Congress supporters celebrate the party's victory in the Karnataka Assembly elections, in Bengaluru Image Credit: ANI

I am in Bangalore, a witness to both the excitement of the counting of votes in the 2023 assembly elections and the jubilation of the Congress rank and file on their decisive victory in this important southern state, which is also the tech-hub of India.

In an op-ed published just before voting day in Karnataka, I had argued, “If the Karnataka electorate is as perceptive as it is development-oriented, they will try to give a clear majority to either the BJP or the Congress.”

This is exactly what has transpired.

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The people have spoken with a clear voice by voting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of power. The ruling party at the centre and formerly also in Karnataka managed to bag only 66 out of 224 seats in the Assembly, down 38 from its tally of 104 in 2018.

What was heartening was the heavy voter turnout 73.19%, almost a point higher than the last election. Whoever won or lost, Indian democracy and voter intelligence were, once again, amply discernable.

The Congress, on the other hand, increased its seat share from 80 in 2018 to 135, a whopping gain of 55 seats. Clearly, this figure is 17 more than what the BJP lost. Partly because the third angle on this triangular contest, Janata Dal (Secular), went down 18 from 37 to 19 seats.

While the BJP’s vote share remained more or less the same at 36%, the Congress’ went up by an impressive 4.54%, from 38.14% 42.88%. Never, since the 1999 elections, when it earned 42.84 % of the popular vote and secured 132 seats, has the Congress done so well in Karnataka.

It would not be unfair to say that JD (S), the third angle of this triangular contest, not only came out third, but, in a sense, also last. A significant drop in vote share from 18.3% to 13.29% means that far from playing king maker, it is now fighting for its survival.

Pendulum of voter preference

This was an election that I followed closely, mapping its ups and downs a series of articles, two of which were published here and here. The pendulum of voter preference, as I had noted towards the end of the battle, swung definitively in favour of the Congress.

In that sense, this was one election which proved most experts, psephologists, and pollsters right. But the Congress victory was much more impressive, coming close to the higher end, even exceeding, the range of most pre-election opinion polls. Of the Congress’ chances of winning, I had predicted, “If it can’t win on its own, it will lose. It cannot afford to come out as second best at the hustings.”

To that extent I was right. But where I went wrong was that I had not thought that the Congress margin of victory would be so impressive. Instead, I had surmised that the BJP would cobble a deal with JD (S) to stay in power. This is where, I must confess, I also got the outcome wrong. Why? For two reasons.

Like most people I had also overestimated the impact of the final push by PM Narendra Modi. Would the Modi magic work once more to turn tables against an ascendant Congress? Perhaps not, but it would, I had supposed, reduce the seat difference within striking range for a BJP-JD(S) coalition.

The other miscalculation was the backlash over the Congress manifesto promise to ban the Bajrang Dal. Although quickly revoked by the Congress, with D K Shivakumar, one of the two contenders for the Chief Ministership, even promising to build a Hanuman temple in each district of the state.

Karnataka Congress chief DK Shivakumar along with Leader of the Opposition in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly and former state Chief Minister Siddaramaiah holds hands during their visit to Sri Chamundeshwari Temple, in Mysuru Image Credit: ANI

When double-engine sarkara failed

I imagined that the Congress self-goal would once again consolidate the Hindu voters in its favour. Perhaps, this is what happened in Bangalore, where the BJP performed relatively better than other parts.

But the lessons from the poll outcome are clear. Just Hindutva is insufficient to deliver victory, particularly south of the Vindhyas.

BJP’s failure satisfactorily to dispense development in clearly bought out the voters disbelief, if not ire, against the “double-engine sarkara” – the fact that the party is also in power at the federal level did not quite offset the anti-incumbency that it was facing in the state.

Not only was the BJP unable to capitalise on local issues, including unemployment and rural poverty, but also ended up alienating loyal Lingayat vote bank by its perceived mistreatment of senior leaders such as former CM Jagadish Shettar and deputy CM Laxman Savadi, both of whom switched sides from the BJP to the Congress.

The results for the two “turncoats” were, however, quite different—the former lost the Hubli-Dharwar central seat which he had won six times by some 34,000 votes, while the latter won by over 60,000 votes against his BJP rival.

The BJP must have understood that you cannot parachute in at the last moment to win a state by a campaign blitzkrieg after failing to deliver on development expectations of the previous two-three years. Neither can you rely only on Hindutva to turn the tide in your favour. Nor can the Modi charisma alone swing an election in your favour.

Much more is needed to stay in power. You cannot take your electorate for granted. Having lost its only southern state, the BJP must reflect on why, far from a “Congress-muktBharat (Congress-free India), it now must swallow bitter pill, to use Congress president Mallikarjun Kharg’s jibe, “Dakshin Bharat BJP se mukt hogaya” (Southern India has been freed of BJP). Such a north south divide may also prove costly in the 2024 general elections.

The next chief minister of Karnataka

The focus has now shifted to who will the next chief minister of Karnataka. Both former CM Siddaramaiah and CM-in-waiting, DK Shivakumar, are trying their best to win the game of thrones.

The big challenge for the Congress is to avoid in Karnataka the sort of infighting evidenced in Rajasthan that is damaging both its reputation and chances of remaining in power.

Are the Karnataka assembly elections predictive of the outcome of the 2024 general elections? No. It is premature, if not foolish, of some opposition leaders to celebrate the end of “Modi Raj.” They will have to do much more if they want to give the ruling party a tough fight.

But one thing is clear. Opposition unity without the Congress will no longer be viable. As to the Congress, it has its work cut out for it. Not only to run Karnataka more efficiently and with less corruption than its predecessor, but also get its own house in order.

Will the Congress deliver? Cynics are already shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders. “Corruption will increase,” one observer commented, “because the demand to generate funds for the 2024 general elections will have to be met by Karnataka.”

Another expert said, “The burden on the exchequer of the promised freebies will exceed an estimated Rs 60,000 crores. Who, but the people of the state, will have to shoulder this heavy burden?” Finally, remarked one BJP supporter, “Welcome back appeasement politics and majority bashing.”

One can only hope that the Congress will prove its critics wrong.