NO POLITICAL PARTY likes a defeat in an election, especially if that also involves losing control of state power. To that extent, BJP has every reason to rue its conclusive defeat in the Assembly election in Karnataka. Congress, which also believes it should have formed a government after the Assembly election of 2018, has now got its sweet revenge. And unless the faction-fighting and bitterness over who should be chief minister simmers and finally boils over, Congress should have control over Karnataka until 2028—and regardless of whether BJP secures a majority of the state’s Lok Sabha seats in 2024.
To the political class, in Delhi or elsewhere, BJP’s defeat didn’t come as a surprise. Just as the re-election of Congress in Rajasthan in the Assembly election later this year will be a near-miracle, BJP’s ability to pull off a victory in Karnataka in the recent election was regarded as extremely difficult.
Yet, the fact that many exit polls and political pundits were talking of a close encounter or a fractured verdict is revealing. It suggests, first, that BJP doesn’t concede an election, regardless of whether it wins or loses. It fights till the very last day, if only to ensure that it will be in battle-readiness the next time. This is a commendable feature of the party and distinguishes it from Congress, which is all buoyant when the odds are in its favour but goes into a funk hole when the going isn’t all that good.
Second, BJP’s ability to create a buzz is quite unparalleled. In hindsight, the analysts are suggesting that the fantastic welfare handouts promised by Congress to the voters were responsible for the magnitude of its victory. This may have been the case, as was the significant erosion of the votes of the Janata Dal (Secular) and its accretion in Congress’ kitty. The point to note is that at least a week before polling day, the entire buzz was centred on the aggressive campaign for a double-engine government mounted by BJP, using the roadshows of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
It would be facile to say that these impressive rallies had no impact. For a start, they wowed the people and created an impression of a very close contest. However, more to the point, they made an impression on BJP supporters who were hitherto sceptical of the party’s chances in the election. If the BJP vote share was only marginally affected, the credit goes to the aggressive campaign the party mounted in the final days of the campaign. Without this hype, the BJP vote share would have plummeted. Consequently, the party now has a reasonably solid base from which to attract incremental votes in next year’s parliamentary election. Some exit polls suggest that the BJP surge in 2024 would indeed be substantial.
For BJP, there is a third point of significance. Each year, the party expends a significant amount of energy and resources building its electoral organisation on the ground. The significance of booth-level organisations for any party should never be underestimated. These localised clusters help maximise the turnout for the local candidate and cushion against adverse winds. However, this sangathan-oriented approach, borrowed heavily from the RSS’ ground-level shakhas, is also non-political in nature. Their utility in crafting a political strategy at the grassroots is limited. They work best—as in Gujarat and parts of Madhya Pradesh—where the natural party and the local common sense is moulded by Hindu nationalism.
However, the problem BJP faced in Karnataka was in instilling confidence in the quality of its governance at the state level. This was a problem the party faced in Tripura, too, and which was overcome through a different route. More to the point, the widespread allegations of corruption, the so called 40 per cent cut, eroded the faith of the party’s natural supporters. This essentially meant that the party in Karnataka was unable to extract the benefit of the pro-poor thrust of the Modi government at the Centre. Consequently, Congress was able to regain the social constituency it has lost elsewhere in the country.
For BJP, the outcome in Karnataka, read with the loss in Himachal Pradesh earlier this year, means that two state governments have slipped out of its hands. The bridgehead into southern India has been re-taken by the adversary. This is a political setback which should be dissected in the right quarters.