The 137-year-old Grand Old Party is back in business. For the first time since its rout in the 2014 national election, repeated in 2019, the Congress has reason to celebrate. The party won elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018 and had a narrow win in Himachal Pradesh in 2022. The decisive verdict in Karnataka today gives the Congress’s workers reason to smile after the state leadership pulled off a win versus the charisma of Narendra Modi.
The Congress’s “vocal for local” campaign prevailed. For the first time since its inception in 1980, the BJP was charged with corruption; the “40 per cent Sarkara” slogan following bribe allegations by the Karnataka Contractors’ Association and the school managements’ federation against the Basavaraj Bommai-led BJP government seems to have stuck.
The election was fought on local issues, and “crony capitalism”, to which Rahul Gandhi’s post-poll tweet referred, was never made an issue. The strong regional leadership of the party, Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar (who agreed to sink their differences), had pleaded with the central leadership to keep the usual anti-Modi rhetoric at bay as local issues and the party’s five guarantees (which the new Cabinet is slated to implement in its very first meeting) emerged as a bulwark of the campaign.
Karnataka has been a milestone state for the Congress. The party split for the first time when two days before Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary, Indira Gandhi was expelled by the “Syndicate” in a meeting of the Congress Working Committee held in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) on November 12, 1969. Karnataka leader S Nijalingappa was Congress president then. The next turning point came in November 1978, when Indira Gandhi won the Chikmagalur Lok Sabha by-poll, reversing the 1977 rout and setting in motion the Congress’s return to power in 1980. The Congress symbol of “Cow and Calf” was frozen after the 1978 split. The “Hand” symbol was first used in Chikmagalur. The “Hand” got a thumbs-up in 1978. The revelry was repeated on May 13, 2013.
Sonia Gandhi’s victory in the 1999 general election from Bellary, over BJP stalwart Sushma Swaraj, carved her a place in the leadership pantheon of the Congress and ushered her uninterrupted two-decade-plus reign over the party. The 2023 victory may not be a turning point of the magnitude of 1969, 1978, or 1999, but it certainly is a lifesaver for a sagging party.
It’s also a big boost for efforts to unite non-BJP parties, being championed by Nitish Kumar who, earlier this week, received endorsement from Nationalist Congress Party stalwart Sharad Pawar.
The viability of the Congress as a leading force in an anti-BJP alliance has been questioned by a section of regional parties, notably Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. This will persist. The possibility of a pan-India alliance seems remote. State-level alliances may emerge in the run-up to the 2024 General Election. There are powerful leaders like the Biju Janata Dal’s Naveen Patnaik and YSRCP’s Jagan Reddy who prefer to stay away from tie-ups. The formula of one opposition candidate to take on the BJP in each Lok Sabha seat is a far cry.
While winning Karnataka, the Congress failed to retain the Jalandhar Lok Sabha seat in Punjab. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which failed to retain its Sangrur Lok Sabha seat soon after it swept to power in Punjab, won Jalandhar, thus consolidating its position in a state dominated by the Congress till now.
The Congress’s performance in by-polls in Uttar Pradesh (in two seats it polled less than two per cent votes) Odisha and Meghalaya was dismal. The BJP’s ally Apna Dal (Sonelal) won both UP seats; the Biju Janata Dal and the National People’s Party retained their supremacy in Odisha and Meghalaya.
The BJP, while losing Karnataka, demonstrated its grip over Uttar Pradesh, with a sweeping victory in local body polls in India’s largest state. Neither Narendra Modi nor Amit Shah spent any time in UP. The charisma and performance of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath worked. The takeaway from UP is that Modi and Shah can rely on a strong state leader where one exists. Like Yogi Adityanath, Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam has emerged as an election-winning face of the BJP. So state leaders like Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan and Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh (both were contemporaries of Narendra Modi as chief ministers) may get leeway in elections in their states later this year.
The eclipse of BS Yediyurappa in Karnataka will linger in the minds of BJP strategists. Modi and Shah could not retrieve the ground lost by Basavaraj Bommai. They did help ensure that a possible rout was restricted to a defeat in Karnataka. The BJP may have to revisit the idea of experimenting with the likes of Jairam Thakur (Himachal Pradesh), Raghubar Das (Jharkhand), Manoharlal Khattar (Haryana) or Devendra Fadnavis (Maharashtra).
Paradropping leadership in a state, Congress-style, may not be the best template for a vibrant national party. A leader rising from the grassroots, the best example being Narendra Modi himself, is the desired leadership model.
For Mallikarjun Kharge, the Karnataka veteran who heads the Congress, the results are a boost. He displayed his reach among non-BJP opposition parties in meetings called by him as Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha during the disrupted Budget session of parliament. Karnataka Congress chief DK Shivakumar broke down while addressing the media as results poured in. Weeping, he recalled how Sonia Gandhi had visited him while he was jailed in Delhi’s Tihar prison. (Sonia Gandhi’s brief campaign in spite of her poor health also helped).
A review of the Congress win in Karnataka cannot overlook the campaign by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who copied the methodology of her grandmother while reaching out to women and youth voters. Her campaign, which highlighted the party’s Five Guarantees — Yuva Nidhi: Assistance; Anna Bhagya: Sustenance; Gruha Jyothi: Affordability; Uchita Prayana: Accessibility; Gruha Lakshmi: Empowerment – struck a chord. She emphasised that the pledge would help those who suffered under the BJP’s “40% Commission Sarkara”. Her campaigning method, which never went anywhere near Rahul Gandhi’s troll-like campaigning, seemed more effective. After Karnataka, in a possible Congress reshuffle, Priyanka could get a more proactive role in the party.
(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired Editor and a public affairs commentator.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.