On May 10, the Indian state of Karnataka went to the polls, and the result was a surprising and decisive defeat for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi and his movement have faced setbacks before, but the nature of the BJP’s ambitions in Karnataka made this one especially striking.
Karnataka was the only BJP-ruled state in South India. It took decades of social engineering and political mobilization to make the BJP a viable party in the state, paving the way for its meteoric rise during the 2000s and 2010s. This time, however, the BJP’s momentum was halted.
The nature of its defeat reveals the limits of its overall electoral strategy and sheds light upon the weaknesses of the BJP more generally, as well as the state of India’s opposition with national elections due to be held next year.
A Southern Strategy
The BJP came to power in Karnataka in 2019 through the mass defection of members of the state parliament, part of its wider strategy of orchestrating defections through Operation Kamala. After the 2018 elections, the BJP had become Karnataka’s largest party without winning an overall majority. The Indian National Congress (INC) and a smaller regional party, the Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S), won the rest of the seats and formed a coalition government under JD(S) leader H. D. Kumaraswamy.
The JD(S) is dominated by the family of H. D. Deve Gowda, who briefly served as India’s prime minister in 1996–97. Its base lies among the Vokkaliga caste and among religious minorities of the Old Mysore region of Central Karnataka. It has struggled in recent years to remain relevant since it lacks a clear ideology beyond wanting to win power, compared to the Hindu nationalist BJP and secular INC.
The coalition government seemed set to govern for several years. However, in 2019, fifteen INC and JD(S) members resigned from their respective parties and joined the BJP. This defection caused the coalition government to lose its majority, with by-elections due to be held for the seats of the defectors.
The BJP went on to win twelve of those fifteen seats in December 2019, a few months after Modi’s landslide victory in that year’s national elections, enabling the BJP to take power outright. The BJP made a veteran regional kingpin, B. S. Yediyurappa, chief minister.
Yediyurappa had done more than anyone else to help the BJP become a force in the state. He is a member of the Lingayat community, a Hindu sect and one of the largest communities in Karnataka. His leadership of that community assisted the BJP in forging a cross-caste coalition along with its traditional Brahmin, upper-caste, and urban middle-class base. However, this would be the high-water mark of the BJP’s ambitions in Karnataka.
The BJP in Power
Relations between Yediyurappa and the BJP high command have never been good. Yediyurappa has a reputation for being more moderate on communal issues than the rest of the BJP and more focused on development than ideological purity. These poor relations resulted in him creating a breakaway party in the 2013 state elections. That split resulted in a heavy BJP defeat, with Congress forming a government under long-time regional politician Siddaramaiah.
Yediyurappa and the BJP later reconciled, but he never regained the trust of the BJP high command. In July 2021, he resigned after calls for his resignation by BJP cadres over corruption and nepotism charges and was replaced by Basavaraj Bommai, another Lingayat, as chief minister. With Bommai taking power, problems began to show themselves with the BJP administration in the state.
Bommai himself was less charismatic and popular than Yediyurappa, which made him a more pliable figure who was more in line with the BJP’s top leaders. His policies in the state took a right-wing turn from those of his predecessor, engaging in explicit communal policies associated with the BJP’s hard-line wing — most famously through banning the hijab for students.
Bommai’s administration quickly went off track. Allegations that there was a 40 percent commission fee for contractors stoked up public discontent at corruption within the government. At the same time, rural communities were angry about low payments for crops — a recurring criticism of BJP administrations — and the highly unequal patterns of growth over the past two decades. The state government’s low spending on health and education exacerbated the latter problem. There was also countermobilization from Muslims and caste communities that had been left out by the BJP’s reservation changes.
Because of these challenges, the BJP’s top brass flagged up this year’s election as a vital key to maintaining its project of winning power across South India. The situation also created hope in the opposition camp for a breakthrough.
The Congress Challenge
Congress went into the Karnataka election with much to prove. The party has been in the doldrums ever since Modi’s rose to power, losing states it had controlled for decades and experiencing its worst ever national-level performances in 2014 and 2019. There was a general sense that the party had hit rock bottom under the well-meaning but ineffectual leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the family that had dominated Indian politics since 1947.
This prompted efforts at inner-party reform. First Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress president after the 2019 defeat and asked his party to choose a new leader. They finally elected one in 2022 through the first competitive election for party chief in decades, choosing an experienced parliamentarian from Karnataka, Mallikarjun Kharge. Kharge, who comes from a Dalit background, became the first Congress leader from outside the Gandhi family since 1999.
Rahul Gandhi also decided to launch a nationwide yatra, or march, across India from late 2022 to early 2023, covering over twenty-two hundred miles across one hundred fifty days. His goal was to revitalize the grassroots of the party, put forward a defense of Indian secularism, and attack the BJP’s “pro-rich” economic policies. The march earned plaudits for Gandhi and boosted the morale of long-suffering INC party workers, although its electoral impact had not been proven.
Thirdly, the party has sought to forge opposition unity and create a united front against the BJP. Progress in this area has been slow, especially since Congress has been unable to prove to the other parties that it should be the dominant partner in any alliance. The party thus hoped that a win in Karnataka would allow it to recover its image as the main national challenger to the BJP.
The BJP and Congress conducted two very different campaigns. The BJP relied heavily on its national leadership, especially the omnipresent pair of Modi and his home minister, Amit Shah. Modi crisscrossed the state, cutting ribbons, giving speeches, and hoping to focus the election on his personal charisma and appeal, which is still a potent asset even after nine years in power.
However, there was a contradiction in the BJP campaign. Figures like Yediyurappa focused on development issues to de-communalize the election, amid fears that the appeal of Hindutva ideology had peaked in the state. Yet others like the BJP’s Karnataka party president, Nalin Kumar Kateel, wanted to prioritize communal polarization.
Kateel’s campaign was heavy-handed. He told party members in January in the run-up to the election to concentrate on “love jihad,” a far-right conspiracy theory which claims that Muslim men are attempting to seduce and brainwash Hindu women, over the poor development outcomes of the BJP administration. He also urged them to mobilize Hindu nationalist anger against the famous nineteenth-century Muslim ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan.
In addition, the BJP’s candidate selection process was fraught and poorly managed. The national leadership of the BJP chose younger party members at the expense of veteran incumbents, specifically Lingayat party members including Yediyurappa and another former chief minister, Jagadish Shettar. This prompted many of those passed over to defect to Congress or run as independents.
The reasoning behind this counterproductive move seems to have been a desire to avoid anti-incumbency sentiment by bringing in new faces, as well as to ensure greater loyalty to the BJP on the part of its representatives, but the strategy backfired. It provoked the old guard of the party and sparked fears that a BJP victory would result in a hard-line Hindutva and Brahmin chief minister. The JD(S) particularly warned about the danger of a North Indian Brahmin becoming chief minister and focused much of its campaign on anti-Hindi and pro-Kannadiga concerns.
The architect of this ill-fated policy seems to have been B. L. Santosh, a Brahmin from Karnataka, national general secretary of the BJP, and member of the hard-line Hindu nationalist paramilitary group the RSS, of which Modi and most key figures of the BJP are longtime members. Santosh has an image as a hard-liner and is personally opposed to Yediyurappa.
The problems with the BJP campaign highlight the difficulties the party faces in maintaining its complicated coalition: trying to strike a balance between moderation and communalism, low caste and high caste, regional languages and Hindi. In addition, it has trouble preserving its reputation for good governance when it pushes unpopular policies or faces corruption allegations. In the face of such challenges, it is easier to focus on Modi’s personal popularity, which explains his role at the center of the BJP campaign.
Strong but Not Invincible
In comparison to the BJP, Congress ran a very decentralized campaign based on a strong grassroots organization. The party lacked a single face, divided as it was between Siddaramaiah and Congress state leader D. K. Sivakumar, both of whom hoped to be chief minister after the election. Yet the two men avoided rowing in public and kept the focus on attacking the BJP.
The party’s candidate selection reflected this emphasis on unity, as Congress intentionally selected figures who were considered most likely to win instead of rewarding established party workers. However, Congress managed to avoid the costly defections that hurt the BJP. Its campaign focused on the corruption allegations that had undermined Bommai’s popularity and included pledges to alleviate poverty through social welfare programs and support for farmers and women, while rolling back the BJP’s anti-Muslim policies.
Rahul Gandhi and his family campaigned widely in the state — the first time he had campaigned alongside his mother and his sister in years. This helped drum up support among Congress loyalists by highlighting how important the election was to the party’s first family.
The results vindicated the Congress strategy. The party achieved its best result in the state since 1989, both in terms of popular vote and seat share, with 43 percent of the vote and 135 seats. It consolidated its traditional base among Dalits and Muslims while also increasing its vote share in other communities across Karnataka.
Indian National Congress
Bharatiya Janata Party
Janata Dal (Secular)
While the BJP’s vote share only dipped slightly from 2018, Modi’s party lost a third of its seats, dropping from 104 to 66. For its part, the JD(S) lost more than half of its seats due to defections of its Vokkaliga and Muslim base to Congress — probably because of strategic voting from both communities to defeat the BJP and assist its main rival.
The results were a stinging blow for the BJP and Modi personally, who invested so much personal prestige in campaigning for his party. There has been a vicious blame game within the party, with fingers pointed at Yediyurappa for not bringing enough Lingayat votes and Santosh for poor candidate selection as well as criticism of overreliance on Modi. Meanwhile, Congress was jubilant, having succeeded beyond its wildest hopes.
The Karnataka election has demonstrated that the BJP is not invincible. There are weaknesses that the opposition can exploit at state level, and Modi’s personal appeal can only go so far when he is not directly on the ballot. The popular resonance of Hindutva campaigns can also reach a saturation point. The BJP is thus in a weaker position going into 2024 than seemed likely this time last year, even though the opposition still faces extremely long odds in its bid to oust Modi.