A hotly contested state election, seen as a bellwether for India’s national polls next year, has resulted in a politician of a local party allied with the opposition Congress being appointed chief minister — but only after a Supreme Court ruling and a race tainted by allegations of bribery.
H.D. Kumaraswamy took the top job Wednesday in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Its capital Bangalore is a technology hub, home to corporate giants like Infosys and Walmart’s latest acquisition Flipkart.
The final tally, with the BJP winning 104 seats and the Congress-led alliance picking up 115, will please neither the ruling BJP nor the opposition parties. Congress, India’s grand old party, needed a decisive win to show that it can mount a credible fight in 2019.
A victory for the BJP would have given it a presence in the south, a region of India that has not been swept away in the party’s saffron wave. It would have also been its first big win in the south under Modi — an encouraging development before its seeks another term. For Modi personally, a win in Karnataka would have been a boost to his standing as he struggles to unite a country polarized by religious and cultural divisions and deals with large-scale unemployment, rising inflation and oil prices and a weakening rupee.
Here’s how party strategists in the world’s largest democracy will be parsing the results of the Karnataka elections.
For The Congress
Many Indians see the Congress as a crumbling party that has lost some of its national relevance after losing a string of state elections over the last few years.
The Congress chose to go it alone in Karnataka — a key state in terms of the number of seats it commands in the Indian Parliament — but once the party realized it wouldn’t get a simple majority in the state legislature, it formed an alliance against the BJP with the local Janata Dal (Secular) party. This is the same JD(S) that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi called the BJP’s “B Team” in a pre-election rally — a classic example of politics making strange bedfellows.
Congress’ lackluster showing majority is a setback and highlights the importance of recognizing when and where regional partners are essential. Rahul Gandhi was lucky that his coalition attempts succeeded this time, but that may not always be the case. Gandhi and his team will now have to work with regional leaders to form a united opposing coalition. Establishing those connections before India votes, rather than after, would stand the party in good stead.
As Dr. P.S. Jayaramu, a senior fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research told TIME, “A loss in Karnataka would have undermined the Congress’ position and the party would have found it difficult to call itself the leader of a national coalition against the BJP.” It would have also struggled to raise funds for upcoming campaigns given declining confidence in its abilities.
But after surviving the Karnataka drama, the Congress lives to fight another day and another election.
For The BJP
Since coming to power in 2014, the BJP has systematically won elections across the country, and now controls 21 out of 29 states. However, it has failed to find a strong foothold in the culturally and linguistically distinct south.
A win in Karnataka would have provided the party with a gateway to the region, as BJP President Amit Shah said, and allowed it to lay the groundwork to change the regional anti-BJP sentiment ahead of May 2019. It would also have helped with the party’s image. “So far, the BJP has been seen as a north Indian, ‘cow-belt’ party but this win would have helped change the perception to a more pan-Indian outfit,” Jayaramu said.
Despite the loss, the election showed how effective the BJP’s machinery has been. The party was smart about allocating resources, choosing candidates for constituencies and using Modi wisely. The Indian prime minister, known for his passionate speeches, is a crowd-puller and the BJP capitalized on this by increasing his appearances from 15 to 21. It may have paid off. Overall, Modi campaigned in districts that covered 164 seats and the BJP won 80 of them, considerably bettering previous performances in some instances. This bodes well for the 2019 elections.
If the past week is anything to go by, India’s 2019 general elections promise to be a roller coaster ride.
The Congress has a year to get its act together and begin implementing strategies that will help it put on a strong show against Modi in the national polls. Party leader Rahul Gandhi is viewed by many as not up to the challenge and has received flak for not bringing together a core team to oversee the party’s overall functioning and strategy. Perhaps the Karnataka results will be the impetus required to bring about change.
In any case, potential members of the united opposition from across the country came together at the swearing-in ceremony of Karnataka’s new chief minister on May 23. Leaders such as Mayawati of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee were in attendance.
The BJP will be buoyed by the fact that it had an impressive show in the state and will continue to hone its political strategies and machinery in upcoming state elections before going all out in the general elections. However, it must bear in mind that its machinations will meet a stiff challenge from opposition parties and even India’s Supreme Court, if the need arises.
There has been some talk that Modi might choose to advance next year’s elections to the end of 2018, but nothing has been mentioned by the prime minister himself. Jayaramu believes that Modi will wait for another one or two state election results before deciding on when to hold national elections, depending on whether the momentum is with the BJP or not.
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