Bengaluru: After multiple election defeats since coming to power in Karnataka, the ruling Congress got a breather on Tuesday after winning more seats than rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Janata Dal (Secular), or JD(S), in the zilla panchayat elections.

The Congress won 10 out of the 30 zilla panchayats, while the BJP won seven and JD (S) two. The Congress managed to edge over the BJP in most of the 11 zilla panchayats that have received a fractured verdict but failed to cross the halfway mark, paving the way for talks of forging alliances with independents in the days ahead.

In the last zilla panchayat elections in 2011, the BJP had won 17 panchayats, while the Congress and the JD(S) could manage to win only eight and five panchayats, respectively. In the elections to taluk panchayats, both Congress and the BJP share 56 taluk panchayats each and the JD(S) has won 20. It is a hung verdict in the rest of the 175 taluks. Both zilla and taluk panchayat elections were held in two stages earlier this month.

Karnataka is a crucial state for both Congress and BJP in the national context. While the BJP is trying to retrieve some of the lost ground in Karnataka to improve its position in the south, for Congress this is the only state, besides Kerala, where they are in power. Both parties are also plagued with internal differences.

As a first respectable electoral win for the Congress after coming to power in 2013, the verdict will make it easier for chief minister Siddaramaiah to steer clear his way ahead of the internal differences over his leadership within the party and chance an image makeover before the assembly elections two years later, political analysts said.

The Congress had suffered three back-to-back electoral setbacks recently. The party lost heavily in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 when the BJP bagged a majority of 17 out of 28 seats. They also lost electorally in the prestigious Bengaluru municipal election last August, but managed to retain power over Bengaluru’s administration by forging a last-minute alliance with JD(S). The party was also seen as a poor performer when the BJP won two crucial assembly seats in the by-polls held earlier this month.

Coming after such tumultuous electoral performance, the grassroot-level elections to panchayats were touted as a litmus test for the present government under Siddaramaiah, which completed a half-term tenure in office in 2015-end. It was also being seen by political analysts as a pointer as to which way the political winds are blowing in the state in the run-up to the next assembly elections.

“The party in power usually tends to do much better in local body elections in Karnataka. For instance, the BJP was ruling the state when the last local body election was held and they did win it reasonably well," said Sandeep Shastri, political analyst and pro-vice chancellor of Jain University.

Considering that, he said, this isn’t a staggering victory for the Congress but a respectable one. However, it is a vital setback for the BJP as their talks about anti-incumbency wave gripping the state towards the next assembly election seems to be a little punctured now, said Shastri.

Also, this is the verdict of a large chunk of rural populace, gripped by an agrarian crisis and other woes, from where the BJP was aiming to get their anti-incumbency votes in the next assembly elections, he said.

Reacting to the results, Siddaramaiah told reporters that the verdict was not up to his expectations, but claimed a substantial improvement in the party’s vote share among rural pockets compared to the 2011 panchayat elections.

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