May 12, 2024

BJP to Lose its Dominance in Karnataka

Vasanth N K

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KARNATAKA went to polls in Phase 2 (14 seats of southern Karnataka on April 19) and in Phase 3 (14 seats of northern Karnataka on May 7), completing the electoral process. With the significant victory in last year's Vidhan Sabha (assembly) elections, Congress is striving to replicate its success. BJP, on the other hand, seeks to emulate its performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Voter turnout was notable, with 69.56 per cent recorded in Phase 1 and 70.41 per cent in Phase 2. Unlike other states, there has been no decline in the percentage of votes cast. In fact, it is marginally higher than the figures from 2019, which stood at 68.96 per cent in Phase 1 and 68.66 per cent in Phase 2.

While BJP commenced with the confident slogan "Ab ki baar 400 paar" nationwide, it encountered a turbulent start in Karnataka. Congress had finalised its nominees much earlier than BJP, partly owing to having only one incumbent MP. Congress had announced its seats well in advance, with only about 4 seats experiencing conflicts. Conversely, BJP faced challenges in finalising candidates for approximately 12 seats. After analysing the Vidhan Sabha elections and conducting internal surveys on the winnability of incumbent MPs, BJP made the decision to drop as many as 9 sitting MPs, including prominent Hindutva leaders like Sunil Kateel (former state BJP president), Prathap Simha (notorious for allowing attackers into parliament), and Ananth Kumar Hegde (notorious for advocating repeated 'Constitution change'). Out of the 4 union ministers, one was omitted. Shobha Karandlaje, who faced 'go back' protests in her Udupi constituency, had to be relocated to Bengaluru North. In 2-3 seats where incumbent MPs were denied tickets, serious violent clashes erupted between rival factions. Congress encountered significant challenges in KGF and Chikkaballapura, with finalisation occurring literally on the last date of nominations. Similarly, BJP managed to finalise its nominations for 4 seats on the last date of nominations.


BJP approached this election with two significant changes. Following their defeat in the Vidhan Sabha elections, BJP underwent a shift in state party leadership. B Y Vijayendra, son of Yediyurappa, was appointed as the state president. Additionally, B L Santhosh, an RSS leader, was relieved of his duties as general secretary in charge of Karnataka. His strategy, which aimed to reduce BJP's reliance on one community (Lingayat) and one leader (B S Yediyurappa), was considered the primary cause of BJP's setback in the Vidhan Sabha elections. Now, the tables have turned for B L Santhosh, with a role reversal between ruling and dissident factions.

This change was met with complaints from some quarters, accusing the prevalence of the 'Yediyurappa Parivaravada' (dynastic rule of Yediyurappa)! In many constituencies, individuals and factions denied tickets revolted, with some remaining neutral in campaigning and others even working for Congress candidates. In some cases, the state and central leadership managed to cajole, threaten, or convince dissidents to support the official candidates. One of the most prominent revolts came from K S Eshwarappa, also a founding leader of BJP in the state, who contested in Shivamogga against B Y Raghavendra, another son of Yediyurappa, despite warnings from Amit Shah. The state witnessed the somewhat comical spectacle of Eshwarappa seeking votes in Modi's name and stating that after victory, he would rejoin the BJP! BJP had to resort to legal action and appeal to the Election Commission to prevent him from invoking Modi's name. Jagadish Shettar, who had left BJP to join Congress in the Vidhan Sabha elections, made a 'Ghar Vapasi' (homecoming) to secure a ticket, causing heartburn among ‘loyal’ party leaders on this decision too.

Another major change was the pre-poll alliance BJP forged with JD(S). Alarmed by substantial losses in both vote percentage and seats, and anticipating that the NDA would come to power at the centre and the party could secure ministerial positions, JD(S) entered into this alliance. BJP calculated that an alliance with JD(S) could help it make inroads into southern Karnataka. Both parties believed this to be a win-win proposal. Although negotiations at the leadership level were concluded after tough bargaining, acceptance at lower levels proved to be quite problematic.


BJP initiated its campaign early, starting at the panchayat level by reaching out to beneficiaries of various central schemes and explaining them to potential beneficiaries. This was almost like a central government-sponsored campaign. However, they soon realised that there wasn't much enthusiastic response to the schemes or the vision of a 'Vikasit Bharat' (Developed India). Even earlier, celebrations like the 'Ram Pran Pratishtan' saw good participation but didn't seem to yield significant political benefits. Consequently, BJP reverted to its strategy of hard communal polarisation. They attempted to give a serious communal spin to several incidents, such as the hoisting of a saffron flag in the Keregodu government office (Mandya) and an alleged clash over the playing of Hanuman Chalisa in Bangalore. As the campaigning intensified, BJP capitalised on the brutal murder of Neha Hiremath by her rejected lover Fayyaz, portraying it as a case of 'Love Jihad' just a day before Phase 1 polling. Since then, BJP has kept the 'Love Jihad' narrative alive, accusing the state government of a breakdown in law and order. Additionally, BJP attempted to pin the blame on the state government for issues like price rises, unemployment, and the diversion of funds to 'Bitti Bhagyas' (freebies), which they deemed a waste of resources. They also accused the state government of mismanaging finances and shifting blame to the centre for this.

Congress, on the other hand, focused its campaign on the implementation of the five guarantees and 25 guarantees promised in the central Congress manifesto. Guarantee cards were distributed house to house to underscore these pledges. It vehemently criticised the union BJP government for its step-motherly treatment towards the state and the gross violation of fiscal federalism. Particularly, Congress drew attention to the non-payment of the state's share of various taxes and funds approved under the National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) for previous floods and the drought in the current year. Congress took its MLAs and ministers to New Delhi and staged a dharna on February 7 (a day before the Kerala LDF did the same). It accused 25 BJP MPs of failing to act and betraying the state's interests. The Congress government also approached the Supreme Court to force the union government to allocate a portion of the NDRF fund for drought relief. It ridiculed the BJP's 'double engine' slogan, alleging that one engine was already defunct, and urged people to discard the other engine as well. Interestingly, BJP itself did not extensively invoke the 'double engine' slogan. Congress also campaigned that a significant majority for the BJP could lead to changes in the constitution and the elimination of reservations for SC/ST/OBC communities. Similar to the Vidhan Sabha elections, Congress refused to engage with and ignored the communal offensive of the BJP. Both sides highlighted the ongoing unprecedented drought and criticised each other's approach to addressing it. BJP used it to attack the Congress state government, while Congress used it to criticise the BJP central government.

Congress, much like in the Vidhan Sabha elections, accused the BJP of injuring 'Karnataka Pride', citing incidents such as the 'attack by Amul on Nandini', and the disappearance of banks like SBM, Vijaya Bank, Corporation Bank, and Syndicate Bank. They also highlighted the closure of Visvesvaraya Iron and Steel Plant (VISL), the non-inclusion of Kannada in central competitive exams, and the imposition of Hindi, among other grievances. Congress alleged that BJP had only offered 'Chembu' (an empty vessel symbolising deceit or offering nothing) to Karnataka. They made 'Chembu' a symbol and utilised it in public meetings, newspaper advertisements, social media posts/memes/reels, running an effective campaign. In addition to these issues, Congress raised local development concerns such as Mahadayi river water sharing, Krishna water sharing, and the Mekedatu project, accusing the centre of failing to effectively intervene and resolve interstate issues, even when the 'double engine' government was in operation.

Following the conclusion of Phase 1 elections nationwide, the toxicity of BJP's communal campaign escalated significantly, exemplified by PM Modi's speech in Banswada. Similar to the national campaign, BJP in the state raised the specter of Congress seizing buffaloes, mangalsutras, and other property of the poor and redistributing it to Muslims, along with allegations of cutting OBC/SC/ST reservations to allocate them to Muslims. In response to Congress's critique, BJP attempted to defend itself by pointing out the funding of various central government schemes. However, these figures included total outlays, which encompassed state funds as well. Further, this did not address the issue of withheld shares of taxes and NDRF funds.

JD(S), perhaps in adherence to 'coalition dharma', also participated in BJP's communal campaign. They notably organised agitation surrounding the hoisting of the saffron flag in Keregodu. JD(S) leaders took part in joint rallies, ridiculed the Congress state government, and defended the record of the Modi government. Their one-line message and theme was "Modi is required for the country." Despite being in a coalition government with both Congress and BJP, and serving as CM, they criticised Congress for hindering the implementation of pro-people policies. Congress seized the opportunity to mock JD(S) and BJP leaders by resurfacing old statements and videos where they criticised or ridiculed each other.

Towards the end of Phase 1, the explosion of the Prajwal Revanna (the current JD(S) MP from Hassan and grandson of former PM Devegowda) sex scandal, significantly impacted the campaign, embarrassing not only JD(S) but also BJP. The unprecedented scale and horror of the sex scandal, coupled with the belittling or oblique defense of the scandal, or even attempts to blame Congress by BJP-JD(S) leaders, has shocked voters. On top of it, BJP-JD(S) and Congress are accusing each other of circulating USB drives containing unmasked videos/photos of hundreds of victims of sexual assault by Prajwal Revanna. This scandal impacted Phase 2 elections and could cause political tremors extending beyond the elections. It could well be a ploy of the BJP to politically terminate JD(S) as a regional party.

The CPI(M), in addition to intensively campaigning in Chikkaballapura, has organised conventions, public meetings, and conducted an extensive independent campaign in other constituencies for defeating the BJP and presenting alternative policies of an alternate secular government. The party also produced three sets of publications and conducted an extensive social media campaign to promote its manifesto, highlight talking points, and expose the misdeeds of the Modi government over the past 10 years.


With the BJP-JD(S) pre-poll alliance, the contest this time was nearly bipolar, except in three constituencies. In Shivamogga and Davangere, the contest of independent candidates K S Eshwarappa and Vinay Kumar (a Congress rebel) respectively, and CPI(M) candidate M P Munivenkatappa in Chikkaballapura, has turned the contest into a  triangular contest. Big moneybags and those with dubious criminal records dominate the contest, and 'Parivaravaad' (nepotism) is rampant on both sides. Congress has given tickets to 8 candidates who are sons, grandsons, daughters, daughters-in-law, nephews, or nieces of current or past ministers or past MPs. The BJP-JD(S) alliance has also matched this record with JD(S) fielding three family members (sons, grandson, and son-in-law) of ex-PM Devegowda for 4 seats allotted to them in the alliance.

Karnataka has a history of voting differently in Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections, as seen in Table 1, even when elections are held simultaneously. Congress has been the dominant force in Vidhan Sabha elections with a higher vote percentage, even when it does not win a majority. Congress and BJP have been winning alternately, though BJP has never won an absolute majority in the Vidhan Sabha, only forming a government with a manufactured majority. However, Congress's dominance in Lok Sabha elections ended after 1996, with Congress often reduced to single digits. Since 1999, BJP has been increasing its vote share as well as seats in Lok Sabha elections. Another trend observed in both Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections is that BJP gains many more seats for a smaller increase in the vote share difference. This is because while Congress's support base is distributed across the state, BJP has support in many pockets.


Table 1

Karnataka Elections: Voteshare and Seats Since 2009



2009 LS

2013 VS

2014 LS

2018 VS

2019 LS

2023 VS






























































It's highly unlikely that BJP will be able to retain its dominance and peak performance in 2024, especially considering several factors.

Firstly, BJP's communal polarisation campaign has reached its limits and failed to resonate with the people of Karnataka, as evident from the 2023 Vidhan Sabha elections. Additionally, the Modi wave and his charismatic appeal, which were prominent in 2019, are fading.

Further, the pre-poll alliance with JD(S), which holds about 7-8 per cent of the vote share, has not been effective on the ground. Both JD(S) workers and voters seem disenchanted with the alliance, especially after the Prajwal scandal, which has severely damaged its credibility.

Moreover, BJP's failure to address key issues such as unemployment and price rise is likely to work against them. The 'Modi ki Guarantee' campaign is unlikely to resonate in Karnataka, as it is perceived as insincere and merely copying Congress's guarantees.

Emotional issues such as the Neha Hiremat-Fayyaz 'Love Jihad' and the Prajwal sex scandal may cancel each other out, but the latter could dominate public discourse.

On the other hand, Congress's implementation of the Five Guarantees promised in the Vidhan Sabha elections is likely to consolidate women's votes across caste, community, and political affiliations. The Prajwal sex scandal may deter some of them from voting for the alliance.

The credibility of the 25 Guarantees promised in the central Congress manifesto is expected to be higher in Karnataka. Additionally, BJP MPs' talk of changing the Constitution and removing SC/ST/OBC reservations may attract these sections to Congress, especially considering that a majority of them supported Congress in the 2023 Vidhan Sabha elections and are likely to do so again.

Considering the factors mentioned above and the current impressions from 28 constituencies, taking into account the influence of candidates and local factors, it is likely that Congress and BJP will each win 8 seats where they have a substantial lead. In 4 constituencies each, Congress and BJP have a slight edge. In the remaining 4 constituencies, there is a neck-to-neck fight.

However, one thing is certain: BJP will lose a substantial number of seats and its dominance in Karnataka for the Lok Sabha elections.


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