In Karnataka last week, the Congress party’s victory was unambiguous. In a house of 224 legislators, the Congress gained 55 seats and the BJP lost 38. Even massive campaigning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi could not reverse the twist of electoral fortunes.
A vote-seat divergence inevitably marks the first-past-the-post system, which India and many democracies have. In Karnataka’s vote, Congress had a 7 per cent lead over the BJP, which yielded a mammoth 31 per cent seat difference. Of late, the vote-seat relationship has often worked in favour of the BJP. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the BJP had 38 per cent of national vote and 56 per cent of Lok Sabha seats. In Karnataka state elections, a 43 per cent vote share for the Congress produced 61 per cent of assembly seats.
What accounts for the enormous national attention the Karnataka elections have received? Do they have any larger significance for 2024?
The first question is easier to answer. It has primarily to do with the metamorphosis of Bangalore, the state’s capital. Bangalore was known as a city of pensioners and a city of science. Post-retirement lives were spent in Bangalore’s easy-paced elegance. And after 1947, according to the historians of Indian science, Delhi promoted Bangalore as the nation’s science capital, making heavy public investments.
By the late 1990s, however, the city of science had turned into the city of entrepreneurship, becoming India’s Silicon Valley and leading a world-class software industry. By now, Bangalore is one of India’s richest cities. Its frightfully clogged roads show how the growth in private incomes, and hence the ubiquitous acquisition of automobiles, have outpaced the construction of roads and bridges. The city’s new wealth has attracted the attention of political parties. It is a fact of India’s political life that without being in government, political parties generally cannot raise enough funds. Those who control Karnataka’s government will also largely control Bangalore.
Moreover, after the break-up of some of India’s bigger states — Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh — Karnataka has become the seventh largest state of India. The relative size, added to Bangalore’s economic significance, allows the state to punch above its weight. Historically speaking, the story is not fundamentally different from how, by 1900, the city of Bombay and the Bombay province of British India had begun to eclipse the city of Calcutta and the vastly bigger Bengal province. Bangalore is a Bombay in the making.
Given this larger background, what can we say about these assembly elections in particular? First of all, we should abandon the idea that India is an “electoral autocracy”, as V-Dem reports put it. India remains an “electoral democracy,” where power can change hands. Elections may not be as free and vigorous as they can potentially be, but they remain sufficiently competitive. Thirteen out of 28 states in India now have non-BJP governments. Democratic backsliding has primarily — and deplorably — attacked freedom of expression, civil society and minority rights. The injury to the electoral process is smaller in magnitude.
Karnataka elections have basically unclogged the democratic process. The BJP clearly seeks hegemony in India, flooding all political as well as non-governmental spaces with its presence. But it is unable to establish all-pervasive control. India’s south and eastern coast have slipped out of its hold.
The unclogging of the political process, however, should be distinguished from the claim that the BJP is now set to lose the 2024 national elections. The unclogging means only two things. First, the cadres of the Congress party will feel re-invigorated. A defeat in Karnataka would have massively dented the party’s organisational morale, energy and spirit, making the fight for 2024 infinitely difficult. In democratic politics, we often need organisational vigour to mobilise voters before we can get their votes. Campaigns require organisations.
A second meaning of the unclogging should also be clear. Having nearly a fifth of the national vote, the Congress is the second largest party of India. No other party gets even 5 per cent of the all-India vote. Many non-Congress, non-BJP parties are running state governments. They are regionally robust but nationally thin. The BJP cannot be defeated without an alliance of non-BJP parties, and no such alliance can be successful without the Congress. After Karnataka’s elections, the non-BJP parties can no longer ignore this logic of alliance formation. The Congress is now in control of four state governments. No other Opposition party controls more than two.
Some more points are noteworthy. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) has turned out to be electorally consequential. The BJY went through 21 constituencies in Karnataka, only five of which the Congress had won in 2018. This time around, the Congress won 16 of those 21 constituencies. Moreover, as Feyaad Allie and Resuf Ahmed show, compared to the neighbouring constituencies, the Congress vote share of BJY constituencies was higher. The BJY in all likelihood made a crucial difference to Karnataka elections.
Connected to the electoral outcome is also a key ideological question. Should we infer that Hindu nationalism has lost its appeal? After all, important ideological tropes — hijab, Bajrang Bali, suspension of Muslim reservation quota, and the bizarre argument that the “royal family” of the Congress was trying to separate Karnataka from India — prominently figured in the BJP’s campaign. But even in its defeat, the BJP maintained its 36 per cent vote share. What the results show is that with proper organisational planning and astutely picked campaign issues, even such substantial vote shares can be turned into disproportionately low seats.
In short, we don’t have evidence that Hindu nationalism has lost its salience. But we do have a blueprint for how such salience can be electorally countered. And once Hindu nationalism is electorally neutralised, one can think of how state power can be used to weaken its larger ideological sway.
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The last point often gets eclipsed by the assumption that the character of the state will inescapably reflect the Hindu nationalist mass sentiment. It is often forgotten that in 2014, the BJP did not come to power on the basis of a Hindu nationalist campaign. It sought a vote against the corruption of the Congress and its dynasty. But once it started ruling, it used state power to enhance itself ideologically, both at the level of institutions and mass consciousness.
Analogously, capturing state power will be critical for attacking Hindu nationalism as an ideology. Winning elections is central to this project.
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The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia at the Watson Institute
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