Conventional wisdom suggests that bypolls tend to favour the party in office. Even then, the 4-1 scoreline from Karnataka byelections to the assembly and Parliament is significant for more than one reason. First, the results are likely to strengthen the ruling Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) combine, an opportunistic alliance formed after the assembly elections in May. It is most likely now that the two parties will fight the general election next year as pre-poll allies. Two, the massive victory margin of the alliance nominee in Ballary Lok Sabha seat, considered a pocket-borough of the Reddy brothers, the influential mining barons, confirms the revival of the Congress in this seat, which it had not won in the past 14 years. The assembly elections had hinted at impending change when the Congress won six of the nine assembly seats in Ballary district.
Like in most byelections, local factors had an important role in influencing the outcome in the three Lok Sabha seats and two assembly constituencies. While the Congress-JDS campaign was vigorous with arch rivals Siddaramaiah and the Gowdas leading the show, the BJP preferred to lean on local leaders. In the May election, the BJP’s national leadership had pitched in with personnel and resources to boost the party’s prospects. The Congress leadership’s new stance on the Lingayat issue may also have boosted the prospects of the coalition nominees. D K Shivakumar, the controversial Congress minister who managed the campaign in Ballary, had said the party made a mistake by involving in the debate whether the Lingayat constituted a separate religion. As for the BJP, the party has been focussed on winning over MLAs from the ruling combine since it failed to form the government in May; it may have missed a trick or two by not building a narrative around governance issues. With the general election just a few months away, the BJP ought to worry if it is on the right track in the only southern state where it has substantial influence. A Congress-JDS coalition always had the caste arithmetic on its side, the bypolls saw their leaders bury long-held animosities and work together for the combine.
It may be misleading to read any broader national trend in byelections. However, it is clear now that the Opposition is in a position to stand up to the BJP’s formidable organisational muscle and resources wherever it has strong regional leaders. And the opposition’s interests may be better served by smart local alliances rather than any mahagadhbandhan of regional parties, which rarely go beyond photo-ops.