Karnataka Is Not A Bellwether

Congress supporters celebrate the party’s win in Karnataka Assembly polls – PTI photo

In a sense, 2023 is shaping up to be a rerun of 2018, when the BJP lost all big state elections including Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan but won a landslide in 2019

THE Congress sweep in Karnataka polls is the first decisive win for the party in any election in India following the takeover of the BJP as a national ruling party in 2014. And it comes in the wake of the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s cross-country march from Kanyakumari to Kashmir that ended on January 29, so, in a sense, attesting to yatra’s effectiveness. But it is too soon to conclude that something has decisively shifted on the ground in favour of the Congress or the wider opposition. More on that later.

Congress, meanwhile, has cause to celebrate. It is not easy to face the all-encompassing Hundutva juggernaut and hold your own.  More so, with the BJP campaign largely centered on the prime minister Narendra Modi who has so far single-handedly pulled off victories for the party. And in Karnataka, all of the BJP’s tropes – Bajrang Dal, Hijab, Tipu Sultan, Kerala Story –  were deployed to forge a broad Hindutva coalition across castes to ensure the saffron victory.

However, in retrospect, it is clear that the strategy didn’t work. And this should be a source of deep concern for the BJP: it is this electoral formula that has made the party’s extended winning spree so far possible. The appeal of Hindutva has killed all political competition. So, one of the takeaways from the Karnataka outcome is that this appeal may finally be wearing thin. The defeat of Karnataka follows the losses for the saffron party in Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal. Some analyses of the Karnataka result have pointed this out.

However, while this may be true to some extent, it is still a hasty conclusion. One way of looking at the result is that the issues of governance have trumped Hindutva, as ultimately it was the poor performance and the alleged corruption of the previous BJP government that undid it in the polls. The communally surcharged political environment and the unrest of the last two years triggered in part by the policies of the state government may have also worked to the party’s detriment. And this is why a Hindutva-steeped campaign didn’t resonate with the voters beyond a point.

But can we extrapolate the Karnataka  reaction to the rest of the country? Absolutely not. As things stand, Hindutva remains the reigning ideology of the country and PM Modi remains the overarching leader. And so far the opposition doesn’t have a credible answer to both. There is no explicit alternative ideology or narrative peddled by either the Congress or the regional opposition parties. On the contrary, there has been an effort to either avoid taking on Hindutva directly or offer a Hindutva-lite as an alternative. This could be an outcome of a perceived popular support for Hindutva, forcing the opposition to grudgingly defer to it.

Similarly, a pan-India opposition leader has somehow failed to materialize.  True, Rahul Gandhi has come a long way as a leader following his 4000 kilometre long yatra, but he isn’t still there yet. As for his makeover, it still seems to be a work in progress. His  statements are largely about some of the BJP’s governance failures, not about the overarching ideological challenge posed by the saffron party. Hence the persisting absence of a cogent political narrative.

But the Karnataka win will certainly go some way to boost his political cachet – albeit, the party’s performance in the state owes itself in major part to the efforts of its local leaders who harnessed deep anti-incumbency against the BJP to their advantage.

Is Karnataka a bellwether for the trend of politics in the country in near future? Not necessarily. The state, as of now, remains a standalone case, if not followed by more victories for the Congress or the opposition in the upcoming state elections. Around nine Assembly elections are scheduled to be held before the general elections. Among them, the polls in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telengana will be very crucial. The BJP will hope to win all of them. But should the party suffer reverses in the majority of these states, this may not bode well for its 2024 chances. The elections in these four major states also represent a last chance for the opposition, especially Congress,  to hurtle back into the reckoning. For now, the party can take heart from the victory in Karnataka, soon after the win in Himachal.  It has put some wind in its sails as it prepares for more tests ahead.

But even if the BJP loses all these state polls, it could still end up winning the general election. In a sense, 2023 is shaping up to be a rerun of 2018, when the BJP lost all big state elections including Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan but won a landslide in 2019. A similar history can repeat itself. It is true that the Pulwama bombing that killed 40 CRPF jawans played a role in salvaging the BJP’s declining electoral fortunes at the time, but the popularity of the PM Modi was a factor too.  It remains to be seen whether the PM’s charisma will be sufficient to carry the BJP and the party through the upcoming Assembly polls this year and the crucial general election next year.

  • Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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