale of the Congress victory suggest that this election result may not be just the latest in the familiar alternation of parties in power in a state where no ruling party has been re-elected since 1985. If Congress can retain its gains while the BJP cannot regain lost ground among Lingayats and left-hand Dalits, this could herald a lasting realignment of social forces.

That would lock the BJP out of South India, in state but not national elections. Achieving it will be a challenge. But the BJP will not recover unless its national leaders stop intervening in the state in ways that damage their party. On recent evidence, this is unlikely since they do not comprehend the destruction and therefore see no need to change course.

Damaging Interventions by Parties’ National Leaders

On many occasions over the years, The Congress in Karnataka has suffered badly from destructive interventions by the party high command. Seriously inept leaders have been put in charge of the Provincial Congress Committee, and have been named as overseers of state election campaigns. Woefully incompetent people have actually been re-nominated in both roles, because the high command did not understand how wretchedly they had performed.

This problem has now been solved, thanks in large part to Mallikarjun Kharge’s election as national Congress president. He is a strong, intelligent leader who understands what is needed in the state’s politics, and the difference between adroit and bungling politicians who might play important roles. This is a further reason for Congress to be optimistic about future gains.

By contrast, the BJP now suffers from the old Congress problem, mightily damaging intrusions from its high command. Since 2014, both the party and the government have been utterly dominated by Narendra Modi. In radically centralising power, he has surpassed even Indira Gandhi – the Prime Minister he most resembles. State-level units of the party have suffered grievously as a result.

During state election campaigns, Modi and Amit Shah have dictated the themes to emphasise – in this election, in Karnataka in 2018, in Bihar in 2015, etc. They impose topics that state-level BJP activists know to be unpromising, and refuse to listen to state-level leaders with greater knowledge. Activists in four states have complained to this writer about this for years.

Top BJP leaders have such confidence in their vast advantage in campaign funds that they assume that they need not listen. At the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it had 18 times more money to spend that all other parties combined, and the disparity has increased since then. And yet in Karnataka this time – as in roughly 70% of state elections since 1980 — the party with more money has lost. Money does not decide Indian elections.

Those same leaders also have such enormous confidence in their own wisdom and in Modi’s impact as an orator that they assume victory is assured. His speeches during this campaign focused almost entirely on his vision, his troubles, and national-level issues and events in which he plays the central role. He ignored state-level concerns which, as surveys show, mattered to voters – and which Congress stressed. On several occasions, he never mentioned the BJP Chief Minister and said little about the state government. All of this was ill judged. Rahul Gandhi hit home when he told the Prime Minister that “this election is not about you”.

Modi and Shah also stored up problems for their party – in Karnataka and elsewhere – by using inducements to wrest power by toppling the opposition’s state governments. That turns the BJP into a battleground for faction fights between turncoats and loyalists, but the national leaders’ voracious appetite for power at all costs keeps such power seizures happening. These conflicts become acute when tickets for elections are distributed. Such hostilities did severe damage to the party at this election. So did national BJP leaders’ imposition of new, unpromising candidates to their liking.

The most important intrusion from on high was the sustained, multi-faceted campaign of communal polarization over the last three years. This relentless effort, aimed at turning Karnataka into a version of Uttar Pradesh, overlooked hard-line Hindutva’s inability to gain traction in the state, over many decades. Multiple surveys indicated that voters were concerned about other things: poor public services, poverty and especially unemployment. Communal issues mattered only in places where they have always found some support – a few urban centres and the small, socially eccentric coastal belt. And even on the coast – long a BJP bastion – the party lost ground in one of the three districts.

As the campaign reached its peak, the Prime Minister’s speeches became rather strange and misjudged. A cooked up fiction about how two non-existent Vokkaligas had killed Tipu Sultan triggered a protest from the Adichunchanagiri swamiji, Vokkaligas’ premier religious leader. Modi’s call for voters to say “Jai Bajrang Bali” as they cast their ballots left most people bewildered, and fell flat. He then accused Congress of consorting with terrorists. More bewilderment followed. Voters know Congress well. They may like it, hate it or be bored by it, but few believe that it has terrorist links. Then Modi claimed that Congress might take Karnataka out of the Indian union. This writer has studied the state for 53 years, and he has never heard any politician or citizen suggest that Congress favoured secession. This bizarre claim raises serious concerns that, as an orator, the Prime Minister is losing his touch.

Alongside these intrusions, one non-intrusion by Modi proved deeply damaging. It had to do with corruption. An astonishing 41% of the BJP’s own supporters told CSDS-Lokniti that it had increased. The Prime Minister once claimed that the previous Congress state government was demanding 10% in bribes from contractors. That set the BJP up for a huge embarrassment when it took power in 2019 and began asking for a whopping 40%. And then his complacent inaction in response to the controversy made the scandal far more public and excruciating.

It went like this. In November 2021, the Karnataka State Contractors Association which included many BJP supporters wrote to the Prime Minister complaining about requests for 40% kickbacks. He did not reply. Four months later, they sent similar protests to the Chief Minister and Governor. Still, nothing changed. In April 2022, a contractor hanged himself after a minister demanded 40%. The Association’s complaints continued and another letter to Modi went unanswered. In March 2023, as election campaigning began, the Association linked its 40% grievance to the government’s failure to release Rs. 22,000 crores, as contracts stipulated. They threatened to protest at every district headquarters and the Chief Minister’s residence. Modi offered no response and took no action.

This occurred partly because, despite his supposed omnipotence and his stated abhorrence of corruption, he lacked the power to solve the problem. But it was also an indication of his complacency — his belief that with his charisma, vastly superior campaign funds, and control of the media, he could get away with anything. That belief was apparent in his campaigning in Karnataka, and he and his party suffered damage as a result.

Congress and What Comes Next

Now that it has been freed of damaging interventions by its high command, Congress has an opportunity to exploit the opportunities offered by the potentially historic changes in northern and central, and in southern districts. Its election campaign suggests that it has just might succeed. The campaign gained momentum from Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. Jairam Ramesh has noted that Congress won in 15 of the 20 constituencies through which it passed, and the party’s vote share there was twice its state-wide average. During the campaign, the party contained the rivalry between Siddaramaiah and his Vokkaliga rival, D.K. Shivakumar – and between their supporters. It stressed voters’ most acute concerns and made credible promises to address them – in ways that minimized tensions between Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA strategy and the party’s appeal to more prosperous groups. To seize its opportunities, Congress must now govern well. It must not get off to a slow start as it did during Siddaramaiah’s first spell in power after 2013. But its much improved performance in his latter years in office suggests that both he and his party have learned that lesson.

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