How did Modi lose Karnataka – and could he lose India?

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By Webdesk

Finally, the writing hung on the wall.

Polls following the May 10 vote in the South Indian state of Karnataka showed that the opposition Congress Party had a better chance of forming the next government than Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power used to be.

Yet few would have predicted the magnitude of Congress’s victory, given the BJP’s dominance of Indian politics in recent years and the ruling party’s ability to form governments even in states where it is fails to secure a majority – often using controversial means. .

On Saturday, despite those odds, the Congress managed to win 135 out of 224 seats in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, taking 43 percent of the vote, 5 percent more than in the previous 2018 election and 7 percent more than the BJP this time. Modi’s party, which had won 104 seats in 2018, had to settle for 66 this time. The Janata Dal (Secular), or JD-S, the third major party in the state, won 19 seats.

Central to that result were local political factors, analysts said. And while the reverberations of the result will reverberate in BJP headquarters in New Delhi, they do not necessarily portend a dramatic shift in the national mood against the incumbent prime minister.

“The Congress leaders in Karnataka stood united and the BJP collapsed under its own misrule and power struggle,” KS Dakshina Murthy, a veteran political commentator and author from Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka, told Al Jazeera. “The anti-incumbency wave against the saffron party was felt on the ground,” he said, referring to the BJP’s saffron flag.

Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader of India's main opposition party, Congress, arrives to address the media after the first polls in the Karnataka elections at the party's headquarters in New Delhi
Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader of India’s main opposition party, Congress, arrives to address the media after the first polls in the Karnataka elections at the party’s headquarters in New Delhi [Reuters]

The big message

David Bodapati, a senior journalist who has been covering politics in Karnataka for three decades, pointed out that the Congress had won by the largest margin of all victories in the state since 1989, when it won 178 seats and won 43.76 percent of won the votes.

This clear majority allows the Congress to form a government on its own, as it did in 2013. A broken mandate in 2018 – when the BJP was the largest party but failed to secure a majority of 113 – led to four prime ministers under two governments who have been sworn in for more than five years. That means the state is likely to have a stable government for the next five years.

Conversely, with its departure from Karnataka, the BJP no longer holds power in any of India’s five southern states.

Finally, the result could serve as a morale booster for India’s otherwise beleaguered opposition, which is trying to devise a strategy to unseat Modi nationally ahead of the country’s elections likely to take place in April and May 2024.

Victory of ‘secularism’?

The tallest leader of the state congress and former prime minister, Siddaramaiah, who goes by only one name, addressed journalists about the election results and said: “It is a secular party victory. The people of Karnataka will not tolerate municipal politics.”

Unlike many state and national opposition leaders who are often hesitant to address the BJP’s anti-Muslim political campaigns too directly, Siddaramaiah has consistently opposed Modi’s party’s divisive policies.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who visited 20 constituencies in Karnataka during his Bharat Jodo Yatra (a congressional foot march to spread the message of peace and unity in 12 states and two union territories last year), echoed Siddaramaiah’s statement and said: “Karnataka has closed the gate of hate and opened the shop of love.”

The outgoing BJP government had introduced a series of laws and regulations widely believed to target the state’s Muslims, who make up about 13 percent of Karnataka’s 60 million population. These included a ban last year on Muslim students wearing hijab in educational institutions and the removal of a 4 percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions that benefited many Muslim sub-communities. Among other things, the BJP government passed laws ostensibly against forced religious conversions (India’s Hindu right often accused Muslims and Christians of using enticements and coercion to make Hindus abandon their faith) and a ban on cow slaughter.

Muslims in Karnataka have regularly faced harassment under BJP rule. These laws provided legal cover for attacks on Muslims. For example, many Muslim men have been attacked, accused of love jihad, an unproven Hindu right-wing conspiracy theory that claims they are courting Hindu women to convert them to Islam.

Muslims have been killed over allegations that they ate beef – the most recent being the brutal murder of a Muslim trader in Mandya on March 31. There were also calls from Hindu groups in Karnataka to ban halal meat, ban the use of loudspeakers for the Islamic call for prayers, and stop Muslim traders from doing business near Hindu temples.

But the election results suggest that the BJP’s efforts to foment Islamophobia – a recipe that has worked well in the northern states – have had limited results in Karnataka.

“The intelligent and peace-loving people of Karnataka have rejected the intolerance and violence against minorities by the BJP,” Ashok Maridas, a Karnataka congress leader, told Al Jazeera. “People want good governance, better roads, hospitals and schools to cater to the downtrodden.”

Local problems: price increases, corruption

According to political commentators, local issues such as price hikes and corruption played a major role in the BJP’s defeat. Murthy says the allegations of corruption against the outgoing government have seeped into the minds of voters. “It proved detrimental to the BJP.”

Congress weaponized one jibe in particular, repeatedly referring to the BJP government as the “40 percent sarkar [government] – a reference to allegations from contractors in Karnataka claiming that 40 per cent of the tender amount for state-funded infrastructure projects is being taken as bribes by BJP leaders and officials.

Modi attended nearly two dozen election rallies in Karnataka, but that failed to save the party’s fate. “There was a lack of local leadership in the BJP. The Modi magic didn’t work for the Kannadigas [as the people of Karnataka are known]Bodapati said. In Bengaluru, at the BJP’s state office, party officials and leaders have declined to comment on the setback.

Harbinger of the future?

Speaking at an event organized by Eddelu Karnataka (Wake up, Karnataka) – a popular movement – ​​on April 25 in Bengaluru, psefologist-politician Yogendra Yadav told Al Jazeera that the election results in Karnataka would set the tone for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

“The BJP wants to make the southern state the center of lynchings and love jihad,” he said, describing the state as a “battleground to save Indian democracy.”

But Murthy disagrees.

“The state elections are about local issues. Every election is different,” he says. “I don’t see the results having much impact on the Lok Sabha polls. The BJP probably realized the limitations of aggressive Hindutva politics after its latest defeat.” Hindutva or political Hinduism is the ideology of the BJP.

Still, the result will have an effect beyond Karnataka, Murthy admitted. “It will certainly boost the confidence of the opposition.”

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