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EFSAS Commentary

Vitality and vibrancy of Indian democracy on display in the recent elections in Karnataka state


India witnessed an affirmative reassertion of the strength and power of its deep-rooted democratic essence when elections for the Legislative Assembly of the southern state of Karnataka were held on 10 May. The results, which were declared last Saturday, saw the opposition Congress party achieve victory over the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has dominated the political landscape across large parts of the country and was the incumbent in Karnataka. While the Congress party’s victory in the state has ignited debate about the General Elections that are due in May next year, with BJP supporters discounting the possibility of the Karnataka results impacting the massive wave of support that PM Modi has enjoyed over the past 9 years, opposition parties believe that the results are a reflection of the turn of the tide towards them. While that debate will be settled conclusively just a year from now when the people of India vote, what the Karnataka elections threw up was a raw demonstration of democracy in action on the ground. The elections were contested bitterly with neither side giving an inch, and one side emerged victorious in the end but the other, with grace and humility, accepted the verdict of the masses.   

When vote counting concluded on 13 May, the Election Commission announced that the Congress had won 135 seats in the 224-member Karnataka Assembly. The BJP, which had won 104 seats in 2018, got 66 this time, and the numbers of the regional Janata Dal (Secular) also decreased to 19 from 37. The Congress polled 43% of the votes cast, 5% more than it had obtained in 2018, and 7 percent more than the BJP this time. The BJP, however, has retained the same share of votes as it had obtained in 2018, thereby sending the message that despite the loss it continued to remain a formidable force in Karnataka.

Hannah Ellis-Petersen described how events unfolded in Karnataka when she wrote in The Guardian that, “The elections in Karnataka, home to 65 million people, had been seen as an important bellwether ahead of the general election next year, when Modi will seek a third term in power. The BJP had been in power in Karnataka since 2018 and campaigned hard to hold on to the state, despite a strong anti-incumbency sentiment. Karnataka is the party’s only stronghold in southern India and was seen as a crucial stepping stone for its political ambitions in the nearby states of Telangana and Tamil Nadu, which have so far largely resisted the Hindu nationalist politics of the BJP".

Ellis-Petersen added, “In an attempt to win over voters, the party put Modi at the forefront of its campaign, as the prime minister took part in 19 rallies and roadshows in the final weeks of campaigning. But despite a high-octane campaign during which the BJP held more than 9,000 rallies, Modi’s popularity was not enough to overcome allegations of corruption against the BJP state government, as well as frustrations over rising inflation and a lack of job creation outside the city’s thriving capital, Bengaluru. The state’s dominant Lingayat caste, once a strong part of the BJP’s base, had also been seen to withdraw support after several old-guard leaders were not given tickets to run. The result was a significant triumph for Congress, which has had an otherwise poor record of winning state elections since Modi came to power in 2014, with only three other states under its control. The win provides it a much-needed boost before the general election when it will go up against the BJP on a national level”. Ellis-Petersen argued that the victory in Karnataka would put the Congress in a stronger position to make a deal with other similarly minded parties in its efforts to forge opposition unity, a quest that has hitherto remained elusive.

Maitreyee Boruah opined in her 14 May article in Al Jazeera that even though most exit polls had predicted a victory for the Congress, “few would have predicted the scale of the Congress victory, coming against the backdrop of the BJP’s dominance over Indian politics in recent years… David Bodapati, a senior journalist covering Karnataka politics for three decades, pointed out that the Congress had won by the biggest margin of any victor in the state since 1989, when it had won 178 seats securing 43.76 percent votes”. She quoted K.S. Dakshina Murthy, a veteran political commentator and author from Bengaluru, Karnataka’s capital, as saying that “The anti-incumbency wave against the saffron party was palpable on the ground”, referring to the saffron flag of the BJP.

Political commentators were of the view that local issues such as price rise and allegations of corruption had played a big role in the BJP’s defeat. Murthy opined that the corruption allegations launched by the Congress against the outgoing BJP government had seeped into the minds of the voters, and “It proved detrimental for the BJP”. Boruah elaborated, “The Congress weaponised one jibe in particular, repeatedly referring to the BJP’s Karnataka government as the ‘40 percent sarkar [government]’ – a reference to allegations by Karnataka contractors who claim that 40 percent of the tender amount for state-funded infrastructural projects is taken as a bribe by BJP leaders and officials”. Bodapati, on the other hand, believes that “an absence of local leadership in the BJP” had hurt the party’s prospects despite the robust efforts put in by the party’s top central leadership, led by Modi, during the campaign in Karnataka.

While all these may have been contributing factors to the party’s defeat, what played a defining part was that the BJP seemed to have lost the pulse of its voters. Analysts feel that local political factors and misgovernance played a central role in the unfavourable outcome for the BJP, and that while reverberations from the result will echo in the BJP headquarters in New Delhi, they will not necessarily portend a dramatic shift in the national mood against the hugely popular PM Modi. Dakshina Murthy echoed this when he stressed that “The state elections are about local issues. Every election is different. I don’t see the results having much bearing on the Lok Sabha polls”. He, however, felt that at the same time the results will also “definitely bolster the confidence of the opposition”.

The Congress’ victory in Karnataka has been attributed to the presence of strong regional leadership, a grassroots network, and a sturdy organization. The party, unlike in some other elections in the recent past, ran a disciplined, clear, and consistent election campaign that involved carefully selected political messaging. Importantly, its campaign focused on issues relatable to the common man. Congress spokespersons have also credited party leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, for which he walked for unity from the southern tip of India to the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir from 7 September 2022 to 30 January 2023, as having contributed to the results.

Despite the high-octane political campaigning, once election results were announced the BJP was prompt in acknowledging the choice of the people of Karnataka and in extending its best wishes to the Congress. PM Modi himself tweeted, “Congratulations to the Congress Party for their victory in the Karnataka Assembly polls. My best wishes to them in fulfilling people’s aspirations. I thank all those who have supported us in the Karnataka elections. I appreciate the hardwork of BJP Karyakartas. We shall serve Karnataka with even more vigour in the times to come”.

BJP President J. P. Nadda said that his party accepted the mandate of the people of Karnataka with humility. He said, “The BJP accepts the mandate of the people of Karnataka with humility. I thank the diligent karyakartas of @BJP4Karnataka for their efforts and the people who showed faith in our vision. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji, the BJP will continue to work for the betterment of the people and raise their voice by actively playing the role of constructive opposition”.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, congratulated the people of Karnataka and said after his party’s victory that “I am happy we contested the Karnataka polls without using hate, bad language. We fought the polls with love. In Karnataka, the market of hate has closed down and shops of love have opened”. He added that in Karnataka, “the power of poor people” had won, and predicted that “This will be repeated in other states too. The Congress has fought for the issues of the poor”.

Addressing journalists on the election outcome, Siddaramaiah, the local leader who has since been chosen by the Congress as its next Chief Minister in Karnataka, said that “It is a victory of a secular party. Harmony over hatred”. He added, “The result of this election is a stepping stone to the Lok Sabha election. I hope all non-BJP parties come together and see that the BJP is defeated”. Congress party spokesperson Pawan Khera averred that the “People have rejected divisive politics”.

The Karnataka Assembly election results were not only about the Congress party getting an impressive majority. The results were a tribute to the Indian Constitution, to the country’s vibrant democracy, and to Indian federalism. The PM Modi-led BJP of today is a formidable political entity, and many believe Modi is an even greater political force than Indira Gandhi was at her prime. The beauty of India’s democracy lies in the fact that even an entity as powerful and pervasive as today’s BJP is not immune to the will of the discerning electorate, and is, therefore, not invincible.

Prashant Jha, the Washington DC-based correspondent of the popular Indian daily the Hindustan Times, was of the view that “The real importance of Karnataka’s verdict does not lie in what it may translate into in 2024. It lies in the fact that India’s electoral democracy provides enough space to all parties to compete, where even a weaker opposition party can score a win over a more powerful rival. It lies in the fact that Indian federalism is robust and the political sensibility in a state can vary from what may appear to be the national mood. It lies in the fact that voters have shown that they will not hesitate to punish governments that don’t serve their constitutional and popular mandates, and reward political parties that can articulate and aggregate the concerns of citizens in an effective manner. And in that sense, Karnataka’s importance lies in ensuring that no party can take its political dominance for granted and Indian democracy retains its vitality”.

Recent events across the world, including in advanced countries such as the United States of America, have shown that democracy, like any other political system, is not perfect, and while India’s politics may also be imperfect and have its own flaws, the bottom line that the Karnataka elections have demonstrated is that India’s democracy is thriving, vibrant, and not going anywhere, no matter what the doubters and skeptics have to say about it.