How the Congress secured a historic victory in Karnataka

The victory was based on a campaign strategy that focused on local issues, opposed corruption, and avoided communal rhetoric.

Published : May 15, 2023 15:50 IST - 11 MINS READ

Congress workers celebrate the party’s victory, in Bikaner on May 13.

Congress workers celebrate the party’s victory, in Bikaner on May 13. | Photo Credit: ANI

Siddaramaiah proved uncannily prescient in his political predictions. In an interview with Frontline a month before the Karnataka Assembly election on May 10, the Congress leader, who is the front runner for the Chief Minister’s post, said that the Congress’ vote share would cross 40 per cent in the State and the party would win more than 130 seats in the 224-member House. At the time, this seemed like political hyperbole, as the last time the Congress achieved this feat was in 1999, when it secured 40.84 per cent of the votes and 132 seats under S.M. Krishna’s leadership.

In the 24 years since that election, the political landscape in Karnataka has changed drastically: main political players such as Krishna and Siddaramaiah switched parties, while the Bharatiya Janata Party, which at the time was still on the rise in the State, moved to the centre of the political space. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, whose names were insignificant in Karnataka in 1999, rose to the top of the BJP’s national party apparatus after 2014 and brought a new aggressiveness to the way elections were contested. It almost seemed improbable that the Congress, which was sagging under the weight of a series of electoral defeats over the past few years, could reach the heights it did in 1999. But the results on May 13 showed that Siddaramaiah’s prediction was spot on.

With 135 seats and 42.9 per cent of the votes (an almost 5 per cent swing in its favour compared with 2018), the Congress managed a historical feat, as no party has secured a simple majority in Assembly elections in Karnataka since 2004. (The Congress won 122 seats in 2013 and ruled the State for five years, but it was not seen as the Congress’ victory because the BJP had split at that time.) This is the first time in almost a quarter century that the people of Karnataka have given any party a decisive mandate.

The emphatic Congress win in Karnataka highlights again the limits of BJP’s strategy of communal polarisation. | Video Credit: Frontline News Desk

The BJP, which won 66 seats this time with a vote share of 36 per cent (down from 104 seats in 2018 but with only a marginal dip in vote percentage), will be smarting at this defeat, as the saffron party has lost the only south Indian State in which it has ever come to power. Considering that Prime Minister Modi carried the BJP’s campaign almost single-handedly in the absence of charismatic State-level BJP leaders, the results are a telling comment on the limits of his larger-than-life aura and Amit Shah’s so-called Machiavellian strategies.

The performance of the Janata Dal (Secular) was dismal, with the party managing to win only 19 seats and 13.3 per cent of the votes. This is its lowest tally since the founding of the party in 1999, raising existential questions about its future under the leadership of former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. The party’s patriarch, his father and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, is already 89 years old.

Congress makes inroads

The Congress, which won 80 seats in 2018, increased its tally across all regions in the State. Its victory was emphatic in regions previously dominated by the BJP and the JD(S), such as Kittur Karnataka (formerly Bombay Karnataka), Central Karnataka and Old Mysore. Its gains were marginal in coastal Karnataka although it improved its share in Uttara Kannada district and raised its tally substantially in Kalyana Karnataka (formerly Hyderabad Karnataka). In Bengaluru, though, the party got fewer seats than the BJP.

The scale of the BJP’s loss can be gauged from the defeat of 12 BJP Ministers, including heavyweights such as Murugesh Nirani, Dr K. Sudhakar and B. Sriramulu. The Congress swept districts such as Kodagu and Chikkamagaluru, which are BJP strongholds. The JD(S) also lost crucial seats in Mandya and Hassan districts, with even Deve Gowda’s grandson Nikhil Kumaraswamy losing in the family bastion of Ramanagara and H.D. Revanna scraping through in Holenarasipur.

Winning factors

Muzaffar Assadi, political scientist and Vice Chancellor of the University of Mysore, attributed the Congress’ victory to four factors: a shift in a section of the Lingayat votes from the BJP, a shift in Vokkaliga votes from the JD(S) to the Congress, the consolidation of the AHINDA (Kannada acronym for religious minorities, backward castes and Dalits) in the party’s favour, and the anti-incumbency sentiment.

“It is clear from the victories of the Congress in the north Karnataka Lingayat strongholds of the BJP that some subcastes among the Lingayats have moved to the Congress. Subcaste identity has become more prominent among the Lingayats in this election. Jagadish Shettar delivered this to the Congress on a platter but, in the process, became a victim [the former Chief Minister, who defected to the Congress just before the election, lost]. The election also reflects the shifting of the Vokkaliga mantle from the Deve Gowda family to D.K. Shivakumar. The BJP has made some gains in the Vokkaliga stronghold of Old Mysore, but that is immaterial in the first-past-the-post system,” he said.

Ashok Chandargi, a Kannada activist based in Belagavi, felt that the “BJP’s arrogance” had alienated itself from the Lingayat community. According to him, the Lingayat community had been disenchanted with the BJP from the day B.S. Yediyurappa was removed from the post of Chief Minister in 2021. “For the Lingayats, he was the only leader, and the community did not forget that he wept on the day he demitted office. In 2018, Lingayat mutt heads openly endorsed the BJP, but did anyone do it this time? Even though Basavaraj Bommai is a Lingayat, his stature cannot be compared with that of Yediyurappa, and his government was marked by corruption and administrative failure,” Chandargi said.

“Central leaders of the BJP such as Modi and Shah came to Karnataka many times, but did they address the problems of the common people such as price rise,” Chandargi asked.

The BJP seems to have paid a high price in the perceived sidelining of Lingayats. The party gave the ticket to 67 candidates from the community, but the national general secretary B.L. Santosh, it was opined, used a heavy hand in ticket distribution, apparently keen on having a Brahmin Chief Minister if the BJP returned to power.

  • Congress achieves historic victory in Karnataka Assembly election with 135 seats and 42.9 per cent of the votes, breaking the trend of no party securing a simple majority since 2004. Local issue-focused campaign strategy credited for the triumph.
  • BJP’s “double engine government” campaign and polarisation attempts fail to gain traction, resulting in a significant loss. Lingayat community’s perceived sidelining proves costly, with 12 BJP Ministers facing defeat.
  • Janata Dal (Secular) disappoints with just 19 seats and 13.3 per cent of the votes, marking its lowest tally since its establishment in 1999, raising concerns about its future viability.

Backing of Dalits, tribals, and backward castes

Significantly, a section of Dalits, tribals, and backward castes that had moved away from the Congress in 2018 seems to have returned to the Congress fold this time. Mavalli Shankar, the State convener of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, who toured the State encouraging Dalits to vote for the Congress, said, “Madigas [Left-Hand Dalits] moved away from the Congress in 2018 because of the internal reservation issue, but what did the BJP do? Their gazette notification demarcating reservation for Dalits on the basis of a population ratio was not implementable and was a gimmick. We made Dalits aware of this and, in my estimate, 70 per cent of the Madigas voted for the Congress.”

Also Read | Mallikarjun Kharge leads from the front as Congress conquers Karnataka

Shankar went on to say that the Dalit support to the Congress should not be taken for granted as this was “conditional” on the Congress implementing its five guarantees (10 kilograms of foodgrains to each household, 200 units of free power, Rs.2,000 to the female family head, Rs.3,000 to unemployed graduates, and free travel for women in buses) and increasing spending on welfare schemes. Data from pre-election surveys also show that the Congress received greater support from women and poor households.

Campaign strategy and five guarantees

The Congress’ remarkable victory is attributed to its measured and smart campaign drafted by political strategist Sunil Kanugolu that focussed on local issues. The BJP was on the back foot right from the start as the Congress dominated the battle of narratives by focussing on the corruption charges against the Bommai government.

The Congress made the claim by the Karnataka Contractor’s Association that BJP legislators and Ministers demanded a 40 per cent cut the lynchpin of its campaign. Local leaders such as Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar and national leaders such as Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, and Mallikarjun Kharge maintained the tempo of rhetoric against the BJP focussing on local issues. Along with this, the Congress also brought under the spotlight issues of unemployment and price rise and, over the month-long period leading up to May 10, proclaimed its five guarantees. While thanking the people of Karnataka for the victory in the election, Rahul reiterated that the Congress would fulfill its five key promises in the first Cabinet meeting.

Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar jointly visited Sri Chamundeshwari Temple in Mysuru on May 9. The two leaders complemented each other’s efforts.

Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar jointly visited Sri Chamundeshwari Temple in Mysuru on May 9. The two leaders complemented each other’s efforts. | Photo Credit: ANI

Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar, both chief ministerial aspirants, also ensured that their personal ambitions did not spoil the party’s campaign and displayed a professional bonhomie. The two leaders complemented each other’s efforts: While Siddaramaiah, the more popular mass leader, toured the entire State, Shivakumar managed the campaign and restricted himself mainly to the Old Mysore region.

The Congress was on the back foot in the final phase of the campaign after the release of its manifesto, which stated that it would ban organisations such as the Popular Front of India and the Bajrang Dal (BD) involved in spreading communal hatred. While many political analysts considered this to be a major gaffe, the issue clearly did not resonate in Karnataka. The BJP did, however, pounce on the issue, with Prime Minister Modi making a fervent appeal to voters to cast their votes while hailing Lord Hanuman (Bajrang Bali), but this too made little impact on the voter. Local Congress leaders vehemently countered the BJP’s allegation by drawing a distinction between the credo of the Bajrang Dal and the devotion to Hanuman. Significantly, the Gandhi siblings stayed away from the issue.

Also Read | How a little-known portal got the Karnataka election results right

According to a source who is close to the duo, there was tremendous pressure on them from local Congress leaders to engage with the issue, but they refused to be drawn into the debate. Both, the source said, considered responding to the baseless allegation that the Congress was against Hanuman, but in the end it was decided that they should not let the BJP set the terms of the agenda for the campaign.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at a roadshow in Chikkamagaluru on May 2. Despite pressure, he refused to be drawn into the Bajrang Dal or other divisive debates. 

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi at a roadshow in Chikkamagaluru on May 2. Despite pressure, he refused to be drawn into the Bajrang Dal or other divisive debates.  | Photo Credit: -

In his campaign speeches, Modi portrayed himself as a victim of the Congress’ malicious campaign. His attempt was to personalise the election and divide the electorate on religious lines with some of the themes he chose to focus on. For instance, at a rally in Ballari he endorsed the movie The Kerala Story, which is premised on the dubious claim that thousands of non-Muslim women from Kerala were forcefully converted to Islam and taken to join the ISIS.

At his final rally in Nanjangud in south Karnataka, Modi latched on to Sonia Gandhi’s statement on “Karnataka’s sovereignty” to say that the Congress encouraged secessionist tendencies. Political commentators say this was a desperate attempt by Modi, given that there was no threat to the sovereignty of India emanating from Karnataka. Modi’s emphasis on the benefits of the “double engine” government (at the Centre and in the State), which was one of the primary emphases of the BJP’s campaign, also failed to enthuse the electorate to vote for the saffron party; Karnataka has emerged as a prosperous State despite having a different government at the Centre for most of the period since 1983.

Also Read | Civil society organisations played key role in Congress victory

There were attempts at communal polarisation in the State, much of it based on issues manufactured by the BJP government, a free hand given to Hindutva vigilante groups on issues such as hijab-halal-azan, and the false assertions that two Vokkaliga soldiers killed Tipu Sultan, but that did not work.

The Bommai government’s last-minute move to scrap the 4 per cent reservation for Muslims and distribute it among the dominant Lingayat and Vokkaliga castes equally was part of Shah’s and Bommai’s campaign rhetoric. But this also did not go on expected for the BJP.

The JD(S)’ campaign, which pivoted on regional pride and farmers’ interests, failed to enthuse its traditional support base in rural south Karnataka. The Congress has made deep inroads in the region this time.

The Karnataka electorate has maintained its track record of not voting back an incumbent government since 1985. With 135 seats, the Congress has the numbers to provide a stable government, and its paradigmatic victory has also tweaked the traditional caste-based voting patterns set in the State in the 1990s. The victory has catalysed the Congress’ moribund cadre nationally, and the onus will now be on the State unit of the party to face the challenges of providing good governance, fulfilling the promises made in its manifesto, implementing the five guarantees, and staying away from factionalism. In 2024, it will also have the major responsibility of reversing the trend of the past two Lok Sabha elections, when the BJP walked away with most of the parliamentary seats from Karnataka.

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