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Local Leadership & Vote Banks: The Success Formula of the Congress in Karnataka

The Congress stuck to raising local issues around unemployment, inflation, and agri-distress.

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Opinion
4 min read
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The Congress has recorded a comfortable victory in Karnataka winning 136 seats with 43% vote share, its highest tally since 1989. The BJP could win only 65 seats while it held onto its 2018 vote share of 36%. The JD(S) has recorded its second-worst performance since its formation, winning half of its tally in 2018 and recording a vote share decline of around 5%. 

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L Cube and S Square Powered Congress Victory

Communication is one of the aspects where the Congress has struggled over the years. Learning from the AAP’s model, the party began its five-guarantee campaign much in advance, early in January 2023. These guarantees were focussed on three key voting segments—the poor, youth, and women. The messaging was simple and clear, plus Congress had a lot of time to take it to the voters. This way they created a pool of future Labharthis. 

With women increasingly taking independent voting decisions and swinging the elections in favour of parties, the Congress laid special emphasis on this vote block. In half of the seats, females outnumbered men as per an Indian Express article. The promise of Rs. 2,000 per month to women head of the family and free bus pass to women appealed to the lower strata of the population reeling under economic distress post-COVID. The Congress led against the BJP in female support by 11%, which gave it roughly a 5.5% vote share advantage.

The Congress stuck to raising local issues around unemployment, inflation, and agri-distress. Only towards the fag end of the campaign did it deviate towards personal attacks on PM, sovereignty issue of the state, and banning of the Bajrang Dal. It largely ran a tight campaign and set the narrative which BJP was seen catching up to, for example, its focus on price rise forced BJP to declare three free LPG cylinders during festivals in its manifesto.

As per Axis My India exit poll, for 18% of Congress voters, its promises and inflation were the key driving factors to back the party.

Siddaramaiah and Shivakumar despite having very open chief ministerial ambitions, played largely professionally throughout the campaign. While Siddaramaiah is a mass leader popular amongst AHINDA voters (SC-ST-Muslim-OBC), Shivakumar, a Vokkaliga, is a hardcore organisation man and election campaign manager. Siddaramaiah was touted to be the best CM for 40% of voters versus 15% for Bommai as per the CSDS pre-poll survey. 

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Dent in Lingayat and Vokkaliga Vote bank of BJP and JD(S)

One of the major weaknesses of the Congress party in Karnataka has been the fact that it has not been able to crack the Lingayats and Vokkaligas, the two most influential communities accounting for 1/4th of the population. The BJP and the JD(S) have been winning a majority of the Lingayat and Vokkaliga-dominated/influenced seats.

However, in this election, Congress managed to win 44 of the 70 Lingayat and 29 of the 44 Vokkaliga dominant seats, more than doubling its tally compared to 2018.

The weakening of the JD(S) in its stronghold Old Mysuru region improved the BJP's performance in the region (in terms of vote share), and its State President and CM hopeful hailing from the community helped the Congress.

On the other hand, (i) Yediyurappa’s unceremonious exit from the CM chair (ii) the exodus of community leaders like Shettar and Savadi from the BJP (iii) the statement of Eshwarappa that the party is not asking for votes in the name of Lingayats but Hindutva, seems to have irked the Lingayats. A body of Veershaivas-Lingayats also gave a call to back the Congress party. Resultantly, the Congress defeated BJP in Lingayat den of Mumbai Karnataka doubling its tally to 33 seats on offer.

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Triple Attack on JD(S)

JD(S) has been playing the role of kingmaker in recent elections. It has been leading in the Old Mysore region with Congress trailing. To avert any chances of a hung assembly the party needed to make a dent in the JD(S) vote. Along with Vokkaligas, JD(S) used to enjoy decent traction amongst the Muslims and Dalits.

With Dalit poster boy Kharge as the National President, JD(S) lost 4% SC vote, Congress party’s proposed ban on Bajrang Dal which received a backlash from the BJP seems to have consolidated minority support in favour of the party. A Vokkaliga CM aspirant has led to an 8% drop in community vote for JD(S), with 7% going to Congress.

This triple attack washed away a 5% vote share from JD(S) almost entirely in favour of the Congress.

Not only did it help Congress double its tally in the old Mysuru region (17 to 34), the decline of the vote share of JD(S) helped it win the head-to-head contests against the BJP in the other five regions.
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Double Whammy of BJP’s Aggressive Push in OMR

BJP ran an aggressive campaign in Old Mysuru Region (OMR) to make inroads led by PM Modi. Party increased its vote share by 2.8% in the region, though this did not translate into seats. Along with the Congress's dent in JD(S) vote, it helped the grand old party win in the region as was anticipated. 

With a similar vote share to 2018, a gain in vote share in OMR meant BJP’s vote share in other regions declined; Coastal (-3.1%), Mumbai & Central (-5.1%), and Hyderabad Karnataka (-3.4%). Along with the decline in JD(S) vote share, this helped Congress sweep even BJP strongholds. 

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Polarisation Aided Congress for a Change

It’s an established fact that polarisation has been helping BJP in elections. Out of 34 Muslim-influenced seats, BJP and Congress shared honors in 2018. However, in 2023, Congress won 22 of these seats.  

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Modi Factor Failed To Save the Day for the BJP

The voting consideration of only 19% of BJP voters was PM Modi. This was more than 50% in Karnataka in the 2019 general elections. While Modi boosted the party's prospects in the Bengaluru region, and improved BJP’s vote share by 2%-3% as per Axis My India, he couldn’t negate the anti-incumbency and dissatisfaction against the Bommai government.

Congress successfully drove home the narrative that BJP’s double engine had failed in Karnataka.

(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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