Notionally speaking, on a large national canvas, Karnataka occupies a modest space. Of the 545 Lok Sabha seats, it contributes 28, a number that is unlikely to make or break a winning tally, as against states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar and Tamil Nadu that add more substantively to the parliamentary kitty.
However, Karnataka’s political significance draws from a number of other incalculable factors, among them being its premiership in the IT and infrastructure sectors, its pioneering initiatives in education, health, agriculture and rural development and, most important, its primacy in the BJP’s ambitions to breach the southern region.
Unsurprisingly, the political gamut waited with bated breath for the outcome of the Assembly elections, as though it was a make-or-mar endeavour for the BJP, Congress and the Opposition. The non-Congress Opposition had little to invest in the elections, apart from watching the showing of the JD(S), counted among the southern regional forces. The JD(S) is unlikely to play a role in the Opposition’s endeavour to cobble a large coalition after its poor showing.
Fillip to Opposition
Ironically and regardless of the JD(S)’s outcome, the Congress’s victory gave a fillip to the Opposition’s efforts to mount an anti-BJP front, although individual constituents such as the Trinamool Congress Party (TMC), the Aam Admi Party (AAP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) had harboured reservations over the Congress’s express wish to lead such an entity (if it materialised). Punching above their weight, this trio inevitably took the debate to another level that was not really germane in the existing circumstances where the BJP reigned supreme.
Post-Karnataka, clearly even the Opposition’s doubting Thomases will have to revisit their position on the Congress which single-handedly smashed the BJP. That is the most significant implication of the Congress’s win. It will gain an upper hand vis-a-vis the regional players who were largely dismissive of the Gandhis and their ability to confront the BJP on their own steam.
The push to bring the Opposition together came from the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), helmed by the Bihar chief minister and JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar. The duo is in power in Patna with the Congress as a governing partner and with the external support of the Left parties, including the CPI(M-L). Nitish’s peregrinations had started before the Karnataka results were known.
With Tejashwi Yadav, the RJD leader and the deputy chief minister, Nitish called on a range of Opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi and M Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress president, Mamata Banerjee, the TMC chief and West Bengal chief minister and interestingly, the Odisha chief minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president, Naveen Patnaik. The Patnaik call-on was notable because so far the Odisha chief minister adopted a classic equidistant stand towards the “mainline” parties, the Congress and the BJP, with a perceptible tilt towards the BJP at the Centre, obviously out of expediency. The BRS, helmed by Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao, and the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) were excluded from the visitors’ roll call.
Patnaik underlined the complexities inherent in putting together an Opposition front. He rejected the concept of a Third Front and clarified that the meeting with Nitish was nothing more than chatting with an old Socialist buddy. Although the BJP has displaced the Congress as the BJD’s principal challenger in Odisha, the Congress is still too discredited in the popular perception of the state for Patnaik to consider an understanding with the party. It remains a liability.
Pre-Karnataka, Nitish’s efforts existed in a vacuum largely stemming from the ambivalence towards the Congress that some regional parties continued to hold. The Bengaluru victory not just gave the Congress the adrenaline it wanted but raised the Opposition’s hopes of battling the BJP on their terms instead of being dictated to by it. Karnataka exposed the BJP’s vulnerability in an election fought on governance-related issues impinging on people’s livelihood without being conditioned by religion and to a lesser extent, caste. The BJP’s cynical formula of constructing caste alliances with the chimera of “empowering” disadvantaged social groupings and an overlay of Hindutva came apart.
Holding their turfs
An Opposition regrouping depends on how the principal constituents are placed on their turfs, especially in the high-yielding states. The BJP is firmly entrenched in the North and the West. Its hegemony over Gujarat remains uncontested but Maharashtra has begun to look more tentative for the BJP and its partner, the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena. The state brings 48 seats and depending on how effectively and credibly the Uddhav Thackeray Shiv Sena and Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (the Congress is a minor constituent) project themselves as an alternative, the BJP’s stranglehold over the state (it won 41 seats with the undivided Sena in 2019) might loosen.
Uttar Pradesh remains undented for the BJP as the results of the recent local body elections demonstrated. The party draws its political nourishment from this state and unless that diminishes, there is little hope of the Opposition breaching the BJP wall. The combination of a strong leadership in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and a deeply polarised polity swayed by the Hindutva rhetoric make it difficult for the Opposition to take on the BJP. Unless the SP and the BSP come together again, there is little leeway for the Opposition and even that alliance is not a guarantee for success as the results of the 2019 polls showed.
The East and the South largely remain out of bounds for the BJP unless the party makes substantive breakthroughs in West Bengal, Odisha and Telangana, and retains its 2019 tally of 25 seats in Karnataka. Together, they (Karnataka, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal and Odisha) add up to 193 seats.
The BJP has an upper hand over the north-east (24 seats), with Assam being the largest contributor.
Crucial state elections
It is the North and West that make up the BJP’s supreme status. Together these states/Union Territories bring in 313 seats. Of these, the BJP’s hold over Gujarat (26), Madhya Pradesh (29), Maharashtra (48), Haryana (10), Jharkhand (14), Uttar Pradesh (80), Uttarakhand (5), Delhi (7), Chhattisgarh (4) and Rajasthan (25) remains unshaken.
This is why the elections in the end of the year in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana become salient. The first three states will see the Congress go head-to-head with the BJP while Telangana is dominated by a regional party, the BRS. Rajasthan has in store, an uphill battle for the Congress. But if it keeps Chhattisgarh, wrests Madhya Pradesh from the BJP and becomes the BRS’s main contender in Telangana instead of the BJP, it will bolster its prospects of leading an Opposition front and perhaps even nominating its prime minister candidate.