Prime Minister Narendra Modi has delivered a huge win for his party today, proving that his popularity remains undiminished in an election that was seen as a primer for the national election next year.
Karnataka has voted out the Congress government of Chief Minister Siddaramaiah; the party now runs just two states in the entire country; the BJP governs 21 of 29. The result is a colossal failure for Rahul Gandhi, who was promoted to Congress president a few months ago.
The BJP on Tuesday appeared set to dethrone the Congress in Karnataka as it inched closer to the majority mark of 113 in the 224-member state legislative assembly during the counting of votes.
The day began with the ruling Congress taking a comfortable lead over its rivals, but with subsequent rounds of vote count, the saffron party surged ahead. By mid-morning, BJP was leading in 112 seats while the Congress was up in 68. The third main player, JD(S), made steady gains and was ahead in 40 seats. Other parties and independent candidates rounded out the numbers with leads in two constituencies.
Since the 2014 general elections, Congress has been defeated by BJP in over a dozen states, drastically shrinking its political footprint. If the trends in Karnataka hold, the BJP would have secured an outright majority and dealt a crushing defeat to Congress in one of its last remaining bastions.
The Congress, which had been nurturing hopes for a second term in power despite a 30-year-long anti-incumbency streak in the southern state, performed poorly across all eight regions of the state.
Conversely, the BJP made inroads in Karnataka, dubbed as the party's 'gateway to the south', and improved its vote share and seat share since 2013. In the outgoing Assembly, the Congress had 122 seats, BJP and JD(S) 40 each, and smaller parties and independents 22 seats.
PM Modi's populist measures like waiving farmer loans resounded with the electorate as his party was leading in 83 rural constituencies. The saffron party also posted a strong showing in the coastal belt, central and Mumbai Karnataka.
The Deve Gowda-led JD(S) retained its hold over old Mysuru and was leading in 28 seats, while the Congress and BJP were ahead in 17 and 10 seats respectively.
Rahul Gandhi 's 'soft Hindutva' did not yield the desired dividends, as the Lingayats favoured the BJP and the Vokkaliga vote went to the JD(S). In an unexpected development, the BJP was leading in 16 Muslim-dominant constituencies, indicating that Congress may have lost out on the community's support.
First, the BJP’s triumph represents the continuation of a three-and-a-half-decade trend in Karnataka’s politics. Since 1983, the state has witnessed regular alternation in power. Irrespective of the government’s performance, Kannadigas seem unwilling to stick with any ruling dispensation for too long. No matter what, the incumbent Congress party’s desire to extend its reign by another five years was always going to be an uphill climb.
Second, the Karnataka result represents the latest chapter in the saffron takeover of India. With the southern state added to its formidable kitty, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) now controls the levers of political power in 21 of the country’s 29 states. Although the BJP recently lost its sole southern foothold in Andhra Pradesh with the Telugu Desam Party’s (TDP) recent exit from the NDA, it has now erected its own gateway to the South. From the urban sprawl of Bangalore to the mineral-rich hills of Ballari, the BJP now has a launch pad from which it will mount its southern strategy for the 2019 general elections. Leaving aside the country’s eastern seaboard -- that lengthy stretch of territory from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu, which the BJP has struggled to penetrate at the state-level -- the colouring of India’s political map is rapidly appearing as a single hue.
Third, yesterday’s victory confirms the obvious: if state assembly elections are any guide, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be gaining rather than losing political capital as the clock winds down on his first term in office. Opinion surveys reaffirm the notion that Modi remains the most popular politician in India by some distance. At a time when the economy is facing potential headwinds, rural distress is on the rise, and the investment cycle remains moribund, Modi’s popularity remains the BJP’s saving grace. Today, Modi is punching above the weight of his party.
For the Congress, the disappointing result strikes three devastating blows. The first blow is symbolic. Karnataka was a state in which the Congress finally boasted a chief minister in Siddaramaiah who both had popularity and a stature independent of the Gandhi family. Unlike several recent elections in which the Congress organisation merely melted away (take the northeastern states of Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Tripura, for example), the party left no stone unturned in its fight to retain power in Karnataka but still could not prevail.
According to an Indian Express tally, in the final leg of the campaign, Congress president Rahul Gandhi addressed 18 rallies in the state across 16 constituencies (a hair shy of Modi’s 20 rallies in 19 constituencies). Whereas the Congress scion has often hesitated to expose himself on the campaign battlefield for fear of being tarred by an embarrassing defeat, in Karnataka he was all in. This was also an election in which Sonia Gandhi ended a two-year absence on the hustings and the usually taciturn Manmohan Singh turned in some of his sharpest barbs. None of these assets were able to stymie the BJP onslaught.
The second blow is substantive. With a loss in Karnataka, Congress clings to power in just three states: Mizoram, Punjab, and Puducherry. Karnataka was the last major state in both demographic and economic terms, the Congress could lay claim to; the former’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is two-and-a-half times that of Punjab. To paraphrase prime minister Modi, the Congress has been reduced to a “PPP” party -- Punjab, Puducherry, and parivaar (family).
The final blow is material. The Congress, quite simply, is hurting for money and Karnataka is a cash cow it could not afford to lose. Big business has steadily migrated away from the Congress -- a combined result of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’s tarnished second-term legacy, the party’s left-wing economic rhetoric, its dwindling hold on state capitals, and the outright fear of crossing the Modi-Shah duo.
The BJP maintains a sizeable fundraising advantage over its competitors, a gap that is likely to grow. Karnataka, in that sense, was a lifeline for the Congress, home to India’s IT industry, the megalopolis of Bengaluru, and considerable natural resource rents. The party’s loss leaves many Congress insiders asking how its finances will be bailed out before 2019.
With Karnataka in the rearview mirror and the four-year anniversary of the Modi government around the corner, next year’s general election campaign will soon begin in earnest. Notwithstanding the Karnataka verdict, the 2019 race is not a foregone conclusion with three major Hindi belt states going to the polls at the end of the calendar year -- all states in which the BJP will be playing defence rather than offence. For now, however, Karnataka has given the BJP much cause for celebration and the Congress yet another reason for consternation.
Furthermore, Siddaramaiah, who faced heat from the BJP for contesting from two seats, lost to GT Deve Gowda of the JD(S) in Chamundeshwari by a margin of 17,000 votes. He was leading by a slender margin of around 200 votes in Badami.
A BJP-led government in Karnataka would prove a major boost for PM Modi ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, silencing critics who said his popularity had faded over the rocky implementation of the Goods and Services Tax and the sudden ban on high-value notes in 2016. Here are the latest developments:
- Mr Rahul Gandhi, 47, led the Congress bid for re-election in Karnataka, a state which has not provided successive terms to any government in nearly 30 years. Apart from his rallies, Mr Gandhi visited a series of temples in Karnataka along with large maths or seminaries. He was accused by critics of parading "soft Hindutva" as a more palatable version of Hindu primacy.
- Mr Gandhi in turn accused the PM of dispensing low blows unbecoming of his office in the way that Mr Modi invoked Sonia Gandhi's Italian origin in a series of speeches. In one, Mr Modi said Mr Gandhi, not known for his oratorial skills, was welcome to try Italian if he were more comfortable in it.
- The decisive BJP victory is a strong rejoinder to a retinue of opinion and exit polls which forecast a fractured result. It also serves as antidote to those who surmised that Mr Gandhi, often derided as a political hobbyist rather than careerist, has finally hit his stride as a leader.
- That theory first gained currency in December when the Congress succeeded in giving the BJP a considerable scare in the election for the PM's home state of Gujarat. The BJP's thin victory there was seen as the result of a more mature approach by Mr Gandhi in handling state-level leaders. Supporters and analysts said his speeches have been improving, that he seems more confident in recent months in being able to attack Mr Modi over issues like the scarcity of jobs for young people and farmer distress.
- After Gujarat, the BJP lost crucial by-elections in Rajathan and Madhya Pradesh. None, however, was a bigger humiliation than its defeat in Gorakhpur, the homestead of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The Congress, however, played no role in the BJP's being turfed out there. It was the alliance between regional biggies Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati that defeated the BJP. Both leaders have said they will continue their alliance for the general election.
- Mr Gandhi, in an atypical move for the Congress, allowed plenty of autonomy to Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah in deciding the campaign and candidates for the southern state. Mr Siddaramaiah made a concerted effort to break the BJP hold over the Lingayats, a powerful and prosperous community, by recommending that they be recognised as a minority religion, which they have demanded for years. The BJP accused him of divisive politics; the Lingayats have stuck by the party, shows today's result.
- Mr Siddaramaiah was noted for a coalition acronym-ed as "AHINDA", which wove together minorities including Muslims, backward castes and Dalits. However, Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC/STs), who decide as many as 62 of 224 seats, have broken with the Congress. That is being attributed heavily to the role of B Sriramulu, the BJP's candidate for Deputy Chief Minister, who is a tribal leader. The Congress has also been dinged by Mayawati, a Dalit icon, who allied in Karnataka with Deve Gowda's party, the regional Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S).
- The Congress blew its chances by not allying with the JD(S), said another major opposition leader, Mamata Banerjee today, underscoring the need for anti-BJP parties to unitedly combat Prime Minister Modi. A partnership for the Congress and JD(S) would have required mutual forgiveness - Mr Siddaramaiah left the JD(S) over a decade ago to join the Congress. The dust from the break-up has still not settled.
- Prime Minister Modi campaigned exhaustively in Karnataka in the last leg of the election. At the time, the state was seen as evenly divided between his party and the Congress. He swung it for the BJP, acknowledged many analysts today. "Karnataka shows that in 2019, it will be Modi vs nobody," said BJP leader Sheshadri Chari referring to the PM's huge stock of public goodwill.
- Experts and politicians said that the Congress defeat was also underpinned by rural distress in Karnataka which has surged over the last few years amid a severe drought; a centuries-old dispute with neighbouring Tamil Nadu was decided only in February by the Supreme Court. Southern Karnataka, where farmers rely on the Cauvery's water, has severely cut back on its support for the Congress.