Mint Explainer: How did the Congress win Karnataka?

Congress workers fly the party flag outside Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru on May 14 (Photo: PTI)
Congress workers fly the party flag outside Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru on May 14 (Photo: PTI)


  • A combination of several factors ensured a thumping win for the Grand Old Party in a key battleground state

The Congress, which has been struggling across India, got a big boost after winning the Karnataka assembly elections last week. The party bagged 136 of 224 seats and will form the state government. Here are some possible reasons for the Congress’s success.

Electoral trends

Historically there has been no uniform pattern in Karnataka elections, but five regions vote in a similar fashion — the Bengaluru Metropolitan Region; Coastal Karnataka; Hyderabad or Kalyana Karnataka; Mumbai or Kittur Karnataka and Central Karnataka; and South Karnataka and Malnad Region.

Two of these five regions — Bengaluru and Coastal Karnataka — remained with the BJP but in the other three the party was hurt badly. The BJP gained 15 of 28 Bengaluru seats, including three from the Congress. It also won 13 of 19 seats in Coastal Karnataka, losing only four to the Congress.

But the Congress won 44 of 64 seats in Mumbai or Kittur-Karnataka and Central Karnataka, including 26 BJP seats. In Hyderabad-Kalyana Karnataka it won 26 of 40 seats, including 10 previously held by the BJP. In South and Malnad Karnataka the JDS lost ground heavily to the Congress, which won 47 of 73 seats, replacing 18 JDS and 12 BJP lawmakers.

Campaign issues

The Congress's above-average result in most parts of the state suggests that voters preferred it to the BJP's incumbent government. The Congress campaigned on bread-and-butter concerns like cooking gas price hikes and toor dal price declines. It maintained the political heat over allegations of corruption against the BJP government. These were issues that were meant to strike a chord with people in rural areas. An analysis by The Hindu newspaper said that the Congress's rural vote share rose by 6% points while the BJP's fell by 3.6%.

The BJP on the other hand highlighted its “double-engine" government, promoting center-run welfare packages. Its government was also criticised for targeting Muslims on issues like hijab and for trying to polarise Hindus. However, this strategy seems to have appealed only to voters in metropolitan areas and coastal districts with a history of communal polarisation. A Mint analysis showed the Congress was able to win almost half of the 65 assembly seats where Muslims votes were crucial. In the five districts with the highest Muslim population the Congress’s vote share increased by about 2.5%.

However, the BJP’s terrible performance — going from 104 seats in 2018 to 65 — masks the fact that its vote share dropped by only 0.3% to 36%. Given that it has suffered in its traditional bastions such as northern Karnataka, this suggests that the party has gained supporters in other areas and may have become more diffused across Karnataka despite the fact that its strike rate has decreased greatly.

Key communities

Karnataka parties have always relied on community-wide backing during elections. This time poll watchers had extensively monitored Dalit voters — the single largest community, comprising 17.5% of the population.

The BJP and Congress promised Dalit groups internal SC reservation and more seats to contest. According to the results, more of them voted for the Congress than the BJP. Dalits who reject internal reservation have targeted the BJP, claiming the better-off among themselves have monopolised quota benefits.

The Congress’s candidate selection for Dalit seats boosted its strike rate and earned the party an increase of up to 10% in some of these seats. That the party’s new national president, Mallikarjun Kharge, is a Dalit may have helped, too, as he campaigned vigorously in Dalit areas.

Pollwatchers had also focused on North Karnataka's Lingayat community, a BJP stronghold. Despite offering more seats and reservation, two community leaders left the party. The Congress's northern-belt performance revealed the Lingayat community helped them this time.

The southern Vokkaliga community, largely agricultural growers and a traditional JDS stronghold, was another important player in the election. The JDS lost 37 seats and recorded its worst electoral showing in 19 years, its vote share falling from 18.3% to 13.3%. The party seems to have collapsed due to infighting within the Deve Gowda family, leaving cadres feeling alienated.

Key leaders

How did both parties' leaders affect the outcome? Yogendra Yadav, an activist and psephologist, claims the Congress won 17 of 21 seats through which Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra passed. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's huge roadshow in Bengaluru may have also helped the BJP win urban areas.

However, the PM's speeches, which highlighted central government welfare schemes, promises of development, and apparent support for the Hindu nationalist Bajrang Dal, did not help the party win seats in the rest of the state except for coastal Karnataka. Yet, in an election where the party was clearly rejected by most voters, Modi’s popularity may have proved crucial for the BJP in maintaining its vote share.

To be sure, voters were far more concerned with the party than its leaders. For instance, those who switched from the BJP to the Congress had approximately 70% strike rate, whereas those who went to the BJP from Congress had a strike rate of 5.6%, according to an analysis by The Hindu. This suggests that supporters were convinced to vote for candidates on Congress tickets even if they were BJP turncoats. The BJP had 18 such defectors and the Congress 23. However, former Karnataka chief minister Jagdish Shettar bucked this trend. He mutinied against the BJP and joined the Congress, bolstering the latter’s claim that the BJP mistreated Lingayat leaders. But he lost by over 34,000 votes.

The widespread decline of big names showed that voters prioritised local issues. Of the 25 BJP ministers who contested, 11 lost, including prominent names such as B Sreeramulu, who has connections to mining baron Janardhana Reddy, and BC Nagesh, the education minister behind the Hijab ban. CT Ravi, its main election strategist, also lost. From the JDS, the Gowda family's scion Nikhil Kumaraswamy lost. However, the Congress’s two main faces, Siddharamaiah and DK Shivakumar, won by almost one lakh votes.

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