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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 20, May 13, 2023

Congress Party’s Comprehensive Victory in 2023 Karnataka Assemly Polls | P.S. Jayaramu

Saturday 13 May 2023, by P S Jayaramu


by P.S. Jayaramu *

May 16, 2023

The results of the Karnataka Assembly elections, which were keenly watched both within the state and at the national level (including the NRIs) point to a comprehensive victory by the Congress Party, a humiliating defeat for the BJP, and a near extinction of the Janata Dal ( Secular). The results merit analysis.

Let me first take up the case of the Congress Party. For the discernible observers, it is clear that the Party leadership at the state level viewed the election as an opportunity to stage a comeback. The KPCC President D. K. Shiva Kumar embarked on the enrollment of new members as well as enthusing the rank and file of the party. The focus was equally on stitching together a social coalition consisting of the SC, STs, OBCs, and minorities while taking care to strengthen the lingayat support too. In fact, this time round the Party consciously decided to give more tickets to the lingayat candidates than in 2018, while ensuring the support of the vokkaliga community as part of the dominant communities’ caste balancing. The evidence of it is seen in the victory of 34 of the 42 lingayats who have won this time round.

For the Congress Party’s AICC President, Mallikarjun Kharge, who has been a veteran in state politics before moving over to the centre, delivering Party’s victory was an important assignment. And he has done it handsomely.

The Party strategies from the very beginning to make local issues and the failures of the Bommai Government the central plank of its campaign. The former chief minister persistently raised the issues of inflation, price rise, unemployment, corruption, and the way in which they have affected the lives of the poor and the middle class. He struck a chord with the electorate in all the regions of the state, as as mass leader. The Party understood the sufferings of the poor and middle-class families, the unemployed youth, and women and to mitigate their sufferings came up with its five guarantees, like paying ₹2000 a month, ₹3000 to the unemployed youth for two years, ₹ 10 pkg of rice and 200 units of free power to the BPL families, etc. The guarantees in a way guaranteed the victory of the Party!

Additionally, the Party made it a point to strongly oppose the communal polarisation of the BJP and its Hindutva project/ agenda. The Party exposed the myth of the so-called benefits conferred by the double-engine sarkar. While Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra galvanised the public and the party workers, a strong people-centric campaign helped Congress to register a comprehensive victory bagging 135 seats with a vote share of nearly 43 percent. The Party registered spectacular victories in the Kittur Karnataka region bagging 33 of the 50 seats. It claimed 26 of the 41 seats in Kalyan Karnataka, 19 each in Central Karnataka and old-Mysore regions. Its tally in the coastal region doubled from 3 to 6, while it remained the same at 12 in Bengaluru urban. The Party’s efforts at stitching a social coalition of SC, STs, OBC, and minorities ( read as Muslims) paid handsome dividends, with 70 percent of the Muslim voting for it. Consequently, the Party has got 11 Muslim MLAs elected to the Assembly. According to the data released by the CSDS- Lokniti, post-poll survey, while the OBCs voted 34 percent and 37 percent respectively to the Congress and the BJP, the Kurubas gave 56 percent of their votes to the Congress. The Dalit vote to the Congress stood at 63 percent while 23 percent went to the BJP. Additionally, 45 percent of the Adivasi votes were bagged by the Congress.

The reasons for BJP’S dismal performance, which won only 66 seats compared to its 2018 tally of 104 are multifarious. Important among them lay in the central leadership’s decision to deny tickets to many senior members and give tickets to 72 new faces, of whom only 12 of them won the election. BJP’S narrative consisted of propaganda about the so-called benefits of the double engine ‘sarkar‘ which did not effectively reach the people. While it sidelined senior state leaders, including former chief minister B. S. Yediyurappa, architect of the Party’s first victory in the south, though technically keeping him as a member of the Party’s Parliamentary Board and its unabashed pursuit of communal polarisation, bringing in Ram and Hanuman/Bajrangi as a reaction to Congress Party’s announcement about banning Bajrangdal if it came to power in later stages of the campaign, failing to make any distinction between Bajrangdal and worship of Hanuman, all of which made no impact on the secular voters of Karnataka. Last but not least, its misplaced emphasis on Modi-Shah to win the election has been exposed. Ultimately, barring the coastal and Bengaluru urban regions, the Party fared badly in the Kalyan-Karnataka, Kittur-Karnataka, central, and old-Mysuru regions. The Party also lost a good chunk of the support of the ST, SC (in that order), and some sections of the OBC votes.

The loss of power by the Bommai government can also be attributed to its poor governance record, which is evident from the fact that 14 ministers lost the election. The 40 percent commission ‘Sarkar’ image must have stayed very much in the minds of the voters when they went to cast their ballot. The colossal defeat of the Party is interpreted by many observers as more the defeat of Modi-Shah than the Bommai government. Be that as it may, the BJP high command needs to frankly introspect on the issues and factors that led to its defeat, pinning down the responsibility on those who contributed to it, including the high RSS functionaries and their purported role in ticket distribution.

As regards the JDS, results have shown that the Party will face an existential crisis in the days to come. Its tally has come down from 37 to 19, with the vote share plummeting to13.39 percent from the earlier 17 percent. Barring Hassana and parts of Mysuru district, its performance in the other parts of the old-Mysuru region, its stronghold, was abysmally low. The Muslims voters too shifted support to the Congress Party. The dynastic orientation of the Party is also Its strong limitation. Though Kumaraswamy has said that the Party would bounce back, Karnataka’s electoral politics shows clear symptoms of becoming bipolar in the future.

The major takeaways from the 2023 assembly election results are :

1. Karnataka is no Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh to carry out the kind of ‘electoral engineering’, which Modi-Shah seem to be obsessed with. In any case, it had a strong negative effect on the state. The national leadership of the Party cannot take the Karnataka electorate for granted.

2. The voters have demonstrated yet again that they judge local elections from the perspective of local issues and vote accordingly, while they vote differently in national elections.

3. The emphatic victory of the Congress shows that the Party has succeeded in winning back the trust of the SC, STs, OBCs, and minorities. 4 The election results provide the much-needed oxygen/morale booster to the Congress Party for a leadership role in the efforts of the Opposition groups to forge a united front to take on the BJP, which is not invincible, in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. In the meantime, will the Karnataka victory act as a catalyst to win assembly elections in Telangana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh later during the year remains to be seen.

* (Author: P S Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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