The Karnataka elections have turned out to be much more multilayered than what even the best media narratives from the state could indicate. The battle has been truly triangular in many seats resulting in a tantalizingly hung Assembly that no exit poll could predict. While the BJP fell considerably short of the majority mark, non-BJP parties have teamed up to form a post-poll coalition with a comfortable majority. If constitutional procedures and conventions are followed, the BJP’s dream of regaining Karnataka ahead of the 2019 elections will stand belied. Regardless of the shape of things to emerge in Karnataka over the next few days, the Karnataka elections have proved to be not only a decisive launching pad for the battle for the next Lok Sabha but also a very useful course module for the same.
Some facts and figures are worth recollecting before we try to understand the message from Karnataka. There is little point in comparing the present elections to the 2013 elections when the BJP was a divided house. In 2013 BS Yeddyuruppa had formed his own party (KJP) following his indictment in corruption and removal from chief ministership and his party had secured a vote share of nearly 10 per cent and a seat tally of six. Another BJP leader B Sriramulu had also contested as a different party (BSRCP) and walked away with 2.7% vote and 4 seats. It is more useful to compare the BJP’s present performance with either 2014 when the party had reunited or 2008 when a united and ascendant BJP had first come to power in Karnataka. In 2008 the BJP had won 110 seats, six more than its present tally and in 2014 Lok Sabha elections the BJP had led in 132 Assembly segments and secured a vote share of more than 43 percent. The BJP’s current tally of 104 seats and vote share of about 36% marks a distinct drop from that 2014 peak.
The figures clearly suggest that the Karnataka election can by no means be seen as a simple narrative of anger against the state government and support for the Modi government at the Centre. If the end result reflects a significant ‘anti-incumbency’ factor that worked against the Congress and its supposedly strong and popular chief minister, the BJP’s failure to secure the majority mark, or for that matter even repeat the best performance in the pre-Modi period, despite such a loud no-holds-barred campaign and its fabled election machinery and ‘magical’ management skills must also be seen as a significant expression of growing disillusionment with the non-performance and betrayal of the Modi regime and rejection of its politics of hate and casteist, communal and misogynistic violence.
This double ‘anti-incumbency’ probably best explains the strong showing of the JDS, although its numbers also fell short of its 2013 level. The BJP expectedly swept the coastal region of Karnataka which has emerged as a local laboratory for the Sangh-BJP experiments with communal polarization and hate- and rumour-mongering, and had its traditional upper hand in urban Karnataka, but quite strikingly it also emerged as a major contender in the Mysore region where the JDS and the Congress have all along been the dominant players. Before the elections, much was being written about the ‘smart’ strategic moves of Siddaramaiah like the recommendation to give minority status to Lingayats, the invocation of Kannada pride and consolidation of AHINDA (the Kannada acronym for Dalit-OBC-minority social coalition). Clearly these moves have not paid much dividend, and if anything they have also generated equally strong counter pulls that benefited the BJP and the JDS.
The perception created about the revival of the Congress under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi after the Gujarat elections has definitely taken a beating in Karnataka. The assumption of Rahul Gandhi emerging as an acceptable Hindu leader with the help of his public display of his religious belief is more wishful than real. It was the powerful mobilization of the youth on a combination of issues that mattered most to them – jobs, decent living, dignity and their future – and the energetic campaign by young leaders like Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh that created a strong vibe for the Congress in Gujarat. That was sorely missing in Karnataka. The other lesson that comes from Karnataka is the need for effective electoral coalitions. It is difficult to say if the Congress-JDS post-poll arrangement could have materialized before the elections, but a broad understanding among all opposition forces is an absolute imperative to stop the BJP from returning to power in 2019.