In Retrospect

A bolt from the blue?

Despite BJP bigwigs throwing their full weight behind the poll campaign, the ground issues raised consistently by the INC trumped over the communal rhetoric — paving the way for the ‘biggest victory’ for the Congress and blowing a gut punch to the BJP

A bolt from the blue?

The results of the high-stakes Karnataka assembly elections were announced on May 13. The Congress, which was forced to sit in the Opposition after the BJP allegedly destabilised the then Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress government in 2019, emerged as the victor with a resounding majority. The party secured 42.9 per cent vote share and won 135 seats, surpassing the required 113 seats needed to cross the halfway mark in the state legislative assembly by 23 seats.

The Congress is now ready to script its success story under the chief ministership of party’s stalwart Siddaramaiah and his deputy DK Shivakumar.

The victory of the Congress in Karnataka has come as a big setback for the saffron party ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, to be held next year. Despite deploying its top guns during the campaigning, the defeat is very “humiliating” for the BJP, as the party failed to impress the voters. On top of it, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s poll blitzkrieg failed to save the BJP.

The historic victory of the Congress in the southern state clearly indicates that local issues overshadowed the Modi magic and Hindutva agenda floated by the saffron party. Issues like corruption, unemployment, inflation, and safety played a key role in bringing confidence among voters, who were facing the heat of the allegedly 40 per cent corruption government, which was led by chief minister Basavaraj Bommai.

The victory of the Congress in Karnataka also makes it clear that the ‘Bajrang Bali’ issue, which was brought by the BJP at the last leg of the bitterly fought Karnataka poll campaign, didn’t work for the saffron party. It definitely brought ‘Sanjeevni Booti’ for the Congress which remained focused on local issues during electioneering!

The thumping victory of the party has also proved the mettle of Gandhis, particularly former president Rahul Gandhi, who trusted Mallikarjun Kharge to pass on the baton of the Grand Old party.

The Congress has credited Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra for turning the fate of the assembly elections in its favour, as the party won over 30 seats of the 51 assembly seats that Rahul Gandhi had touched upon during the Yatra.

Apart from the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, marathon rallies were also led by Rahul Gandhi, Priyanaka Gandhi Vadra and Sonia Gandhi, who took the command in the last few days of the campaigning.

The role of party’s stalwart Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar in the victory is beyond imagination. Despite being at loggerheads, both the leaders worked in tandem and delivered positive results for their leadership. At the age of 80, Kharge was no less than any mid-age party worker. The party’s national president Kharge crisscrossed the state to build a confidence among the electorates of the state and sought votes for the party on the issues of corruption, unemployment, price rise, safety, better law and order, etc.

Surprisingly, the JD(S), which was in the key-maker role in 2018, was restricted to just 19 seats, securing 13.29 per cent vote share. The BJP, which was claiming to win 150 seats, was restricted to 66 seats, registering 36 per cent of the total vote share. In BJP’s own terminology, southern India has now become ‘BJP Mukt’, as Karnataka was the only state in the region where the saffron party’s Hindutva agenda helped it win seats.

Despite BJP’s top brass campaigning in the state, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the one and the only trusted vote-seeking face of the party – leading from the front, the victory of Congress in Karnataka is a bold message for all the governments that local issues are still sacrosanct.

The victory is a towering one for Congress as it has won the 2023 Karnataka assembly elections by the biggest vote share and seats after a long gap of 34 years.

According to a noted psephologist Yogendra Yadav, this election has brought the biggest victory for “any party in Karnataka” after 1989 during Veerendra Patil’s regime, when the Congress had won 178 seats with a vote share of 43.76 per cent.

According to Yadav, the Congress had won 132 seats with a vote share of 40.84 per cent in 1999, followed by 122 seats with a vote share of 36.6 per cent in 2013.

In 1994, the JD(S) had won a total of 115 seats with a vote percentage of 33.54, while BJP had bagged 110 seats in 2008 with a vote share of 36.86 per cent, followed by 104 seats with a vote percentage of 36.3 in 2018. In 2004, BJP got a total of 79 seats with a vote share of 28.33 per cent.

In the 1978 elections, the Congress party had obtained a vote share of 44.25 per cent and won 149 seats. Also, it is important to note that prior to 1978, the Karnataka legislative assembly was known as the Mysore legislative assembly, and had 216 seats.

In the recently concluded assembly elections, the Congress secured an impressive 55-seat gain from its previous tally of 80 seats in the 2018 elections. However, it has been a different story for the BJP, which suffered a massive setback as it lost 38 seats from its previous count of 104. The biggest change is for JD(S), which lost almost 50 per cent of its seats from the 2018 elections, as the party won merely 19 seats compared to 37 seats in the 2018 assembly elections.

The key factors that worked in the favour of the Congress include the unity message, five guarantees, Bajrang Dal strategy, and unexpected Muslim votes consolidation.

Given that two stalwarts of the Karnataka Congress, DK Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah, have been long known to be at loggerheads, Congress was able to keep their issues at bay and coordinated well-crafted joint appearances, showing a clear united front.

The five guarantees turned out to be a gamechanger for the party, as the assurances were aimed at bringing the vote share of women and youth to the party fold. In Karnataka, women and youth have been a big vote bank for the BJP under PM Narendra Modi, and the Congress made a concerted push to make a dent here.

The five guarantees announced by Congress include:

* Gruha Jyothi scheme, under which 200 units of free electricity is promised to all houses every month;

* Gruha Lakshmi scheme to provide a monthly payment of Rs 2,000 to women head of households;

* Uchita Prayana scheme to provide free bus travel to all women across the state;

* Yuva Nidhi scheme to pay Rs 3,000 to unemployed graduates along with Rs 1,500 to unemployed diploma holders every month; and

* Anna Bhagya scheme to provide free of cost 10 kg rice per person per month to families living below the poverty line.

The BJP tried to change the narrative of the poll campaign to its side by raising the issue of banning Bajrang Dal during the last days of campaigning. However, it didn’t go well, and turned out to be counterproductive for the BJP, as the polarisation of votes happened in favour of the Congress, resulting in unexpected consolidation of minority votes to its side.

Senior leaders of the Congress admitted in private that the mention of Bajrang Dal in the manifesto, equating it with the banned Popular Front of India, worked as per the plan, leading to marginalisation of the JD(S) in Karnataka.

Expressing his satisfaction over the role of five poll guarantees in winning the state election, party leader Rahul Gandhi said that the five poll guarantees, which his party promised in their manifesto, will be fulfilled soon.

“The power of the people prevailed over the power of ‘crony capitalists’, as in the Karnataka elections, on one side was the power of crony capitalists and on the other side was the power of the people, and the people defeated them,” Gandhi said.

Forty per cent corruption

The issue of corruption became a headache for the incumbent BJP government after the ‘death by suicide’ of Santosh Patil, a contractor from Belagavi. A letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi by the Karnataka Contractors’ Association on the matter exposed the holy nexus of 40 per cent commission. Patil, who committed suicide, was the national secretary of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a BJP youth outfit.

The ‘40% Commission Sarkar’ slogan proved to be a big-ticket poll plank for the Congress.

To harness the issue of corruption, the Congress launched a series of publicity campaigns that directly targeted the government. One innovative approach was the ‘PayCM’ campaign, which featured posters adorned with a QR code and a photograph of Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, titled ‘PayCM’.

The impact of ‘40% commission’ and the ‘PayCM’ campaigns of the Congress were so strong that no amount of rallies and roadshows by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and JP Nadda could undo the damage; voters were not ready to believe the hollow promises of BJP leaders. The ‘Modi magic’ evaporated as soon as he left the town.

A well-thought strategy of the Congress to woo the Lingayat community also worked in its favour, as the party romped home with 37 Lingayats in 2023 from 13 Lingayat MLAs in 2018. The vote share of the Lingayat community in Karnataka is around 14 per cent of the 53 million voters, and they decide the winners in over 90 of the 224 assembly segments in the state. The Lingayat vote share gain for the Congress is directly proportional to the downfall of BJP’s key vote bank in the south.

The political experts have opined that the BJP was “over confident” of getting a sizable number of Lingayat community vote share even though its key leaders of the community had switched to the rebel camp.

The “humiliation” of one of the most prominent Lingayat leaders, Jadadish Shettar — next only to former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa, and six-time MLA from the Hubli-Dharwad Central constituency — acted as the last nail in the coffin. Shettar, who joined the Congress, contested from his home constituency against the BJP candidate. However, Shettar lost his seat with a margin of 34,000.

Bajrang dal and Bajrang Bali

As the Congress, in its manifesto, promised to ban Bajrang Dal and PFI on the grounds that they are spewing hatred and violence in society and among communities, the BJP brought up the issue of Bajrang Bali. But the issue of Lord Hanuman failed to fetch votes for the BJP in Karnataka’s political landscape. The BJP faced a major setback after West Bengal, where the saffron party had banked upon ‘Jai Shree Ram’ to polarise voters.

The promise to ban the Bajrang Dal sparked off a massive controversy, with the BJP accusing the party of being ‘anti-Hindu’ and insulting Lord Hanuman. The Congress hit back at the BJP, accusing the saffron party of equating the Bajrang Dal with Bajrang Bali.

The issue got highlighted when Prime Minister Narendra Modi chanted ‘Bajrang Bali ki Jai’ in public rallies across Karnataka, in a bid to charge up the people ahead of the polls. In a rally in Vijayanagar district, PM Modi hit out at the Congress over the Bajrang Dal ban issue, and alleged that the party decided to “lock up” the devotees of Lord Hanuman.

“I have come to the land of Hanuman. I am fortunate that I got the opportunity to pay obeisance to the land of Hanuman, but see the misfortune that when I have come to pay my respect to Hanuman’s land, at the same time, the Congress, in its manifesto, has decided to lock up Lord Hanuman,” PM Modi had said.

“First, they (Congress) locked up Lord Rama and now they have vowed to lock up those who chant ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’,” he had added.

PM Modi alone held 19 election rallies and six roadshows across Karnataka during the campaigning season.

Besides PM Modi, BJP president JP Nadda addressed 10 public rallies and 16 roadshows, while Amit Shah attended 16 gatherings and 15 roadshows. Union Minister Smriti Irani attended 17 meetings and two roadshows, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh attended four meetings, Nitin Gadkari three, and Nirmala Sitharaman addressed eight election gatherings.

Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma held 15 rallies during the campaign, and led one roadshow, while Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath held nine meetings as well as three roadshows. Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan addressed six election rallies.

The Congress had acted sharply on it and registered a complaint with the Election Commission of India against the BJP leaders for violating the Model Code of Conduct.

However, after the massive win, Congress’s Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said that it was clear with whom Bajrang Bali stood in these elections. “Bajrang Bali’s ‘gada’ landed on the head of BJP’s corruption and the party was out,” Baghel said, adding that Karnataka was a personal defeat for Prime Minister Narendra Modi because he had put himself at the forefront of the party’s campaign.

Role of the Gandhis

As the Congress secured a huge win in Karnataka, the Gandhi family has been showered with credit for the landslide victory. There are reasons for it; the Gandhi family did their toil in the 2023 Karnataka assembly polls.

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, along with former Congress presidents Rahul and Sonia, held back-to-back rallies and roadshows in the state. She alone held 20-plus rallies and roadshows.

Former Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi addressed a rally in the Hubli district after a long gap of nearly four years. She hadn’t addressed any election rallies since the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

On the other hand, Rahul held 17-plus rallies and roadshows in the state. Rahul started his campaigning from Kolar district.

Views expressed are personal

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