The Congress party’s overwhelming victory in the Karnataka Assembly elections has put paid for now to the grumbling that followed its earlier resounding defeats in three State Assembly elections in the Northeast, in Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland. Those setbacks had again got the doomsayers prophesying the fading away of the party. It is not only clear that such obituaries were woefully premature, but that there is no obvious challenger to the Congress as the principal Opposition party in the country, and the only one with a national footprint to rival the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The campaigns, the results
The results of the Assembly elections in Karnataka were even better than most supporters of the Congress had dared hope — 135 seats and over 42% of the vote share is the party’s best-ever victory this century, in a State which had twice returned BJP governments in the last decade. The Congress’s strong campaign on the ground focused on local issues, of governance, development and social justice, including the demands of the lower castes for a fair share of the pie. The “five guarantees” issued by the party were specific, targeted and practical and focused on real answers to public discontent with unemployment, inflation and unemployment. It was easy to point to the contrast between the “40% commission government” of the BJP, versus the “100% commitment” that the Congress offered. The party also benefited from the popularity of its State leadership, especially (but not only) that of the former (and now reappointed) Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and his new Deputy, State Congress chief D.K. Shivakumar. The party’s national leadership, especially party President Mallikarjun Kharge and the Gandhi siblings, played a constructive and hugely effective role, supportive of State leaders rather than being dominant. On the whole, most political observers agree that Congress ticked all the right boxes.
On the other hand, the BJP did not. The BJP’s stint in power in Karnataka had been lacklustre and marked by both corruption and non-performance, which fuelled a growing desire for change among voters. The BJP government had been criticised for its handling of several issues, including the economy, education, and health care. It had no real answers to the evident anti-incumbency sentiment that was widespread throughout the State. Its now-customary politics of centralisation failed; the BJP’s Delhi-based top-down campaign, directed in the names of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, both of whom dominated the party’s outreach, had no answers to the Congress’s strong local leadership on the ground in Karnataka, which prevailed over the outsiders and their “national” themes. The BJP, as usual, touted the benefits of a “double-engine sarkara”, with the same party in power in Delhi and Bengaluru. The public, having seen the misfiring of the two engines, preferred to trust the Congress alternative.
There was clearly also, mercifully, a failure of the politics of polarisation. The halal, hijab, “love jihad” and “land jihad” Hindutva messaging, seeking to promote a divide in the State between Hindus and Muslims, did not work against the promise of effective performance and local issues directly affecting the interests of the ordinary voter. The risible attempts to demonise Tipu Sultan, and to invent two Vokkaliga assassins who were supposed to have killed him (without a shred of historical evidence to support such a ridiculous assertion), showed a party stuck in the past, when the voters were concerned about the present.
Worse, the BJP has thrived in northern India by railing against the injustices and humiliations of history, which shows little awareness of the very different history of the South. Aspirational voters need leaders who promise them a better future rather than obsessing about taking revenge on the past.
The polls ahead
Much has been made by some commentators of the fact that the BJP’s vote share did not in fact drop below the 36% it had claimed last time. The implication is that the Congress’s gains came largely at the expense of the Janata Dal (Secular), which with 19 seats has been reduced to irrelevance after having twice enjoyed the Chief Ministership because of its role as the “swing” party that could push one of the national parties into power. It would be unwise for the BJP to take refuge in such calculations. Mathematics cannot explain the overwhelming repudiation of the BJP government; nor does it compensate for the evident lack of chemistry between the BJP’s anointed local leadership and the electorate.
This has sobering implications for the BJP in the five State elections that remain this year, and even more so in the general election scheduled for 2024. The Indian voter is tired of rhetoric and weary of the media saturation of the BJP’s messaging. She wants tangible benefits in her daily life; not unaffordable cooking gas cylinders, prices beyond her reach at the local market and unemployed sons hanging about the home. It was no accident that women voters overwhelmingly preferred the Congress to the BJP in Karnataka, by a 11% difference. After 10 years of Moditva, will they not hanker after change again in Delhi, as they did in Karnataka?
In Karnataka, the BJP’s electoral formula looked tired. The party’s tried and tested appeals in the last decade have combined Hindutva messaging, the language of communal polarisation, and cynical social engineering, with an emphasis on welfare schemes for which the voters are supposed to be grateful. But Indian politics is like a bank which only runs current accounts; the earlier achievements disappear into fixed deposits that are taken for granted and no longer figure in the calculations of voters, who are principally concerned about their present conditions and immediate prospects. In these circumstances, the BJP needs something new to offer. In 2019 it had Pulwama and Balakot. What does it have in store for 2024?
The other paradox is the reverse of the cliché “nothing succeeds like success”. The BJP was too successful in 2019 for its own good. It had results in several States that it cannot possibly hope to replicate in 2024 — it won every seat in Gujarat, Haryana and Rajasthan; it won all but one seat in Bihar, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh; it recorded best-ever performances in Bengal and Maharashtra. The political scenario in each of these States suggests that the BJP will, at best, drop to between 220 and 250 seats in the Lok Sabha unless it is able to make inroads in areas where it did less well in 2019. But there are not too many possibilities for upward growth in the areas where it is already strong.
A word of advice
The Karnataka results oblige the BJP to ask itself a searching question: what does it hope to offer India’s voters next time around? Doubling down on Hindutva offers limited rewards since it has probably touched the ceiling of the votes it can win through polarisation. Surely, the best chance for Mr. Modi lies in a return to the 2014 formula of development and economic growth, bolstered by advances in the technological “India stack” that have been winning global admiration. When a Pakistani video-blogger gushes about Indian chaiwallahs with PayTM QR codes on their carts, or bankers rave about the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) as a payment system that is superior to the internationally-dominant SWIFT, the BJP can point to achievements that have nothing to do with the toxin of communalism it has injected into the veins of our society. That is a more credible message to seek re-election on than history or hatred. But it may be too much to hope for.
Shashi Tharoor is a third-term Member of Parliament (Congress) for Thiruvananthapuram in the Lok Sabha, a former United Nations Under Secretary-General and former Minister of State. He is the award-winning author of 24 books