The campaign for one of the most fiercely contested assembly elections ended on Thursday. The prime minister held 21 mega rallies for the BJP — six up from the 15 originally planned — while the ruling Congress campaign was spearheaded by the incumbent chief minister, Siddaramaiah, with party president, Rahul Gandhi, playing second fiddle. The BJP, eager to return to office in a state it won once in 2008 and sees as a gateway to South India, had invested heavily in the campaign. The Congress, recognising that it can’t lose Karnataka, one of the only two big states where it is in office, ran an equally spirited campaign. The Janata Dal (Secular) of the former prime minister Deve Gowda refused to let the polls be a two-party affair, which is what state elections have become in most states, by making its presence felt in the southern part of the state.
The Karnataka polls is seen as a forerunner to the upcoming battles in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh later this year, and the general election next year. Political parties feel the outcome in Karnataka could generate a momentum that can influence voter behaviour in these elections and enthuse cadres and leaders. Increasingly, every assembly election is now seen as a defining moment in a continuous journey between general elections. The BJP, ambitious for total domination of the polity, has been relentless and focused in its pursuit of success, with the prime minister leading the way. Expectedly, its opponents have been forced to rethink their campaign strategies and tactics. While the BJP campaign had a polarising pitch with its central leaders pulling out all its pet themes to woo the voter, the Congress, unusual for the party, chose to respond by privileging its local character. The rallies, roadshows and social media storms have triggered a churn that could upset the conventional wisdom on voting patterns. Regional disparities, micro rebellions within core constituencies of the two big parties, polarisation with caste groups, the involvement of math leaders and so on have further complicated the poll prognosis. The nuances of history, including of kings and generals, and even a dog breed, triggered intense debates: The shrillness and the divisiveness in the campaign foreclosed the possibility of any sensible discussion on the record of the incumbent government.
A BJP win will bolster the credentials of Modi and party chief Amit Shah as an all-weather winning combination and give the party a headwind in the elections ahead. A Congress win may convince the party that it is on the revival path and help restate its claim as the leader of any anti-BJP coalition. For the people in Karnataka, they, surely, will be relieved that the raucous campaign has finally ended.