India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party lost a key election in the State of Karnataka on Saturday, May 13. The opposition Indian National Congress (INC) won a decisive victory in the southern State, securing 135 seats and leading in one in the 234-member legislative assembly. The BJP won 65 seats while the Janata Dal (Secular) [JD(S)] won 19 seats.
The BJP was in power in the State, having formed the government in July 2019 under controversial circumstances by topping a coalition of the INC and JD(S) by getting legislators of the parties to defect.
The current election, which was held on May 10, saw an extremely keen contest. The BJP conducted a high-octane campaign, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his second-in-command, Home Minister Amit Shah. The part also resorted to its usual strategies of religious polarization. However, in the run-up to the campaign, analysts had pointed out that there was deep dissatisfaction with the performance of the BJP government in the State.
Highlighting these issues ahead of the elections, NewsClick analyst Subodh Varma noted that a pre-poll survey had found that “68% of those surveyed identified corruption, 47% said price rise and 34% said unemployment were important factors in deciding which way to vote…The survey found that among poorer sections, price rise becomes an even bigger issue with about 51% of respondents reporting it as a major factor.” He added that these issues, along with unemployment and the crisis faced by farmers, were over-riding the caste and regional divisions in the state.
Ahead of the polls, Bahutva Karnataka, a coalition of progressive organizations, released reports detailing the failures of the BJP government in areas such as nutrition, health, education, fundamental laws, federalism and environment. These reports revealed shocking facts such as 33% of children under five being stunted, and 33% being underweight. Similarly, the report stated that only 7.7% of class three students in Karnataka government schools can read up to class two level texts. The numbers are all the more ironic considering Karnataka’s capital, Bengaluru, is considered one of the IT hubs of the world.
Karnataka was the only State in south India where the BJP was in power. The State has been considered by the party, which is traditionally stronger in the north, as a ‘Gateway’ to the south. Many analysts have pointed out that the State has been a ‘laboratory’ for the politics of religious polarization that the BJP has practiced for decades.
Since coming into power in 2019, the BJP highlighted a number of issues which sought to appeal to Hindu identity politics and polarize sentiments against the minorities, especially Muslims. These include ‘love jihad’ [a campaign that alleges that Muslim men seek to convert Hindu women to Islam by marrying them] and the issue of hijab. The latter issue became especially controversial when government-run schools banned girls wearing the hijab from attending classes. These issues were also highlighted by the BJP during the campaign. Union Home Minister Amit Shah also sought to target the left by insinuating that the people of Karnataka were not safe as they were bordered by Kerala which is ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
The opposition INC was able to successfully tap into issues such as price rise and corruption, and avoided falling into the trap of religious polarization.
The elections in Karnataka were closely watched and anticipated as they were a major contest between the two major parties ahead of the national parliamentary elections in 2024. While the victory in Karnataka will give the Congress a boost, the BJP remains strong nationally. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has retained his popularity despite opposition parties and activists and progressive forces highlighting the pro-corporate and divisive policies of his government.
Responding to the verdict, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) termed it the “result of the gross misrule and corruption of the BJP government.” The party added that the results showed that “the people have rejected the virulent communal propaganda conducted during the election campaign led by PM Modi himself.”