Southern setback for BJP, succour for Congress - Hindustan Times
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Southern setback for BJP, succour for Congress

ByNeelanjan Sircar
May 13, 2023 11:00 PM IST

There are key takeaways: Polarisation didn’t cut anti-incumbency, retiring Yediyurappa backfired, and BJP couldn’t counter Congress’s welfare push

The 2023 Karnataka elections are undoubtedly an extraordinary achievement for the Congress, winning 136 seats on a 43.1% vote share — the highest by any party in the state since 1989. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sensed that it was facing strong local anti-incumbency and sought to nationalise the election with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rallies and overt attempts at Hindu-Muslim polarisation. In the end, though, little worked for the BJP as it was decimated in the polls.

Supporters during Congress party’s celebrations after their win in the Karnataka assembly elections. (PTI photo) PREMIUM
Supporters during Congress party’s celebrations after their win in the Karnataka assembly elections. (PTI photo)

What features of the elections help us understand why Hindu-Muslim polarisation was so insignificant this time, when it has mattered so much in other contexts?

At the outset, it is important to understand the scale of the BJP’s loss. In aggregate, BJP’s vote share dipped marginally, from 36.4% in 2018 to 35.7% in these elections. But this masks the fact that the BJP largely gained votes in places where it had too little presence initially for it to matter much. In fact, the BJP lost an average of 5.1 percentage points in the seats it won in the 2018 elections.

It was no secret that there was friction between former BJP chief minister BS Yediyurappa and the party. Yediyurappa seemed to chide his own party when he said the Hindus and Muslims should “live as brothers and sisters” and would not support his party in bringing up “hijab and halal issues”. As I had argued in a previous piece, this left the BJP particularly vulnerable in a former place of strength — areas supporting Yediyurappa, especially among the Lingayat community.

Strike Rates. (HT Graphics)
Strike Rates. (HT Graphics)

In 2013, Yediyurappa contested under his own banner, the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP). And although the KJP won only six seats in 2013, it bagged 20% vote share in 48 constituencies. In 2018, the BJP won 29 of these 48 seats, on an average seat-wise vote share of 41.8% — for a strike rate of 60%. But this time, the BJP lost an average of 5.2 percentage points in these seats, winning only 10 for a paltry strike rate of 21%. Compare this to the 156 seats in which the KJP received less than 20% votes — in 2018, the BJP had a strike rate of 40% in these seats, dropping to 30% in this election. This means that in 2023, the BJP actually did slightly better outside of Yediyurappa’s strongholds than in his pocket boroughs.

The second major factor that had a strong impact on electoral outcomes was anti-incumbency — a direct shift of votes from the BJP to the Congress. A key component of this shift was engineered on the basis of strong welfare promises from the Congress — 10kg foodgrains to below poverty line (BPL) families, 2,000 a month to female heads of household, and 200 free units of electricity. This was particularly effective because the BJP was saddled with accusations of corruption and not caring about the common person.

One way to test if welfarism was impactful is to see if a greater urban-rural divide was generated between the 2018 and 2023 elections. In order to characterise how “urban” a constituency might be, I use satellite data from the European Space Agency tabulated by my colleague Shamindra Nath Roy to estimate the percentage of land used for dense urban or peri-urban settlements. We then compare the strike rates of the BJP in the top and bottom quintile of urbanity, meaning the 20% most urban constituencies (more than 40% of the land is densely populated) to the 20% most rural constituencies (less than 10% of the land is densely populated). We find that the BJP’s strike rate dropped only slightly, from 57% to 50% between 2018 and 2023, in the most urban constituencies. But its strike rate dropped precipitously, from 55% to 25% between 2018 and 2023, in the most rural constituencies. This provides evidence of a sharp rural-urban divide generated in this election — perhaps due to the relative appeal of welfarism.

Much like in West Bengal or Delhi, the Karnataka elections continued a series of elections in which the BJP performed poorly when faced with welfarism and a political leader who could credibly claim to represent disadvantaged or poor communities. In these contexts as well, the BJP sought overt Hindu-Muslim polarisation as an electoral strategy with little success. By contrast, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP was seen as the welfarist party against an Opposition that was led by a dominant caste Yadav, whose community does not always share good relations with other, more marginalised, caste groups.

The BJP is still the odds on favourite to win the national elections. Nonetheless, with the relative success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, and demonstrated electoral success of welfarism, a clear Opposition strategy is starting to emerge for the upcoming year.

Neelanjan Sircar is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research

The views expressed are personal

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