The outcome of the Karnataka assembly election, scheduled for May 12, is likely to have a major bearing on the future course of both the BJP and the Congress. Though each state poll has its own political logic, the Karnataka result could set the tempo for the upcoming assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh later this year and even shape the contours of the 2019 general election. If the BJP regains the state, it could disorient the Opposition, which has lost state after state since the Narendra Modi government was sworn in in 2014. A Congress win could boost the confidence of the Opposition, which seems to have sensed an opening following its success in bypolls in UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, MP and Odisha.
Karnataka is central to the BJP’s plans for southern India since the party has a significant electoral presence in the state having won office in 2008. Five states and the union territories of Puducherry and Lakshadweep send 131 seats to the Lok Sabha, but the BJP continues to be a bit player in the region barring in Karnataka. The absence of a government in the south also diminishes the BJP’s claims to be a pan-India party: Since 2014, it has formed governments across north, west, central and eastern India but has failed to crack the south. The very strengths that helped the BJP to deepen its presence in rest of India are threatening to queer its pitch in the south. The Congress in Karnataka under Siddaramaiah has countered the BJP’s aggressive nationalist plank by embracing a Kannada subnationalist agenda: This narrative subtly frames the BJP as a Hindi-Hindutva party that is unable to recognise the cultural nuances of Kannada society. Talk of the Finance Commission assigning greater weightage to population while devolving central funds too has inadvertently fed into this political narrative, which suggests that the Centre is prejudiced. Siddaramaiah has also pitchforked the Lingayat demand for religious minority status to the centrestage close to the election to tame the BJP’s attempt to consolidate Hindu communities under its umbrella. The BJP’s push on a Hindu identity, embellished by campaigners like Yogi Adityanath, is now squaring against Siddaramaiah’s social coalition that includes sections of OBCs, Dalits and Muslims, a coalition forged by targeted welfare programmes and underlined by Kannada subnationalism. A win in Bengaluru may help the BJP wrest the narrative and open up political spaces in the southern states.
Retaining office in Karnataka is essential for the Congress to claim leadership of the non-BJP political segment. The party seems to have figured that it can hope to rebuild only by empowering state leaders. It has backed Siddaramaiah all through and allowed him to project himself as the Congress face in the state. It’s a gamble that could transform the Congress into a more federal party, a character that distinguished it in the 1950s and 60s.