The Karnataka verdict and its significance for 2024

The Karnataka verdict and its significance for 2024

The decisive Karnataka verdict shows that governance matters and people are willing to punish misgovernance.

A L I ChouguleUpdated: Tuesday, May 16, 2023, 11:22 PM IST
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PTI

Nine days before Karnataka went to the polls, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had expressed confidence that the BJP would get a comfortable majority, though some pre-election opinion surveys had given an edge to the Congress. While the saffron party has never scored an outright victory in the state so far, Shah was, however, confident that the BJP would get 15 seats more than the halfway mark of 113. “You can put it against my name. I am not saying this randomly. I know Karnataka quite well and am confident about the numbers,” the home minister said. Shah’s conviction was based on two factors: the Bommai government’s performance and the goodwill Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s welfare schemes had generated for the BJP.

Nine days later, exit polls came out with numbers and most of them concurred that the Congress has an edge in the Karnataka assembly election. Five out of the 10 exits polls gave Congress a majority, but two of the five exit polls forecast a decisive mandate. Though the exit polls left some scope for doubt since most of them converged around a bare majority of 110 to115 seats for the Congress, many of them confirmed what was obvious in Karnataka — a Congress victory. Research does not predict exact numbers but it does give a sense of direction of the outcome. So, what did Shah know about Karnataka that the surveyors and researchers did not know or failed to understand? One doesn’t know whether Shah’s claim was mere guesswork but it certainly seems to be misplaced conviction.

When election results were declared on May 13, the numbers proved the home minister’s claim completely wrong. Not only did the BJP perform badly, its seat tally was far below Shah’s expectations, though BJP retained its vote share at 36%. The Congress scored an emphatic victory: 135 seats and 43% vote share. The Janata Dal (S), the third player in the state’s politics that was once a strong regional party, also finished badly with just 19 seats and 13.3% vote share. If the Lingayat support saw a major swing from the BJP to Congress, indicating an end to decades of alienation the latter had suffered from the politically influential community, the battle for the Vokkaliga vote yielded a new chieftain in Karnataka PCC chief D K Shivakumar, leaving the JD(S) high and dry.

If the BJP relied too much on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity and charisma to win the election and ended with a modest score of 65, the steep fall in the seat tally and vote share of the JD(S) tells the sorry tale of a regional party that relied excessively on its Vokkaliga clout over two decades and failed to expand its reach. It is too early to say with certainty that the JD(S) is staring at political irrelevance in Karnataka, which could potentially turn the state into a bipolar polity in 2024 when general election is scheduled, but the overall setback signals its long-term decline and puts the very survival of the JD(S) in question. The May 13 outcome is also a setback for the BJP, despite high hopes, tall claims, and a campaign blitzkrieg of rallies and roadshows by the party’s top leaders.

The Karnataka verdict is no less important a lifeline for the Congress, which will reassure the grand old party that it remains a viable alternative to the BJP in state elections, boost Rahul Gandhi’s image as a national leader and possibly a challenger to Modi in the general election, as well as help it emerge as a fulcrum of Opposition unity. It is also a validation of the fact that no matter the efforts of regional parties to belittle the Congress and muscle in on its space, the grand old party — though has a long distance to cover to regain its lost glory — is still a force to reckon with at the pan-India level. Denying it its due and ignoring its electoral strength, rather than using it to maximum advantage, is a sure disaster for Opposition unity and could give BJP an easy walk on the road to 2024.

The decisive Karnataka verdict shows that governance matters and people are willing to punish misgovernance. It also demonstrates that a focused campaign by state leaders on local issues is far more powerful in a state election than a campaign by national leaders on national issues and a display of personal firepower by the prime minister. The smartest thing the Congress did was to address the concerns of the poorer section of voters through its five guarantees. Two of these were addressed to women and the remaining three to different sections of the poor. The BJP’s defeat proves that noise around communal issues does not always trump. Karnataka was a key test of the politics of hate and bigotry, as the BJP had turned it into an ecosystem of polarisation. But voters did not oblige and the Hindu-Muslim divide did not become a decisive electoral factor, despite attempts to equate Bajrang Dal with Bajrang Bali.

While the Congress was expected to win, the scale of its victory is not only a huge morale-booster for the main national Opposition party, but it also keeps the 2024 election open. For, a re-election of the incumbent BJP government in Karnataka would have psychologically affected the fate of the Opposition and boosted confidence for the BJP a year ahead of the general election. Of course, a lot of politics remains between now and 2024, both in Karnataka and the rest of India, and the Karnataka outcome may not influence voters in rest of India, or even in neighbouring Telangana. But the real significance of the Karnataka verdict is that it shows a path that leads to the general election next year and gives an outline of the template that the Opposition needs to follow.

Apart from increasing the Congress’s bargaining power with efforts on for forging Opposition unity with other parties and raising Rahul Gandhi’s political stock, the Karnataka win is a big confidence-booster for the Congress to prepare for the next round of elections in the heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh in December. It would be foolish to say that the BJP’s defeat in Karnataka foreshadows its performance in 2024, or is an indication of the beginning of the end of the BJP, but it looks like the beginning of the electoral rise of the Congress.

The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule

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