What parties will need to look at after Karnataka | Mint

What parties will need to look at after Karnataka

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Summary

  • In India’s states, it is still regional parties that hold greater sway than both front line parties

The verdict of the Karnataka Assembly elections on Saturday gives all key actors plenty to think about. For the Congress, the simple majority comes as vindication for staying the course with recent strategic choices, like the Bharat Jodo Yatra by its leader Rahul Gandhi. For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the verdict is a moment to consider how much the appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi alone can swing a result, and its own imperative to build stronger state leadership. For other parties, Karnataka is a window to warding off the BJP’s formidable political machinery while ensuring they have a significant seat on the national table.

In India’s states, it is still regional parties that hold greater sway than both front line parties. That was the case in May 2019, after the round of four state elections that coincided with the national elections, which saw the BJP return to power at the Centre with a greater margin. The BJP has been trying to break into this regional, fragmented polity, but its latest tally in state Assemblies is now lower than it was at the end of May 2019.

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With the loss of Karnataka, the BJP now has chief ministers in nine states, compared with 11 back then. The party’s count of Assembly seats has dropped from 1,364 in May 2019 to 1,304 now. But even with its Karnataka gains, the Congress has seen its total Assembly seat count drop from 821 to 754. The third set, of other parties, have gained at their expense. This is the backdrop against which India’s parties will face the nine state elections and the big Lok Sabha polls in the coming 12 months.

State Showdowns

Much could change in these numbers in the coming 12 months. The nine states that are due for elections in this period represent about a quarter of all Assembly seats in India (five will vote at year-end, and four will coincide with the Lok Sabha polls). All three sets of political parties have much to defend, while seeking gains. Of these nine states, two each are ruled by the BJP and the Congress, and five have an entrenched regional party at the helm.

About half the seats in these nine states come from just three states: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, all of which are essentially straight BJP-Congress contests.

The Congress has its share of concerns in these states, with factionalism in Rajasthan, a mid-term loss of legislators and power in Madhya Pradesh, and the prospect of anti-incumbency in Chhattisgarh. But the Karnataka result—in its margin of victory and the issues around which the respective campaigns were fashioned—could embolden the Congress leadership, and refresh its rank and file.

The BJP tried to defend Karnataka first on the planks of Hindutva and then on the shoulders of a central presence, led by Modi. One question before it is if it will still go hard on Hindutva in the hope of electoral gains beyond its core base or dial it down. Karnataka also exposed the BJP’s weaknesses in having strong regional leaders. In Madhya Pradesh, it has a strong leader in Shivraj Singh Chouhan, but not quite in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Elsewhere, the five states ruled by other parties that will vote in the coming year have a strong local leadership, making it difficult for the BJP and Congress to make inroads, let alone break through.

Road to the Centre

The next round of state elections, in late 2023, will see BJP-Congress faceoffs in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

While those results will mean something for the national elections due in mid-2024, it’s notable that the Indian voter has tended to vote differently in national and state elections in recent years. Nationally, the pull of Modi remains immense.

But the Karnataka results do make the arithmetic for BJP more difficult. The loss means it no longer has a chief minister in the South, raising a question mark over its ability to improve its return from the region in the 2024 national polls.

In 2019, it had won just 29 out of 131 seats in the South, with 25 from Karnataka alone. As many as 223 of the 303 seats it won in 2019 were in just eight states: Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Bihar.

In the past few years, the BJP’s top leadership has invested considerable time and resources in its weak states, notably West Bengal, Telangana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. But the Karnataka loss means that to retain power in 2024, the BJP will have to match its 2019 showing in its mainstays in the north and the west.

Impressive as that 2019 showing was, it also left it with little room to improve and much to lose if it slipped.

Meanwhile, the Congress and other parties have much to do to displace the BJP in 2024.

The Opposition space remains fragmented, and a large and meaningful alliance—of the kind that can work together on seat distribution and not cut each other’s votes—remains a distant prospect. While BJP remains in pole position, the Karnataka verdict has made the contest interesting.

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