Why changes in Karnataka led back to 2014 tally

The state’s three parties have the same tally in 2024 as a decade ago. But that’s where the similarities end. A united Congress took on a fractious BJP this time
Why changes in Karnataka led back to 2014 tally
Express illustration | Sourav Roy

Karnataka was seen as one of the swing states in the Lok Sabha polls. Both the BJP and the Congress had invested a lot of time and effort to swing the state in their favour. The BJP even entered into an alliance with the JDS to ensure that the anti-Congress vote was not split. As the results came trickling in, it was clear that the Karnataka voter had ensured political takeaways for both the BJP-led alliance as well as the Congress. Neither could claim unequivocal support of the voter in the state.

It is interesting that the seat share of the three major players returned exactly to what they were in 2014. Then, too, the BJP had won 17 seats with the Congress securing nine and the JDS holding on to two. However, the similarity between 2014 and 2024 ends there. Much water has flown below the political bridge in the last decade. The impact of the BJP-JDS alliance, their campaign revolving around the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the factionalism in the state unit of the BJP, the projection and visibility of implementation of the state government’s guarantees, and of course the Prajwal Revanna embarrassment—all seem to have played a role in the results.

Save for the 2019 verdict, the scope of BJP victories over the last two decades has been in the 17 to 19 range. Similarly, save in 2019, the scope of Congress victories have been in the range of six to nine seats. The JDS has won seats in the range of two to three seats, as it has done this time too. The BJP victory has been at the lower end of the range and the Congress at the higher end.

The election in Karnataka was held in two phases, with 14 seats going to the polls in each phase. The first phase involved seats in the Old Mysore region, while the second phase covered Northern Karnataka. The first phase involved the traditional strongholds of the Congress and JDS, while the second phase covered the traditional strongholds of the BJP. Interestingly, the BJP-led alliance did well in the first phase—the BJP winning 10 seats, and the JDS and the Congress two each. On the other hand, the 14 seats in the second phase were evenly divided between the Congress and the BJP.

One notices a play of political musical chairs with the parties rotating the seats they won in 2019. The JDS lost the seat it previously had—Hassan—but wrested two seats, one from an independent and another that was held by the BJP but was transferred to it as part of the seat-sharing arrangement. The Congress lost the one seat it had won the last time—Bangalore Rural—but wrested one seat from the JDS and eight from the BJP. The BJP retained 16 of its seats and wrested one from the Congress while conceding nine to its opponents. It is also important to record that in 11 of the 17 victories of the BJP, the party had changed its candidates. All the nine new Congress MPs and a new JDS MP are entering the Lok Sabha for the first time. Thus, three-fourths—21 of 28—of the Karnataka MPs have been elected from constituencies that they won for the first time. They include three former chief ministers, three former Union ministers and a former speaker of the state assembly.

What were the factors that helped the BJP claim a majority of the seats, even though it saw a loss of one-third of its seats? Three factors worked in its favour. The fact that over the last three elections, the voter in the state has distinguished between assembly and Lok Sabha elections, and in the span of a year voted for one party in the assembly polls and another for the Lok Sabha is clear.

The Modi factor seems to have been critical in ensuring the BJP victory. All the NDA candidates sought votes in the prime minister’s name and saw themselves as proxies for one more term of Modi as prime minister. Thirdly, the social coalitions that the NDA alliance was able to stitch together worked to their advantage. This also explains the wider victory margins of the NDA candidates.

Three different sets of factors helped the Congress recover from its 2019 performance. The guarantees that the state government implemented found some traction with voters. Secondly, the Congress benefitted from the lack of unity in the state BJP unit, which was visible. This was especially true in the second round of polling where, in the BJP strongholds, the Congress forced an equal division of seats. A supplementary factor in the second phase was the embarrassment the BJP candidates faced due to the Prajwal Revanna controversy. A deeper study of the Lokniti-CSDS data will indicate the way in which the women’s vote swung in Karnataka. Finally, the Congress entered this election with greater unity and a sense of desperation. A wipe-out would have led to very difficult times for the state government. The nine seats were veritably like a face-saver.

As one moves forward, the Congress would want to ensure greater stability in the ruling party and its government. Talk of a leadership change seems to be on the back-burner. Any talk of ministry reshuffle had been postponed till the Lok Sabha polls. The topic cannot be postponed anymore and the discontent among ruling party legislators would have to be addressed. The BJP still faces factionalism and, with the party having to run a coalition government at the Centre, there would be less focus on the state units. The state leadership of the party would need to be proactive in its role as an opposition and in preparation for 2028. The JDS would hope for a role in the central government. This expectation is dampened by some extent on account of the embarrassment the party faces on the Prajwal Revanna issue.

The political battle lines in the state are clearly drawn and the players wait for an appropriate moment to carry forward the confrontation. The fireworks may start sooner rather than later.

(Views are personal)

Sandeep Shastri

Political scientist, National Coordinator of the Lokniti Network, and Director (academics) at the NITTE Education Trust

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