Six months after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, L.K. Advani, the then BJP President, reflected on the party’s shocking defeat. He cited “the Congressisation of the BJP” as one of the main reasons for the poll debacle. Advani used the term “Congressisation” to describe the growing infighting and factionalism in the BJP and the mounting corruption charges against the party, issues which were typically associated with the Congress.
Almost two decades later, Advani’s “Congressisation” thesis could possibly explain the party’s electoral setback in the recently concluded Karnataka elections. In many ways, the Karnataka Assembly elections highlighted a role reversal between the two arch-rivals, Congress and the BJP.
Infighting between factions, conflicting ambitions of senior leaders, leaders openly defying the party line and criticising the top leadership, and sitting MLAs and senior leaders defecting to rival parties have all become characteristic features of the Congress party in the past decade.
However, in Karnataka, the Congress managed to present a united front against the BJP. It is an open secret that there are two (or more) power centres within the Karnataka Congress, and this became even more apparent following the election results with intense manoeuvring for the Chief Minister’s position.
Nevertheless, during the course of the campaign, Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar were able to set aside their differences. In contrast, the BJP, which prides itself on being the “party with a difference” and often criticises the Congress for its internal divisions, was plagued by factionalism in Karnataka. The party’s Karnataka unit seemed to be following the self-destructive pattern typically associated with the Congress. For example, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai appeared to be fighting a lone battle after being sidelined, there was an unusual exodus of leaders to rival camps, and leaders of the stature of Jagadish Shettar left the party, making sensational statements and allegations that put the party’s leadership in question.
Voters may perceive a political party as the most competent choice for addressing a specific issue, a phenomenon known as issue ownership. Parties that effectively establish their ownership of a particular issue tend to perform better in elections. To achieve this, they must enhance their salience among voters by comprehensively highlighting their owned issues during the campaign. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP has notably claimed ownership of the corruption issue. By making anti-corruption a prominent component of their electoral campaigns, the BJP has consistently used corruption as a weapon against the Congress party.
However, in Karnataka, the grand old party managed to reverse the situation. Although the Congress has attempted to aggressively address corruption, the corruption charges have failed to stick to the BJP during the Modi period. The fact that the Congress successfully cornered the BJP on the issue of corruption for the first time in almost a decade stands out as a major highlight of the Karnataka polls. Employing campaigns to highlight scandals, such as “PayCM” and “40% Sarkara”, the Congress vehemently targeted corruption.
According to the post-poll survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS for The Hindu, the Congress’ strategy paid off. More than half of the respondents believed that corruption had increased in the State, with 58 per cent considering the BJP the “most corrupt party”. In hindsight, the BJP’s complacency, assuming that voters would never choose the Congress when it comes to corruption appears to have significantly damaged their prospects.
The magnitude of the Congress victory in Karnataka—the party won the State with the largest seat share and vote share since 1989—would not have been possible had the Congress not performed exceptionally well in the Lingayat belt, which has long been considered the party’s Achilles’ heel in the State. The simplest explanation for the Congress sweeping the Lingayat belt is that the BJP lost a significant portion of its Lingayat voters due to disenchantment among the community, stemming from a range of reasons including the sidelining of influential Lingayat leaders by the party.
However, this explanation is not only simplistic but also erroneous. Data from the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll surveys debunks the fallacious theory of a substantial shift in Lingayat votes powering the Congress victory. Instead, what appears to have worked for the Congress is a strategy that the BJP has successfully employed in other parts of the country.
Since 2014, the BJP has relied on a tried and tested strategy of targeting and consolidating numerically non-dominant communities against the dominant community or communities that have traditionally supported the BJP’s competitors.
For example, in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP focussed on non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits to overcome the challenge posed by the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. In Haryana, the BJP formed a coalition of different communities, including upper castes, OBCs such as Gujjars and Sainis, and to some extent, the Dalits, to counter the influence of the State’s most dominant political community, the Jats.
In Karnataka, the State’s most politically dominant group, the Lingayats, did not abandon the BJP, but the Congress managed to bring together a formidable coalition comprising other groups such as the Vokkaligas, Muslims, Kurubas, Adivasis, and Dalits, which can perhaps be referred to as AHINDA plus.
Setting the narrative
A recurring trend in BJP’s election campaigns over the past decade has been its ability to control narratives and set the agenda once the bugle sounds. By firmly taking charge of the narrative, BJP plays on the front foot, forcing opposition parties to play catch-up and react instead of act. It failed to replicate this in Karnataka.
For a change, the Congress, often criticised for its lethargy and lackadaisical approach, and likened to a sleeping giant in deep slumber, hit the ground running and early. The early kick-off allowed the Congress to never let the BJP seize the narrative and maintain control throughout the campaign, with a few exceptions, like the Bajrang Dal issue or the BJP’s increased quotas for SCs, STs, Lingayats, and Vokkaligas.
Pushed out of its comfort zone and forced to play a defensive and reactive game by an aggressive Congress, the BJP committed a series of uncharacteristic unforced errors.
The Congress built its own narrative, carefully striking a perfect balance between positive and negative campaigning. While it intensified the attack on the BJP by addressing corruption, unemployment, and price rise, the party also used the five guarantees to create a positive narrative aimed at key groups like youth and women.
The BJP is also good at dictating the social media narrative and occupying a significant share of print space and airtime. However, in Karnataka, an innovative Congress beat the BJP at its own game. Not only did the party issue full-page advertisements in newspapers, but these advertisements—such as the corruption rate card, Mysore Scandal soap, Scambucks, and the five guarantees advertisement—gained more traction than the BJP’s print or social media campaigns. This is supported by the Lokniti-CSDS poll, which revealed that while most BJP voters made their voting choice before the campaign began, most Congress voters decided to vote for the party after the campaign had started.
The State units
On the evening of May 13, even as it became evident that the Congress was winning Karnataka with an impressive tally of more than 135 seats, controversy erupted over the recounting of seats in Bengaluru’s Jayanagara constituency. Senior leaders of the Congress, including D.K. Shivakumar, and a huge crowd of supporters camped outside the polling station.
This incident, along with the willingness of the leaders and cadres of the Karnataka Congress to not get complacent and cede their claim, but instead spar for the seat, shows how starkly different the party’s State unit is compared to its national set-up and most other State units.
Often criticised for lacking teeth, the Karnataka unit showed a doggedness through the campaign that one does not usually associate with the party. Strong regional satraps, a robust organisational set-up, and last-mile connectivity—the Congress in Karnataka seemed more like an inspired and motivated regional outfit than an insipid and weakened national party.
The once mighty, all-powerful Delhi high command, being at its weakest, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the State leadership was given greater free rein. The party’s central leadership, Rahul and Priyanka in particular, seemed content to play second fiddle to the Siddaramaiah-Shivakumar combine.
Contrast this with the BJP, which seemingly sidelined its strongest face B.S. Yediyurappa and the sitting Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, and let the show be mostly run by Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, party president J.P. Nadda, and other national leaders. The faux pas from the likes of Nadda and Shah harmed the party further.
A toothless State unit’s overreliance on Modi and Shah turned out to be the party’s undoing. Overriding strong regional satraps, not paying attention to the State unit, and para-dropping or imposing leaders according to the whims and fancies of the central leadership—the BJP tried the failed Congress template and learned its lesson the hard way.
The BJP has tried this template in other States and more often than not it has backfired. The sooner it discards it, the better for the party. For the Congress, there are many reasons to celebrate, but there is no excuse to get complacent when it has to defend two State governments in December—a feat it has not achieved in more than a decade. While it is tempting to draw conclusions from the verdict about what the future holds for the two parties, the most interesting thing to see will be if the role reversal between the two parties continues.
Omkar Poojari is a freelance writer based in Paris.