Sandeep Sahu

That the thumping win by the Congress will be a huge morale booster for the party – and for the Opposition at large – ahead of the 2024 general elections is merely stating the obvious. But to extrapolate the results in the only southern state where BJP has tasted power and see it as the ‘beginning of the end’ for the BJP at the national level, as some Opposition stalwarts have sought to do, would be a fallacy. Even the hypothesis that the Karnataka outcome marks the beginning of the revival of the Congress and its return to pole position before the parliamentary polls does not have enough evidence to stand on.

Those interpreting the Karnataka results as an early indicator of the defeat of the BJP in the coming Lok Sabha elections would do well to remember what happened the last time. Less than a year after losing power in the state to the Congress-JDS combine, the BJP had bounced back spectacularly in the Lok Sabha elections, winning a whopping 51.7% vote share that gave it 25 out of the 28 LS seats in the state. The Congress and its alliance partner JDS had managed barely a seat each.

And it is not as if it is a one-off phenomenon. In recent times, state after state have voted differently in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. The same thing happened in the three states that went to polls a few months after Karnataka in 2018 (and will have Assembly elections later this year): Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The BJP was voted out – and the Congress voted in - in all the three states. But as in the Lok Sabha elections in Karnataka in 2019, the BJP won a spectacular comeback in all three states, winning 24 out of 25 seats in Rajasthan (the Congress drew a blank), 28 out of 29 in Madhya Pradesh and nine out of 11 seats in Chhattisgarh. The most clinching evidence of this recent ‘split voting’ pattern, however, was seen in our very own Odisha where the voters, voting on the same day, gave the BJD a whopping 112 out of the 147 Assembly seats and the BJP as many as eight of the 21 Lok Sabha seats (in two of which the saffron party did not win a single Assembly segment!).

While the victory in the Karnataka polls is certainly calls for celebration, the Congress will do well not to surmise that the BJP would bite the dust in the 2024 polls. It must understand that India is a vast, diverse country and what worked for it in Karnataka may not work elsewhere. Winning the 2024 Lok Sabha polls would call for a calibrated election strategy that factors in these disparities and finds a way to work with other opposition parties in states where it is not a major player anymore. But there is no denying that the big win in Karnataka has bolstered the Congress’ claim of being the fulcrum of a united anti-BJP front and weakened the position of those opposed to such an idea.

For the BJP, the Karnataka outcome was a reality check. There were two major lessons for the party in the results. First, there are limits to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s undeniable charisma and popularity can be encashed for votes. It was a no-brainer that in making the whole campaign all about himself, Modi was merely trying to compensate for the uninspiring leadership of Basaavraj Bommai. But the results must have convinced him about the need to groom strong local leaders who can do the job in the states – as they did in the case of Congress. Having won victory for his party with his charisma in two successive elections, Modi must now find something more than his own popularity to win the coming Lok Sabha elections too.     

Second, efforts to polarize the electorate on communal lines as an election strategy have now run up against the law of diminishing returns. It must have been galling for Prime Minister Modi – and the BJP at large – to see Congress workers dress and pose as Hanuman, wield maces (gadas) and chant ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’ as part of the victory celebration in a pointed riposte to the chant of ‘Bajrang Bali’ at the end of each speech by Modi and other BJP leaders during the campaign.

Between the two major national parties – and contenders for power at the Centre – the one that draws the appropriate lessons from the Karnataka elections, takes corrective measures and formulates the right strategy will end up as winners in 2024