Kannada Congress

As the BJP loses its only bastion in the south of the country, it is time for deep introspection on the manner in which its elections campaigns have been run so far. Instead of dividing people on religious lines, maybe it would be better now for the BJP to come back to its original pitch, of development, development and development.

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By Chanakya

Finally, it all came down to local administrative issues. Religious polarisations did not work, the Bajrang Dal and Bajrangbali issue did not work, neither did the hijab issue or the number of times the Congress has given gali to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. What mattered were price rise, corruption and incompetence of the Basavaraj Bommai led BJP government. The Indian National Congress formed government with 135 seats, with the BJP lagging far behind on 66 seats. The so-called king makers, the joker in the pack, JDS, was barely found in the thick of things, languishing at 19 seats.

The Congress victory was massive, a record in seats and vote share. This ws the best in 30 years. Congress’ tally of 135 seats is 55 more than in 2018 and the vote share was 42.88 per cent. In 1999 the party won 132 seats and had a vote share of 40.84 per cent. In 1989, it won 178 seats with a vote share of 43.76 per cent.

The BJP’s 66 were with a 36 per cent vote share, and HD Kumaraswamy’s Janata Dal-Secular won 19 seats with a vote share of 13.29 per cent.

Frankly, Siddaramaiah, the chief minister designate party’s state unit president D K Shivakumar was, till the time of going to press, to become his deputy – had expected around 120 or a few more seats. TYhis mandate exceeds the party’s expectations and completely devastated the BJP’s hopes.

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said: “This victory belongs to the people of the state. They decided and chose. That is why we got 136 seats – huge after 36 years… It is a big victory… We will respect the mandate and uphold people’s belief in us. We will implement all the welfare schemes we have announced in our manifesto.”

Senior Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala, who was in charge of affairs in the state, said: “Karnataka has given a new mantra to save democracy. It is a pathway to save democracy and Constitution across India. Prime Minister said ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ but the people of Karnataka ensured that ‘BJP Mukt South India’.”

The issues that Congress dealt with were mostly hyper local, with the basic needs of the people of the state being uppermost in the party’s campaign. The BJP, on the other hand, brought in super heavyweights from Delhi, including Prime Minster Narendra Modi and dhome minister Amit Shah, so cite a few, and tried to upgrade the eolection pitch as a Modi-Rahul Gandhi issue, specifically, because Rahul Ganshi’s Vharat Jodo Yatra did cross through a few areas of Karnataka.

The BJP also caught on to Siddharamaiah’s claim of wanting to ban the Bajrang Dal as a slight on Lord Bajrangbali, a claim that found no takers in the state. This was an issue that could have dented the Congress pitch, but did not, because people were possibly worried sick of the deficiencies of the BJP government and the corruption.

As for the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Kharge said: “We have won almost 99 per cent of the seats in the route in which Rahul Gandhi walked.”

While it is being said by experts that there is not connection, the Congress still sees this as a starting point to the Congress’ 2024 general election campaign. There are more state assembly elections slated for later this year, and this victory might affect those too. The states include key states such as, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana.

Why this victory is important for Congress

In 2013, when the Congress had won 122 seats to form government, it was up against a beleaguered BJP without a prominent national face. Moreover, in 2013, the BJP’s social coalition comprising Lingayats, ST Nayakas, and Dalits had broken after its tallest leader B.S. Yediyurappa and Adivasi face B. Sriramulu temporarily exited the party because of internal differences.

In 2023, however, both Yediyurappa and Sriramulu were among the star campaigners of the saffron party. This year, the BJP’s fame and fortunes are at its peak, so is its famed election campaign machinery. To defeat such a formidable campaign machinery is a task in itself.

Congress found the right nerves to pinch. It ran an energetic campaign that focused on material issues of people, like price rise, unemployment, and an alleged surge in corruption in Bommai’s term.

Congress’s campaign was also aided by a collective effort on the part of its leadership. While D.K. Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah resolved their differences – even if momentarily – central leaders Mallikarjun Kharge, Rahul Gandhi, and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra spent significant time holding small rallies and events to connect with voters.

To call it just an anti incumbency vote would be a misnomer.

The party’s backend was also on the ball and mounted an effective social media campaign, spinning a political narrative around welfare and inclusive development. The credit for this should also go to planning and year-long efforts by Surjewala, AICC general secretary (organisation) K.C. Venugopal and campaign manager Sunil Kanugolu.

By the time the elections came, the Congress had already emerged as the only credible challenger to the BJP’s alleged misrule. In fact, the clarity with which people voted for the Congress can be seen in Janata Dal (Secular)’s rout outside its sphere of influence. In the past elections, JD(S) candidates in northern Karnataka – mostly rebels from the two national parties – undercut the Congress to hand BJP an advantage in many seats. However, this time around, most contests in northern and central Karnataka turned out to be bi-polar between the BJP and the Congress, with the latter benefitting singularly from the anti-incumbency on the ground.

The Congress retained its stronghold Kalyana Karnataka, while it wrested multiple seats from the BJP in the saffron party’s stronghold Kittur Karnataka and central Karnataka. At the same time, the Congress emerged as the biggest party in the JD(S)’s bastion Old Mysore region.

The Vokkaliga factor

Pre-poll, the main issue was supposed to be securing the Lingayat vote. In the end, though, it was the Vokkaligas who tipped the scales in Congress’ favour.

JD(S) chief and former prime minister H.D. Devegowda is considered the tallest leader among the Vokkaligas, and kept his party in good stead in the areas where the community is in significant numbers because of such an emotional connection. However, the community appears to have shown their anguish against the increasing dominance of one family in the JD(S). With the 91-year-old Deve Gowda largely out of action, his son H.D. Kumaraswamy has alienated a large number of senior leaders, and at the same time tightened his family’s grip on the party.