DK Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah felicitate Mallikarjun Kharge as the party sweeps Karnataka Assembly Polls | ANI
The results of the Assembly elections in Karnataka were even better than most supporters of the Indian National Congress had dared hope. 135 seats and over 45% of the vote is the party's best-ever victory since 1989 in a state which had long been a Congress stronghold but which had twice returned BJP governments in the last decade. As the euphoria peaks, the Mysore paak is distributed and the tears of joy shed, it is time to take an objective look at the factors behind this resounding success, with a view not just to understanding Karnataka but to deriving lessons for other states this year and for the General Elections that are due in the next eleven months.
As a Congress MP myself, I am proud of my colleagues for their outstanding work on the ground, responsiveness to local issues and commitment to resist the politics of polarisation. When I campaigned in Bengaluru I was struck by their self-belief and their relentless focus on local issues.
There was undoubtedly a degree of anti-incumbency that worked in our favour. The BJP's stint in power in Karnataka had been lacklustre and marked by both corruption and non-performance, which fuelled a growing desire for change among the voters. The BJP government had been criticized for its handling of several issues, including the economy, education, and healthcare. By contrast the Congress ran a strong campaign, focused on issues of development and social justice, including the demands of the lower castes for a fair share of the pie. The 'five guarantees' issued by the party were specific, targeted and practical and focused on real answers to public discontent with unemployment, inflation and unemployment. It was easy to point to the contrast between the '40% commission government' and the '100% commitment to local solutions' that made a major difference.
The party also benefited from the popularity of its state leadership, notably but not only former CM Siddaramaiah and state Congress chief D K Shivakumar. It was clear that the politics of centralisation failed the BJP. The BJP's Delhi-based top-down campaign, directed in the names of Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Shah, both of whom dominated the party's outreach, was no match for the Congress's strong local leadership on the ground in Karnataka, which prevailed over the outsiders and their 'national' themes. The BJP, as usual, touted the benefits of a 'double-engine sarkara' with the same party in power in Delhi and Bengaluru. The public, having seen the misfiring of the two engines, preferred to trust the Congress alternative. While Congress too used its national leaders, notably Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, effectively, the fact that its national President, Mallikarjun Kharge, is himself a Dalit leader from the state, added to the local flavour of the Congress' campaign.
There was clearly also, mercifully, a failure of the politics of polarisation. The halal, hijab, 'love jihad' and 'land jihad' Hindutva messaging, seeking to promote a divide in the state between Hindus and Muslims, did not work against the promise of effective performance and local issues directly affecting the interests of the ordinary voter. The Congress' message of caste justice and its rejection of exclusionary politics - whether of religious minorities or under-privileged castes - succeeded. This too is a valuable lesson, even if some say that what failed to work in a southern state can still succeed in the more polarised Hindi 'cow-belt' of the North. Still, the politics of hatred and division have done such inestimable damage to the country's social fabric that its defeat in Karnataka sends ripples of reassurance throughout the nation's polity. Secular forces everywhere realise that, as Rahul Gandhi has stressed throughout his Bharat Jodo yatra, the politics of co-existence, brotherhood and inclusiveness can overcome bigotry, communalism and exclusion.
At the same time, today is a day for celebration, but not for complacency. While local factors may again help the INC prevail against the BJP in state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan later this year, and may help the Bharat Rashtra Samiti to resist the BJP's advances in Telangana, it will still be a very different ballgame when it comes to the general elections to the Lok Sabha. Mr Modi's national popularity, and the perception that on the bigger national picture his government is doing well, requires the building up of a credible national alternative. Five years ago Congress won the four major states that went to the polls in 2018 and was still wiped out in the same states in the general elections six months later. The opposition still needs to learn how to overcome their differences to focus on the national picture, so as to translate their dispersed support into a coherent and effective choice for the voters. Now it is time for celebration but not for complacency. We have the results we worked for in Karnataka; now we must deliver results for the people of the state - and hope for India.