What the Karnataka results mean for 2024 Lok Sabha polls | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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What the Karnataka results mean for 2024 Lok Sabha polls

May 13, 2023 05:18 PM IST

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) defeat in the state must count as one of the more embarrassing episodes in its otherwise sparkling recent electoral record

The remarkable Congress triumph in Karnataka is a huge accomplishment for a party that has struggled to find political success in the past decade. The Congress ran a disciplined campaign. It beefed up its organisational muscle. It tapped into local disenchantment against the incumbent. It had a strong and unified local leadership. The party’s national leaders stepped in to help but did not hijack the campaign. The Congress made the right promises. It offered stability to a state that has witnessed frequent changes in government. And it put together a wide social coalition, a reminder of the days when the Congress was indeed an umbrella party.

The win helps boost the morale of Congress workers on the ground. (PTI photo)
The win helps boost the morale of Congress workers on the ground. (PTI photo)

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) defeat in the state must count as one of the more embarrassing episodes in its otherwise sparkling recent electoral record. To form a government in 2019, it had won over defectors with inducements. The origin of the regime determined its subsequent nature and reputation where rent-seeking was prioritised. It went into polls with an unpopular government. It relied excessively on communal polarisation as a way to neutralise governance deficits. It alienated established leaders but was unable to present credible new faces. Its national general secretary in charge of organisation, BL Santhosh, delegated from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to help the BJP, became a partisan political player in his home state, exacerbating internal divisions. Its social coalition was limited both in terms of religion and caste. Its appeal among women shrank. And the state unit put all its eggs in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s basket for a miracle, turning a blind eye to the post-2018 trend where voters have made a distinction between state and national elections.

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Also Read: Smaller parties, independents to the fore amid Cong’s slim lead

The big question, however, is what the results mean for 2024. To suggest that it has no meaning, and will have no impact, is wrong.

This is especially true in the case of the Congress. The win helps boost the morale of workers on the ground who are so accustomed to defeat that they often give up before the battle commences. It also gives the party the opportunity to raise resources in a context where the Congress is in power in only three other states. Even if the victory was due to the combined efforts of Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar, it helps burnish Rahul Gandhi’s reputation for Karnataka is one state where the Bharat Jodo Yatra appears to have had an electoral impact. It also raises the Congress’s profile within the larger national opposition and may make some other parties, who have been highly doubtful of the party’s political judgment and abilities, more amenable to the idea of working together. And if the Congress, which won just one Lok Sabha seat from Karnataka in 2019, can improve its tally even marginally next year, it will help.

For the BJP, the setback is an opportunity to go back to drawing board to understand why it was unable to expand its social coalition and why poorer voters and women, in particular, stayed away despite its welfare schemes. In 2019, the party won 26 of the state’s 28 Lok Sabha seats. Repeating the performance may have just got tougher, especially if the Congress government over the next year is able to sustain its social coalition and deliver on its promises. Saturday’s results will also play a role in how the BJP selects its candidates for the 2024 polls in the state.

But as tempting as it may be for the Congress and the BJP’s critics, it will be analytically incorrect and politically unwise to impose a larger national meaning to the Karnataka verdict for two reasons.

The first is obvious. Broadly speaking, after the first three years of the Narendra Modi government, where voters bought the idea of a “double engine” sarkar, state and national elections have followed their own, often divergent, trajectories.

Go back to 2018 and the most powerful image after the Karnataka elections was of all opposition leaders sharing the stage in Bengaluru to celebrate HD Kumaraswamy’s elevation as chief minister; in 2019, the BJP swept the state.

The same year, in December, the Congress formed the government in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan; four months later, the BJP won 62 out of 65 seats in the three states put together.

Anecdotal evidence from the ground in Karnataka suggests that even this time around, voters have been clear in their preferences — Siddaramaiah for Bengaluru, Modi for Delhi.

If the Congress thinks their success will automatically translate into an improved performance, let alone an outright win, next year in the state, they better think again.

The second reason to be cautious about extrapolating Karnataka’s results to the national stage is that the conditions in the state were very different from the conditions that exist politically at the national level for both parties.

In Bengaluru, the BJP had an unpopular government with a weak leader; in Delhi, by all accounts, its government remains popular, and its leader remains strong with high approval ratings. In Karnataka, Dalits, tribals and other backward classes (OBCs) were substantially with the Congress; in a majority of the states where the BJP draws its Lok Sabha strength from, the party seems to enjoy the support of precisely these subaltern social groups.

In these state elections, the Congress won over women voters in larger numbers; on the national stage, especially in the states of north, west, central and eastern India, a combination of faith in Modi’s intent and welfare schemes has shifted the women vote to the BJP.

In Karnataka, the BJP’s internal fractures played a role in hampering the campaign; nationally, when the election is about Modi, the internal fractures get largely subsumed. And in Karnataka, the issue of corruption hurt the BJP’s reputation substantially; nationally, despite the allegations around crony capitalism, there is much greater faith in Modi’s integrity than his critics would like to admit.

In Karnataka, the Congress could project a strong and rooted local leadership; nationally, Rahul Gandhi has been unable to become that face for the Opposition.

In Karnataka, the Congress could localise issues down to the assembly segment and it worked; in Lok Sabha polls, the strategy of fighting 543 different elections based on local candidates and local issues was tried in 2019 and it miserably failed, a larger national message and national leadership is essential. And in Karnataka, the Congress could bank on the fact that except in the coastal belt, the politics of Hindutva has limited appeal historically; in many other parts of the country, the politics of Hindutva today has greater traction than ever before. Put it all together and there is no Karnataka model for the Congress to easily replicate in 2024.

But it is important to understand and respect a state election in its own right. India is a union of states, state governments have their own constitutional rights, and they draw their own democratic legitimacy from their voters.

The real importance of Karnataka’s verdict does not lie in what it may translate into in 2024. It lies in the fact that India’s electoral democracy provides enough space to all parties to compete, where even a weaker opposition party can score a win over a more powerful rival. It lies in the fact that Indian federalism is robust and the political sensibility in a state can vary from what may appear to be the national mood. It lies in the fact that voters have shown that they will not hesitate to punish governments that don’t serve their constitutional and popular mandates, and reward political parties that can articulate and aggregate the concerns of citizens in an effective manner. And in that sense, Karnataka’s importance lies in ensuring that no party can take its political dominance for granted and Indian democracy retains its vitality.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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