In an astonishing show of strength, Congress walloped the BJP in the Karnataka elections. How did this happen? What does this mean for the two parties in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections.
First, the numbers
The big picture: The BJP emerged as the single largest party in 2018—with 104 seats—just nine short of simple majority. In 2023, the party’s total plummeted to an abysmal 66. OTOH, the Congress jumped from 78 to 135.
Point to note: BJP’s vote share remained exactly the same: 36%—and yet it lost over 40% of its seats. The reason: its votes came from larger but fewer victories heavily concentrated in some regions—Old Mysore, coastal Karnataka and Bangalore. And it lost seats even in those strongholds. Congress’ share rose from 38% to 43%. The biggest loser: JD(S) whose seat total fell from 37 to 19—and vote share from 18% to 13%.
What this means: Barring any self-inflicted debacle—a la the Shiv Sena split—the Congress will rule the roost in Karnataka. There is no viable ‘plan B’ for the BJP—despite its leaders making ominous noises. The gap between its 66-seat total and the majority mark of 113 is far too vast to be bridged by peeling away MLAs from Congress or JD(S). Also crushed: any hope JD(S) had of playing kingmaker—and enjoying the benefits of coalition karma.
The main takeaway: This is one of Congress’ biggest wins in Karnataka—second only to Veerendra Patil’s 178-seat victory in 1989. It is also the first time in ten years that the state election has not delivered a hung verdict. That said, BJP’S vote share (36%) remains intact—which means it will remain a key player in the state—win or lose.
On the lighter side: Election coverage is always wacky—but hit a new high/low on India Today. Rajdeep Sardesai demonstrated his (dreadful) ‘Rocky-bhai’ walk in a veshti—with the KGF soundtrack blaring the background. See it to believe it:
Speaking of dancing, older clips of ex-Congress CM Siddaramaiah went viral soon after the results were announced. Maybe Rajdeep needs to get his dancing lessons from him—as opposed to Yash. Siddu is awesome! Below is the mash-up (the original is here):
Also see: Rahul Gandhi jumped on the opportunity to roll out his fave metaphor about mohabbat ki dukan:
Ok, so why did Congress win?
The party got its biggest assist from the BJP—which totally flubbed its electoral strategy. Congress also seems to have learned to create its own winning playbook—at least at the state level.
Local leaders matter: For all the fuss about Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, the primary battle was fought by Siddaramaiah and state party chief DK Shivakumar—who put their ambitions aside to mobilise their constituencies. Shivakumar delivered the decisive Vokkaliga vote—while Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA alliance of the Dalit, Tribal and Muslims swept the polls.
The Gandhis were careful to campaign with great vigour—without dominating the political debate. As The Hindu notes, the state leaders helped Congress craft an authentic message—rather than offering knee-jerk Delhi-led responses to the BJP:
Between D. K. Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah, the Congress pushed back against two allegations that the BJP usually raises - that it is hostile to the Hindu faith, and its Anglicised liberalism does not accommodate backward castes while it “appeased” the Muslims. Mr. Shivakumar is a religious Hindu who does not mince words when it comes to speaking up for Muslims; Mr. Siddaramaiah is a champion of caste justice. Added to this combination was the relentless campaigning by party president Mallikarjun Kharge, who is a Dalit from the State.
A pro-poor Congress: The state party showed great message discipline—hammering away at BJP corruption while promising very specific subsidies to the poor. In many ways, the party returned to its populist roots with its five electoral promises:
The party’s poll ‘guarantees’ include providing 200 units of free power to all households (Gruha Jyoti), Rs 2,000 monthly assistance to the woman head of every family (Gruha Lakshmi), 10 kg of rice free to every member of a BPL household (Anna Bhagya), Rs 3,000 every month for graduate youth and Rs 1,500 for diploma holders (both in the age group of 18-25) for two years (YuvaNidhi), and free travel for women in public transport buses.
The result was plain to see. Congress won in a whopping 92 of the 143 seats in rural and semi-rural areas—62 more than the BJP.
Point to note: Opinion polls had already indicated a great class divide among voters—with the poor decisively on the side of Congress:
Among agriculture labour and daily wage earners, the Congress gets 50% votes to BJP’s 29%. But if you look at businessmen and professionals, BJP leads with 43% votes over Congress’ 30%. For the salaried workers, each higher slab of salary is associated with lower votes for Congress.
Three: The Congress finally stopped waffling and stood up to the Hindutva right. Its manifesto proposed a ban on the Bajrang Dal. It became the key talking point for the BJP in the final days of the election—with the PM urging crowds to shout ‘Bajrang Bali’ and read the Hanuman Chalisa. But it had little effect—other than to consolidate the Muslim vote behind Congress—at the expense of JD(S):
The Muslim vote mattered in around 65 of the 224 constituencies in the state, and an analysis of the election data showed that the Congress party was able to win almost half of the 65 assembly seats where Muslims matter. Of the 15 Muslim candidates fielded by the Congress, nine won, while none of the 22 fielded by the JDS were successful.
The Muslim vote also proved critical in helping Congress gain seats in key regions such as Old Mysore and Bombay Karnataka. Post-poll survey data shows that the party saw a significant 10% rise in Muslim votes.
Point to note: Congress will try to replicate this formula in the upcoming state elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Telangana. But in two of those states—Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—Congress is the incumbent party. Slamming the BJP won’t be quite so easy
But why did the BJP lose this badly?
The party simply didn’t do its job. The government led by Basavaraj Bommai had the unfortunate reputation of being both incompetent and corrupt. And the BJP’s two magic bullets—Hindutva and Modi—failed to fire.
PayCM sarkara: The level of corruption in the Bommai government tried the patience of even the most cynical Indian voter. It also added insult to injury at a time when inflation is spiralling—and jobs are hard to find. The Congress pounded the BJP on this single issue—putting up ‘Pay CM’ posters featuring a QR code and photograph Bommai. Survey upon survey indicated that the Bommai government was extremely unpopular.
The BJP then turned to its tried and tested formula to compensate for this fatal flaw: Modi-led double engine sarkar and Hindutva. Neither worked in Karnataka.
Quote to note: Not helping matters was a seeming contempt for the poor:
A day ahead of the results, [BJP’s chief strategist] Santhosh dismissed a survey that predicted Congress’s emphatic win, and tweeted, “One of the pollsters who has given least numbers for @BJP4Karnataka in exit polls has 53% samples from voters below Rs 10K income. In that group if demography is taken into account you can guess the reason for least numbers.”
Double-engine Modi sarkar: The BJP has developed a high command culture—where the Modi-Shah duo call all the shots. For example, in Karnataka, no one—not even the powerful BS Yediyurappa—was allowed to pick their cabinet ministers. The strategy of fronting weak CMs has worked in the North and the West because of Modi’s powerful appeal. Voters truly believe that a vote for the CM is a vote for the PM—who will take care of them.
But the Kannadigas didn’t buy that line. Modi held over 20 rallies and roadshows across the state after elections were declared. The BJP only won in six of these locations—including Bangalore:
“Even in surveys among people who had gathered at Mr. Modi’s rallies, a significant chunk of people were not openly saying they would vote BJP. Mr. Modi not speaking local issues, not projecting a local leader ensured he did not cut ice,” a senior government functionary said.
Modi’s messaging also appeared to be tone deaf. In the last days of the campaign, he lashed out at the Congress’ ‘shahi parivar—claiming that all the fuss about the “sovereignty” of Kannadiga identity was actually a plot to get Karnataka to secede from the union. All that Delhi-speak about the ‘tukde tukde’ gang was ignored by voters.
The Hindutva flop: State BJP leaders have never been enthusiastic about anti-Muslim campaigns—because it doesn’t get them a lot of votes. In the lead up to the election, Yediyurappa himself said that Hindus and Muslims should live “like brothers and sisters”—and that controversies around hijab and love jihad were “unnecessary.” Even Bommai had no record of Hindutva leanings until he was given the CM gaddi—and micro-managed from Delhi.
For all the talk about Karnataka being the BJP’s Hindutva lab in the South, the communal card has limited electoral value in the state. More importantly, any attempt to impose a homogenous version of Hindu nationalism provokes a backlash against “outsiders.” As Asim Ali explains:
The national leadership of the BJP… has been planning for a while to move the state party beyond its core Lingayat moorings and integrate subaltern sections through hard Hindutva. A major limitation of this strategy was that the RSS’ grassroots influence hardly extended beyond coastal Karnataka.. Given this context, it is hard to believe the BJP’s strategy mostly consisted of saturating the airwaves with communal issues such as halal, hijab, and azaan… and hoping for a near-spontaneously forged Hindu coalition. As it happened, the only significant impact of the BJP’s hard Hindutva campaign, waged over two years, remained confined to the 20-odd seats of Karnataka.
On an amusing note: Some folks had fun blaming BJP’s woes on Gautam Gambhir—who picked a fight with the Royal Challengers Bangalore team during a match with the Lucknow SuperGiants. All of which produced this meme:) (context explained here):
So what does this say about the national elections?
Not very much. Of course, this is a great morale boost for Congress—which will be treated with new-found respect by its fellow opposition parties. And it may help quell the discontent and constant infighting in its ranks. More importantly, Congress may have stumbled upon a decent counter-narrative to BJP’s mythmaking—by returning to a strong pro-poor, pro-minority message.
As Asim Ali notes, the BJP’s hold over the Dalit voter—and the claim it can recruit them to the Hindutva cause—is vastly exaggerated. The reason: Their support is often strategic and weak—“as they can often be characterised as the last-to-join and first-to-leave voters of the larger Hindu coalition.”
But, but, but: In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP scored a landslide victory—wiping out Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan—barely six months after the party won assembly elections in those very states. Also good to remember: The BJP enjoys a mammoth majority even though it has only 28 out of 140 Lok Sabha seats from the South. So the Karnataka tea leaves are best read with great caution.
The bottomline: Within hours of victory, the Congress party president Mallikarjun Kharge loudly celebrated a BJP-mukt Dakshin Bharat. But Kharge now has the unenviable task of picking the next Chief Minister—without tearing the party apart—which may prove to be far more difficult. As we all know, Congress is the master of self-goals.
There’s a lot of analysis of the election out there—unfortunately, some of the best are behind a paywall. Examples: Varghese K George in The Hindu and Amrith Lal in Indian Express. But Shoaib Daniyal’s take on BJP’s failure in Scroll is free to read. Sankarshan Thakur in The Telegraph strikes a cautionary note for predictions about the Lok Sabha elections. Worth a watch: historian Ram Guha’s interview with Karan Thapar. Frontline spotlights a little-known regional polling company that got the election results exactly right. In terms of numbers, The Hindu looked at the impact of Modi’s rallies—while Indian Express explains how vote shares turned into seat totals.