Congress' Victory in Karnataka: What It Holds for Indian Politics?

Shahadat Hossain | 24 May 2023
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Following success in Himachal, the Indian National Congress's victory in Karnataka stands as a significant setback for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Amidst much backdoor political deliberation, Siddaramaiah, a Congress leader, assumed office as the Chief Minister, with DK Shivakumar as Deputy Chief Minister. The National Congress leaders have made concerted efforts to ensure a balanced representation of all communities within the Cabinet. KJ George, a member of the Christian minority, and BZ Zamir Ahmed Khan, representing the Muslim minority, were appointed as ministers in the new cabinet.

During the 2018 Karnataka assembly elections, the Congress and the secular JDS formed a coalition government in the province, and the Congress accepted Kumaraswamy from the JDS as the Chief Minister. Despite the BJP securing a majority as a single party in the elections, Rahul Gandhi swiftly formed an alliance with the JDS to thwart the BJP's attempts to form the government. However, after a year, the BJP overthrew the coalition government through a trust vote. Today's victory can be seen as Rahul Gandhi's retaliation for the BJP's triumph in 2019.

This electoral defeat not only entails the BJP losing the province but also raises doubt on the strength of the ‘Modi magic,’ which was once considered a formidable political force for the BJP. It is believed that Narendra Modi's public rallies can sway 10-15% of votes prior to elections. Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi's participation in at least 20 public rallies during the Karnataka elections, the BJP only emerged victorious in five out of the 17 constituencies where he campaigned. With this defeat, the BJP's dominance in South India comes to an end.

In 2019, the BJP employed a particular strategy to secure power in the state. Upon assuming power, they focused on bolstering their position through religious provocations. Karnataka's political landscape largely revolves around two main Hindu communities, namely the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas. While the BJP traditionally enjoys the support of the Lingayats, their popularity among the Vokkaligas is limited. To overcome this caste-based politics among Hindus in Karnataka, the BJP aimed to consolidate the Hindu vote by invoking anti-Muslim sentiments in support of the party. Coming into power in 2019, the BJP implemented bans on Muslim girls wearing hijabs in schools and colleges and imposed restrictions on the sale of halal meat. They also sparked controversy by portraying the former ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, as an anti-Hindu figure.

However, the people of South India, including Karnataka, have a long history of peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Muslims. They have traditionally embraced a non-communal and inclusive outlook. The residents of Mysore have always held Tipu Sultan in high regard as a tolerant ruler. Consequently, the sudden vilification of Tipu Sultan as a ‘villainous' and ‘tyrannical' Muslim ruler failed to yield political advantages for the BJP in South India.

The BJP's defeat in Karnataka signifies the end of its rule in South India, encompassing Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh. These five provinces collectively hold 130 Lok Sabha seats, accounting for 24% of the total. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP secured only 29 seats in South India, amounting to a mere 22% of the Lok Sabha seats in the region.

The Congress's resounding victory in Karnataka provides a boost of confidence to the struggling party nationwide. However, it remains to be seen how this victory will impact the dynamics leading up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, as several other provinces, including Rajasthan, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, are scheduled to hold assembly elections in 2023.

The Congress's influence in Telangana is not as robust as it is in Karnataka. Similarly, Rajasthan presents internal conflicts within the state Congress between leaders Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot. In 2018, while Ashok Gehlot became the Chief Minister, Sachin Pilot became the deputy Chief Minister. A rebellion led by Sachin Pilot and his supporters against Ashok Gehlot emerged in 2020 and continues to this day. In contrast, Siddaramaiah and Sivakumar, who were rival leaders in Karnataka, have set aside their differences and collaborated in Karnataka. But the relationship between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot is as challenging as turning a circle into a square. However, the Congress stands a good chance of winning elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

In India, the number of Lok Sabha seats a state has is a common indicator of its political importance. Among the provinces holding assembly elections in 2023, Rajasthan has 25 Lok Sabha seats, Madhya Pradesh has 29, Chhattisgarh has 11, and Telangana has 17. These numbers are substantial, accounting for approximately 15% of the total Lok Sabha seats.

To secure victory in these states and ultimately in the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress has no choice but to rely on anti-BJP unity across India. The BJP came to power in 2014 with a nationwide popular vote share of 31%, which increased to 37% in 2019. Consequently, divisions among various opposition parties have facilitated the BJP's central rule.

The swearing-in ceremony of the Congress government in Karnataka revealed the true picture of the ‘united opposition’ with anti-BJP parties in India. Notably, popular anti-BJP figures like Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee did not express joy over the Congress's victory in Karnataka. Leaders from various provinces, including Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Congress ally MK Stalin, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Deputy Chief Minister Tejaswi Yadav, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, and representatives from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's party, attended the ceremony. Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party leader from Uttar Pradesh, was present, while Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati was not invited. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, and Telangana Chief Minister Chandrasekhar Rao were not extended invitations.

However, Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, and Akhilesh Yadav may not accept the leadership of the Congress in the anti-BJP unity during the upcoming elections, as some of them aspire to become prime minister. Rahul Gandhi gained popularity by promoting a message of ‘spreading love in a market filled with hate’ and creating a buzz across India with his ‘Bharat Jodo’ (Unite India) journey. However, there is no indication that he will be able to "jodo" (unite) the opposition before the Lok Sabha elections.

Shahadat Hossain 
Research Assistant 
Centre for Governance Studies