Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with Karnataka party president DK Shivakumar and party leader Siddaramaiah Image Credit: ANI

Game, set and match to the Congress. The party has defeated the mighty BJP in Karnataka, South India. For the BJP, the loss is a huge blow as the party relied heavily on the Prime Minister’s rallies and road shows to see them through.

This time it did not work. Party leaders had publicly said a vote for the BJP would be a vote for Modi. “This election is not just to make our candidates MLAs or ministers … This election is to hand over the future of the state to Modi ji,” said Home Minister Amit Shah.

For the Congress, the win in Karnataka is significant for many reasons. It’s a huge morale booster to the party that has seen an overall decline in its fortunes since 2014.

And ahead of the battle for the Lok Sabha polls next year, it will set the stage for what an opposition alliance may look like. But more on that later.

Read more

Unstoppable Congress

First, the victory in Karnataka shows that when the Congress plays its cards right, it CAN take on the might of the BJP’s electoral machinery. This time the party leadership was careful to ensure that differences between its top leaders DK Shivakumar and former chief minister Siddaramaiah did not derail its campaign.

Credit goes to Rahul Gandhi for pushing both not just to declare a truce but to make joint appearances together to send a message to the party cadre. They were part of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra together and embarked on a march in the state together to canvas for votes.

The other important takeaway is how the party focused largely on local issues like corruption and this began many months ago, as the BJP government faced a series of corruption scandals. Catchy slogans like “PayCM” caught on quickly.

India's Grand Old Party

The Congress was also careful to not make this an election about Prime Minister Modi and focus on issues instead. Even though the PM repeatedly made references to how Congress leaders had “abused “ him — at one point he said it was 91 times — the Congress avoided the bait and stayed away.

They made promises oriented at the youth and women. Rahul Gandhi also spoke strongly about the need for a national caste census in a state where caste really matters. Along with the local leadership, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi lead a spirited campaign for the party.

The win puts a spring in the Congress step as the opposition tries to figure out how to take on the BJP nationally. This will give the grand old party more leverage with those regional parties which are wary of the Congress taking the lead — like Mamata, Akhilesh and K Chandrashekhar Rao. Others like Nitish Kumar have stressed that a successful opposition coalition won’t be possible without the Congress.

Interesting times ahead

For the BJP, the loss shows the party cannot always rely on Modi to see them through. Anti-incumbency, the taint of corruption against its legislators and anger in the powerful Lingayat community have all contributed to the BJP’s defeat.

In the run up to the polls, several BJP leaders including stalwarts jumped ship to the Congress, a rare sight these days. The Hindutva plank also had its limitations. When the Congress manifesto promised a ban on the Bajrang Dal, the BJP went to town saying it was an attack on Lord Hanuman. It didn’t work.

There were many in the Congress who were nervous when the Bajrang Dal made it into the manifesto but it may have ended up consolidating the minority votes for the party in the state.

Final note and health warning: state elections do not always reflect the national mood. Remember that the Congress won Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh just months before the last parliament polls but lost in the Lok Sabha elections later. So the battle for 2024 remains. Interesting times ahead.