Karnataka: Congress’s renaissance moment

Anil Anand
Thumping victory in Karnataka is nothing less than a renaissance moment for Congress in more than one-ways. Two successive drubbings for all-powerful BJP in Himachal Pradesh and now Karnataka taking fizz out of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Hindutava, hyper nationalism and double engine” doctrine, has brought a moment of introspection for the saffron party. It has almost evaporated his oft-raised Congress-mukt Bharat slogan. On the contrary it is BJP-mukt South.
The victory coupled with smooth selection of a chief ministerial candidate within four days of the results, something unusual for a party ridden with factionalism and smarting under the pressure of “plenty”, is something extraordinary happened to raise the morale of the beleaguered party. Extraordinary because it could prove to be a morale booster for the party’s sagging image and demoralized rank and file, and that it has quickly catapulted Congress to the centerstage of opposition unity forum.
There are many takeaways for Congress from this victory. And the biggest, in the context of 2024 Lok Sabha elections, is that the most maverick and reticent among the opposition party leaders impliedly accepted the Congress’s pivotal role in unitedly taking on the might of Mr Modi.
Nothing explains this situation better than Trinmool Congress president and West Bengal chief minister Ms Mamta Banerjee’s suo motu acknowledgment of this victory and the resultant dilution of her stand of an opposition front without Congress. She has dropped her Third Front theory without any coaxing and cajoling, and throwing tantrums in her inimitable style.
The Congress’s empowerment after this victory is also reflected by the fact that she acknowledged the party’s strength in 200 Lok Sabha seats where it can directly take-on the BJP with the backing of the entire opposition. However, while propounding a level-playing theory whereby regional parties’ strength should also be duly recognized, she said the Congress would be free to negotiate alliances with its regional friends.
By Ms Banerjee’s stand is a dramatic shift in her stance on opposition unity brought about by Congress’s Karnataka victory. She was the only stumbling block while most of the other leaders of opposition parties were in agreement that no front would be effective without the Congress. Wether Congress will accept her proposal that the party should leave West Bengal entirely to Trinamool Congress, only time will tell.
Yet another significant gain for Congress is that the loss has resulted in BJP’s gateway to south crumbling notwithstanding the fact that it was able to retain its vote share. Karnataka had provided the BJP with a foothold to try and influence neighbouring southern states but that advantage has now been lost. The BJP had won 25 out of 28 Lok Sabha seats in the state and that this time around the party nominees lost deposit in 30 segments, shows the significance of Congress victory and BJP loss.
The southern states account for about 130 Lok Sabha seats. With BJP’s tried and trusted winning formula failing in Karnataka including personal appeal of Mr Modi, it will become difficult for the party to retain or win a sizable number of seats in the state. This is certainly a set back to the BJP’s expansion plans in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana with an eye on general elections.
There were two contrasting models at play in Karnataka elections. While the BJP went ahead vigorously with Modi-centric model with almost all the state leaders including their most popular though controversial face BS Yedyurappa, sidelined during the campaign. The Congress for a surprise adopted a rather decentralized approach wherein leaders such as Siddharamaiah and D K Shivkumar took the center stage while Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi performed a supporting role. So much so despite being a son of the soil, the AICC president Mallikarjun Kharge, though he played a pivotal role, maintained a low profile.
From both Congress and BJP points of view, Karnataka developments have once again brought focus on the significance of regional and state-level leaders. Unfortunately, both the parties have not groomed this set of leaders and instead laid greater stress on a centralized and personality-based approach whereby the existing regional or state level leaders paled into insignificance till Karnataka happened.
The Congress must follow the Karnataka model in next phase of assembly elections involving politically significant Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and strongly back the local leaders. Yet another significant factor contributing to Congress victory was that local issues were given precedence over national and international subjects which ensured direct connectivity with the voters. This model also needs to be emulated in other states before entering general elections.
On the other hand, the “Modi magic” could not find its echo in southern part of the country particularly Karnataka which was sought to be projected as “Hindutava laboratory” of the BJP in that region. It would not be a bad idea for the party strategists to advice Mr Modi to strengthen and trust the regional leaders more so when his personal appeal has not travelled beyond the Hindi belt or North India and Gujarat. More so it has not worked magic in South and East (West Bengal and Odisha) and had limited impact in North-East where it had to heavily rely on state level parties, barring Assam.
The borderline is that there is no alternative to regional or state level leaders. Equally important is the presence of a national party for forging an umbrella coalition or alliance.
Another significant take-away for Congress is that the party has been able to recapture its social base as it garnered considerable backing from SC, ST and minority communities which once used to be its core support base. The fact that the party won majority of the 15 ST and SC dominated seats, causing a dent to Mr Modi’s high-profile tribal push, is significant.
Will Congress be able to repeat this act in coming set of assembly elections? The party must strive hard to strengthen this social base which could ultimately become core of its broad-based electoral support system in Lok Sabha elections and as the pivot of the united opposition. However, it should not be done by ignoring other sections of the society.
Following Karnataka victory, nearly one-fifth of the country’s vote at the national level is with Congress thereby establishing it as the second largest party after BJP. This has further strengthened its credentials and lent credence to the argument that opposition unity without Congress would be a futile effort to match Modi-power.
Karnataka victory has made Congress indispensable from the opposition unity point of view. It will be difficult for the ilk of Ms Banerjee or even Bharat Rashtra Samithi head and Telangana chief minister, K Chandrasekhar Rao, nurturing Prime Ministerial ambitions, to talk of opposition unity without Congress and with either of them playing the central role.