This Article is From May 13, 2023

Opinion: Karnataka Elections - Key Takeaways For Congress, BJP

The Congress has emerged as the comfortable winner in a hotly contested election. There are important lessons for both the BJP and Congress. The two campaign narratives were unique and were built around each party's perceived strengths.

The BJP's campaign was far more centralized, focusing on "double engine" sarkara, pan-India nationalism and the popularity of Narendra Modi. The Congress's campaign was more rooted in local issues. While Rahul Gandhi and the central leadership made several public appearances, local Karnataka leaders like DK Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah were the stars of the campaign.

The Congress's success has important lessons for both parties. For the BJP, it underscores the limitations of relying on a centralised campaign and Narendra Modi when it comes to state elections. From the Congress' perspective, the success shows the importance of empowering state level leadership.

The BJP's campaign reached a crescendo at the weekend of May 6 and 7 with Prime Minister Modi's widely publicized roadshow in Bengaluru. The roadshow was well-planned. The Prime Minister is highly popular with the city's middle class urban electorate. For three national elections, the BJP has successively won Bengaluru's three Lok Sabha seats with comfortable margins.

The 2018 Karnataka election showed that the BJP had an opportunity to cash in on the Prime Minister's popularity and pick up a few additional seats, which could have been vital.

Despite the best efforts, the BJP has not been able to show the same dominance in Bengaluru city as it does in Lok Sabha elections. The urban middle class voter did not come out to vote in large numbers. Even the Prime Minister's appeal failed to draw more voters to polling stations.

Clearly, while PM Modi remains popular, that does not translate to votes in a state election. Rather than the central leadership and national level issues, state level leaders and local issues were more important. The Bommai-led government's image of being a "40% Sarkara" struck a chord with the voters. Even the Prime Minister's ever-rising popularity could not overcome it.

This underscores the importance of local issues and state level leadership in a state election. With BS Yediyurappa retiring and outgoing Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai not enjoying the same stature, the BJP did not have a strong state-level leadership. The negative image of the Bommai government prevented them from focusing their campaign on the performance of the state government. As a result, in an election where local leadership and local issues matter, the BJP came up short.

The same trend was seen in the 2021 West Bengal election. The BJP's national level leadership led by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, JP Nadda and Yogi Adityanath held several rallies in the build-up to the election. Despite this, the presence of a Mamata Banerjee, a state-level leader, proved to be decisive and worked in the Trinamool Congress's favour. A similar picture is emerging from Karnataka.

The BJP's best showing came in coastal Karnataka, where the party by and large was able to hold on to the advances it made in 2018 (barring a few seats). An important reason for this is the strong grassroots base built by the party and its affiliates. In coastal Karnataka, the BJP's predecessor, the Jana Sangh, had long established a presence. While electoral success was limited, the organisation had built local support and an organizational base immediately after independence. The BJP's ideological mentor RSS has had a strong presence in coastal Karnataka since the late 1920s and early 1930s. Even before the RSS, the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj had already built an organisational network. As a result, the BJP has a historically well-established organisational base. This helps the party connect better to the average voter without always having to depend on the central leadership.

For the Congress the results are a breath of fresh air. Not only has the party managed to secure a rare electoral victory, it has done so in a direct contest against the BJP.

This will be a critical morale booster for the Congress's grassroots cadre across India. There are important lessons for the Congress to take away from these elections. In Punjab, the Congress virtually snatched defeat from the jaws of victory through excessive interference and chopping and changing from the central leadership.

Had Captain Amarinder Singh been empowered with greater authority, the Congress would have had a better showing. Karnataka showed the importance of empowering local leaders. Despite cameos by Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the party's state level leadership had significant autonomy to shape the campaign. This helped the party keep the focus on the BJP's main weakness - state level leadership and local issues. With crucial assembly elections lined up in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the Congress should quickly recognise the importance of empowering state level leaders in assembly elections.

For the keen political observer, the Karnataka election had important lessons. Despite the popularity of Narendra Modi and the BJP's central level leadership, the party couldn't convert that into votes. Though national level leaders like Narendra Modi are critical during Lok Sabha elections, assembly elections revolve around state-level leadership and local issues. Karnataka, like West Bengal, highlighted the BJP's vulnerabilities in state elections where they do not have a strong local leadership base. Additionally, the party's strong showing in coastal Karnataka underscores the importance of a strong organisational base at the grassroots. The Congress too has important lessons to take away. The central leadership needs to empower state level leaders and trust them to play a bigger role in state elections.

(Sanjal Shastri is an independent researcher who has recently submitted his PhD thesis at the University of Auckland. He did his masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.