In a significant victory for the Indian National Congress, the opposition won control of the southern Karnataka state, taking it from the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The result will breathe new life into opposition parties, which have been divided. They hope to form a united front to challenge Modi’s government in the general election next year, as he seeks a third consecutive term as prime minister. The defeat of the BJP in Karnataka means the party has lost the only southern state it has ever controlled. It is believed that the BJP had been banking on Modi’s popularity to win the state, but this had been damaged by recent religious tensions.
Over the last few weeks, Modi had been campaigning hard in Karnataka, which has a population of 65 million people. The Election Commission of India has stated that the Congress has won 123 seats and is leading in 12 others, giving it the majority of 113 in the state assembly. The BJP has won or is leading in 64 seats, while another regional party, the Janata Dal (Secular), has won 20 seats. India’s Election Commission, which is yet to declare full results, expects to confirm the Congress victory on Saturday.
Jairam Ramesh, the Congress General Secretary, attributed his party’s win to its focus on local issues such as “livelihood and food security, price rise, farmer distress, electricity supply, joblessness, and corruption”. He went on to comment that “The PM injected divisiveness and attempted polarisation. The vote in Karnataka is for an engine in Bengaluru that will combine economic growth with social harmony.”
In turn, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Congress party, expressed his joy at the party’s win. He said that “The markets of hate have been shut down and the shops of love have opened”.
Karnataka is India’s second wealthiest state, and the BJP had placed great weight on winning there. The polarisation of communities between Hindu and Muslim inhabitants has increased in Karnataka over the past few years. The BJP had supported the banning of girls from wearing headscarves as part of their school uniform, further stoking religious tensions. According to the 2011 census, 84% of Karnataka’s population were Hindu, almost 13% Muslim, and less than 2% were Christian.
Modi’s BJP had promised social welfare measures and pledged to spur development, but before the election, it moved towards its usual play, Hindu nationalism, saying that the Congress had ignored Hindu values and sought only to appease minority groups, particularly Muslims. The BJP also withdrew a 4% reservation in job and education quotas for Muslims and allocated it to two Hindu caste groups. By contrast, the Congress built its campaign around claims of rising inflation, alleged corruption, and poor infrastructure provision. It promised electricity subsidies, rations for poor families, and financial support for unemployed graduates.
This latest defeat for the BJP comes after it also lost the Himachal Pradesh state to the Congress in December 2017. While the Congress had been previously routed by the BJP in national polls, this victory in Karnataka could revive its fortunes and lay the groundwork for winning a substantial share of seats in next year’s general election. It is understood that the Congress has a better chance of winning more southern states, which are less sympathetic to the BJP’s Hindu nationalist policies, while the BJP stands a better chance of winning in the north and west of India where its policies have had a stronger following.
If the BJP’s defeat in Karnataka is a sign of things to come in the general election, Modi’s third consecutive term in office is looking uncertain.