The date for the Karnataka election has been announced: May 10. It is the only southern state ruled by the BJP. It is a must-win for both the saffron party and its rival Congress in the lead up to the Big Fight—i.e the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. So where are we, where are we headed—and how did we get here?
Researched by: Rachel John
The 2018 elections: First a win, then a coup
The BJP misses out: People often forget that the BJP did not actually win the last election—which delivered a divided verdict. It emerged as the largest single party—scoring 104 seats—but fell short of a simple majority (113 seats).
Congress + JD(S) ki jodi: The Congress was next in line with 78 seats—and it jumped into bed with JD(S) which had 37. JD(S) played kingmaker and was rewarded with the CM gaddi—while Congress settled for the Deputy CM post. But the marriage was rocky from the very start. It probably didn’t help that Congress chief Siddaramaiah was originally a JD(S) stalwart.
During their 14 months in power, the coalition allies fought over everything from cabinet portfolios to seat sharing in the Lok Sabha elections. They couldn’t even agree on a shared agenda:
It was more of a struggle for survival than governance…There was always a disagreement, and not having a CMP (Common Minimum Programme) was a mistake. It was a coalition just to keep the BJP away from power and that intent did not favour them at all.
The final nail: in the coffin of this disastrous union proved to be the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The two parties each won a single paltry seat—while the BJP swept 25 of the 28 parliamentary seats.
The coup: As is usual in Indian politics, the netas abandoned ship for the winning side. Between July 1 and 6, 10 Congress and 3 JD(S) MLAs resigned—and included some of the biggest names. The Congress spokesperson angrily declared: “The new word for ‘aaya ram, gaya ram’ is MODI — Mischievously Orchestrated Defections in India.” There were dramatic scenes involving a private jet flight to Mumbai—where 11 rebel MLAs were holed up in a hotel.
Congress’ saddest moment: One of its biggest leaders DK Shivakumar stood outside the hotel for hours in the rain—waiting for the MLAs to speak to him. He was finally detained by the Mumbai police.
The fallout: The coalition lost the confidence motion on July 23. Former BJP CM BS Yeddyurappa—the mastermind of Operation Lotus—took back his gaddi.
The BJP: Five years later…
Karnataka is once again poised to go to the polls on May 10—when its 224 assembly seats are up for grabs. So where is the ruling BJP now?
A shaky BJP: The saffron party has been steadily making gains in the state for decades. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, its vote share jumped to 51.72%—up from 36.22% in the 2018 state elections—all thanks to the Modi wave. But in Karnataka, a Lok Sabha win doesn’t necessarily offer an advantage in an assembly election. And its stint in power has given the saffron party good reasons to worry.
The Yeddy factor: BS Yeddyurappa has long been a thorn in the side of the party leadership in Delhi. He has never been a ‘good soldier’—reluctant to toe the party line on Hindutva—and more interested in protecting his influence than that of the BJP. But Yeddy’s hold over the powerful Lingayat constituency is also the only reason that the BJP has made inroads in Karnataka. Delhi finally managed to boot him out in July 2021—replacing him with current CM Basavaraj Bommai.
But he remains the wild card—and a greatly desirable one at that. In Karnataka, Modi alone cannot guarantee a win. The Lingayats can determine the outcome of about 90 to 100 seats and they won’t take kindly to the party sidelining their tallest leader. So the Modi-Shah combine is once again besties with Yeddy—as you can see in this photo taken on the PM’s last visit to the state:
Data point to note: Karnataka politics is dominated by the rivalry between two dominant communities—Lingayats and Vokkaligas. The Lingayats only account for 14-16% of the population—and the Vokkaliga numbers are even smaller: 10-11%. Yet, MLAs belonging to these two castes won roughly half the seats in the 2018 assembly election. BJP has successfully wooed the Lingayats, but Vokkaligas have traditionally voted for either Congress or JD(S)
The ‘40% government’: The BJP’s biggest achilles heel is CM Bommai—who is known for both doing very little—and ‘eating’ far too much. The Congress ran a successful campaign—dubbing him ‘the PayCM’. It’s no secret that government contracts are sold for a price in India, but the ruling BJP has apparently been egregiously greedy—demanding a 40% commission. It’s so bad that even state contractors are openly complaining about graft:
Contractors are the geese that lay golden eggs. It is a symbiotic relationship, but for the first time in the country, contractors have come out against a government because they are fed up. Can you imagine the level of graft being demanded in such a scenario? The BJP is killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
The do-nothing government: Indian voters can often forgive blatant corruption—if it is accompanied by efficient and effective governance. But Bommai has little to show after nearly two years in office:
For the average voter in Karnataka, it will be hard to recall any impactful schemes initiated by Bommai whose significant amount of time in office was spent in containing growing anger among prominent caste groups, controlling infighting within the party, dodging blame in the face of crumbling infrastructure, besides struggling to manage voter expectations.
The Hindutva card: Bommai has, however, been far more willing to stir the Hindutva pot—which makes him more attractive to Delhi. His government has pushed through hijab bans, attacks on Christian minorities and churches and passed the controversial anti-conversion bill:
He has created a situation which keeps the state and its population on the edge by criminalising everyday activities of minorities. His only goal is to please the extreme Right-wing and retain his position.
It is unclear as to whether it will afford any advantage come election time. But experts say polarisation is “a tried and tested strategy of the BJP to distract the people’s attention from issues of corruption and misgovernance.”
Point to note: Bommai recently ended the 4% quota for Muslims under the Other Backward Caste category—and redistributed them to the Lingayats and the Vokkaligas. Although Muslims account for 13% of the population, the BJP has not picked a single Muslim candidate.
A comeback for Congress?
The party desperately needs a win in Karnataka to stay relevant as an opposition party—or it may find itself entirely sidelined in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. And it has been working fairly steadily toward its goal—announcing several programs carefully targeted at the state’s two most powerful communities: Lingayats and Vokkaligas. FYI: Karnataka is also the home state of Congress party chief Mallikarjun Kharge
Signs of spring: Defections are the best indicator of the political hawa in a state. And Congress, for once, has been the beneficiary of disloyalty—attracting a number of BJP and JD(S) MLAs.
The big worry: is once again a bitter internal war between two powerful leaders—which has been the bane of Congress’ political fortunes in other states. This time the fight is between Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar. One appeals to backward community voters—while the latter is a big pull for the powerful Vokkaliga and Lingayat constituencies. While the two made peace when Rahul Gandhi brought his Bharat Jodo Yatra to the state, things may soon get nasty—when candidates have to be picked for various seats—including the CM gaddi.
As for the JD(S): The party is weaker today than in 2018—but internal rifts within Congress and anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP offer an opportunity to rebuild its power. Also: the party still retains a powerful hold over the all-important Vokkaligas:
The family has managed to keep the party afloat and continues to stay relevant in state politics. The Vokkaliga community, especially in rural areas, has remained loyal to Gowda and is not swayed by the hindutva ideology as they are followers of Kuvempu’s idea of ‘Vishwamanava’ (global citizen).
What remains to be seen: Whether Muslims—who have traditionally voted for JD(S)—switch to Congress.
The bottomline: Get ready for a heated and nasty battle—and if the BJP loses—a long summer of horse-trading afterwards.
Frontline has the best analysis of the failures of the Bommai government. The Hindu outlines the key election issues and why a victory is important for Congress. The Print has more on the BJP’s Bommai gamble. We looked at how the BJP is using Tipu Sultan to woo the Vokkaligas in this Big Story. Mint has more on the PayCM campaign. The Week looks at the opportunity for JD(S).