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The Congress registered a massive victory in the Karnataka Assembly elections, a mandate that the party itself might not have expected. While the sweeping mandate gives a boost to the party's morale with Assembly elections due in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Telangana later this year, does it really signify winds of change ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections?
There are several key questions that arise out of the Congress' victory:
Will the mandate have an effect on the 2024 elections?
What lessons can both BJP and Congress learn from the Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh results?
Can PM Modi's popularity charm voters on issues of the state?
Did Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra play any role in the recent elections?
The Quint caught up with Prof Sanjay Kumar, Co-Director of Lokniti, a Research Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Prof Kumar answered 11 key questions to put into perspective the role that the Congress' victory in Karnataka may or may not play in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and the lessons that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could learn from its loss.
What according to you worked for the Congress which gave them such a massive mandate in Karnataka?
Two important factors - first, the Congress focused its campaign on the local issues and the local leadership of the Congress actually took charge of the campaign. So, 'local' became very important for Congress.
It did not allow the election to turn national. If the election would have turned national, which is to say one of the big issues of national issues.
With national issues of Ram Mandir, Hindutva, national pride - I think the Congress would have been in a difficult situation. So, local issues and local leadership helped the Congress in registering the kind of victory they have been able to do in Karnataka.
Do you think that is where the BJP lacked a little when it tried to focus equally on the national issues in the campaigns?
I think there was a lot of confusion among the BJP. The BJP didn't figure out which issue they should flag in this election. It was difficult for them to pick up the local issues because the local issues would mean talking about the performance of state government and there was very little they had to talk about which could have appealed to the voters of Karnataka. There was a strong perception about corruption and the CM being weak. So, they had very little choice but to put the election into a national perspective, which they failed to do. It is much easier for the BJP and the BJP leadership to make elections national, even if it is a local body elections or a state Assembly election in the Hindi heartland states because you could connect much easier with voters with the issues of national pride, Ram Mandir, Hindutva and several others. That didn't seem to have worked for the BJP in Karnataka.
Do you think it was a mistake to let Yeddyurappa go and make a change of guard in the middle of the tenure?
We don't have evidence to suggest if Yeddyurappa was still the chief Minister, how it would have benefited the BJP. One thing is clear, even though BJP has lost election, but I don't see a strong anti-incumbency against the BJP.
Do you think issues like the hijab ban or Tipu Sultan or changes in textbooks, etc. affected the BJP?
There was no anger against the BJP. There was disenchantment and a desire for change. And why I said there was no anger because look at the vote percentages. The BJP got 36 percent vote in the 2018 assembly election. This election also there was similar support. But I think the perception or desire that this government has badly in terms of governance, it's corrupt, and that the chief minister is not capable of running the state, affected the party.
You think the Congress was able to tap into the voters with the '40% Sarkara' slogan?
I think it did work because that was a slogan about an issue which cut across entire Karnataka. This issue actually cut across people living in the rural Karnataka and urban Karnataka. Men, women and people started relating rising prices with corruption, unemployment with corruption, etc. So, all these three issues, I think, worked in favour of Congress and went to the disadvantage of the BJP.
What lessons do you think the Congress can learn from the recent successes in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka?
I think from the victories of Himachal and Karnataka, the lessons for the Congress are that if you are contesting a state assembly election, keep the campaign on local issues and let the local leadership contest the election. Let them take the charge of contesting election. I think these are the two lessons with begin with Congress needs to learn from Karnataka and from from Himachal Pradesh.
There was a sizable shift of Dalit voters to the Congress in Karnataka. According to the surveys that are coming out. Is there a possible lesson or solution that the Congress can find by tapping into these votes?
I would say look at the increase in vote percentages of Congress. So, Congress managed to increase 5 percent votes. So it's a sizable victory for Congress. And when a party registered such a convincing victory, it is obvious that sections of voter would have shifted into a Congress. Yes, there is a lot of talk about sizable shift in Dalit vote in favor of Congress but I do not see a sizable shift.
Do you think letting the local leadership take over for Opposition parties is a better strategy for Lok Sabha elections too?
When it comes to the Lok Sabha elections, I don't think the Congress can challenge the BJP by contesting on local issues because the people, the voters of India are very careful. They would understand that this is not a state assembly election. This is the election to elect the national government and the national issues would be at the forefront. Another big question is - how do you counter the narratives which have been strongly drawn by the BJP among the voters of this country? The one another strategy could also be that the states where the regional parties are strong, they can pitch in for local issues. But for the Congress, it is important to look for the national issues.
How long do you think the BJP can fall back on PM Modi's popularity? Because we have seen the way he campaigned in Karnataka as well.
I think they have no choice at the moment but to bank on Prime Minister Modi's popularity.
But I think slowly and gradually, looking at Prime Minister Modi's ability to mobilise broad support in favor of the BJP in the state Assembly election, they should take a lesson that Prime Minister Modi's popularity alone cannot help the BJP win state assembly election if the state government's performance has not been up to the mark. That's the lesson the BJP should take.
What do you think is supposed to be the opposition's poll plank ahead of 2024 if it has to have any chance of taking on the BJP?
There are lots of talks about about opposition unity. There are two words which are often talked about - arithmetic and chemistry. We have seen in the 2019 elections and some state assembly elections that arithmetic alone is not adequate for a party winning elections. So, even if they try to come together, there is always the possibility of counter polarisation.
To mobilise support in your favor, you have to come up with an alternative narrative. That narrative has to come. The narrative will be in the form of promises, but an alternative vision has to be presented in favor of the people.
Mere arithmetic will not work. Even if all the non-BJP parties come together, they can bring BJP down to 220 or 210 but not below 200.
How much impact do you see the Bharat Jodo Yatra having on the minds of voters? Do you think it helped change people's perspective about the party or Rahul Gandhi per say?
Some change in the image of the Congress party or Rahul Gandhi as a leader had taken place if you look at it from common people's perspective. But I don't think that Karnataka's victory should be credited only to the Bharat Jodo Yatra.