2023 Karnataka’s Election Verdict and Shifting Political Discourse

Karnataka Election Verdict

Since the 2014 Lok Sabha election- perhaps for the first time- it appears that the Karnataka election verdict has shown that the communal narrative around electoral politics is now changing. If one could read and decode election results closely, it can be safely argued that political discourse has now shifted from the Right to Centre if not towards the Left. The majoritarian politics led by the BJP-RSS combine has faced stiff opposition and communal narrative constructed by the mainstream media (godi media) has been now challenged by the Congress Party to a large extent if not entirely in this election. The Congress Party got a comfortable majority by securing 135 seats ( for the first time since1989),while the BJP managed to get 66 and Janta Dal ( secular)-19 seats out  of total 224 state Assembly seats. As a matter of fact, the BJP has lost its electoral space in the Southern part of India.

The question arises how we can understand and analyze the electoral shift and what would be the impact of this election result on the 2024 Lok Sabha election?  And secondly, what are possible reasons and striking factors which have challenged the discourse around electoral politics from communal approach to secular demands? These points will be critically analyzed while keeping in mind the experiences of the 2023 Karnataka election result.

In this respect, political commentators have underlined that the BJP and their party leaders have foregrounded communal issues such as ban on hijab, halal, Bajrangbali(discourse around  banning Bajrag Dal, as raised by the Congress Party),love-jihad, Azan (use of loudspeaker in Mosque) terrorism  and  communal  narrative of history around Tipu Sultan,etc, at the last moment of Karnataka election. However, these polarizing and communal issues have not been translated into electoral outcomes. On the contrary, the Congress party and their leaders have raised everyday issues like jobs, poverty, increasing prices, issues of reservations and corruption during the tenure of BJP rule and genuine issues confronted by the poor people in Karnataka. Put simply, Congress Party’s leaders have consistently raised the failure of the BJP, to address the genuine concern of people especially minorities, Dalits, tribals and other marginalized social groups. In this respect, Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey has also underlined that unemployment, poverty, price rise, corruption, and reservation, etc., were remain deciding factors for voters. While foregrounding these issues during the election campaign, the Congress party has impressed voters and cornered maximum electoral benefits (for further details see, The Hindu, dated May15, 2023, P-10). During the BJP rule in Karnataka, minorities like Muslims and Christians have been routinely targeted by the communal forces especially by vigilant groups. The communal and fringe elements have also vandalized the religious places of Muslim and Christian communities, as documented by human rights bodies in its several reports. However, no concrete actions have been taken by the incumbent government against the vigilant groups.  Contrary  to the PM  Modi  advised in Hyderabad national executive meeting of the Party in  2022 ( in which  PM Modi urged the party workers to reach out Muslim community), however,  it is ironic to note that the BJP in Karnataka election has not given  any single ticket to Muslim community. Apart from communal issues, the BJP and their leaders raised the national issues and stressed the need for a double engine government, while the Congress party during election campaign has mostly foregrounded the local issues, regional aspirations of people and everyday problems of the masses, as stated above. The electoral outcome has indicated that local issues (move around secular demands rather than emotive issues) have triumphed over communal and national issues. While addressing the media after the result, Rahul Gandhi has said that the Karnataka election has rightly proved that “Politics of love” (Mohabat ki Rajnit) triumphed over the “Politics of hate” (Nafrat ki Rajinit).

I am not going to discuss the complexities of local issues and nitty-gritty of electoral chemistry that worked at the local levels in Karnataka. In this piece, I will try to understand and highlight what will be the larger electoral impact of the Karnataka election at the national level and other Assembly elections, scheduled to be held in December in States like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana. And secondly, I will try to explore how the Karnataka election has pushed the electoral agenda around the genuine concern of subaltern masses.

Let me add here the caveat, it would be too early to say that BJP led by PM Modi will decline at national level and his influence is drastically reduced now, as a section  of political commentators have underlined. For the Congress party and the opposition parties still, Delhi is a long way to reach (speaking metaphorically, Delhi durast hai). However, it is clear that communal issues no longer seem to be relevant in electoral politics to capture the imaginations of people, as it has been seen during the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha and several State elections.  Here, it is crucial to understand the shifting nature of electoral politics from communal to everyday issues of bread and butter and livelihoods of poor people. The Karnataka election verdict has provided a platform and this opportunity can be used as catalysts force to unite all opposition parties (social justice parties, regional parties and left parties) in upcoming days to challenge the communal narratives and stop the “Hindutva Juggernaut” at the national level in 2024. However, it will not be an easy political fight in the upcoming times.

Across the world especially after Covid-19, the Right-wing populists’ government has also been facing a crisis and their electoral strength is declining and now we can see the rise of liberal and democratic parties in USA and other countries. The defeat of Donald Trump in the USA Presidential election can be cited as a case in point. The changes seen at global level will also have impact elsewhere; India cannot be exceptional in this regard. In other words, populist leaders and parties (especially the Right-wing) across the world have been now facing challenges amidst the rise of genuine aspirations of people which move around everyday issues of livelihoods and survival. Karnataka election experience has vividly reminded us that now people are more concerned about the everyday livelihoods rather than religious and communal issues.

Now, it is important to understand the manner in which discourse has been to large extent shifted from the communal issues to everyday life issues confronted by subaltern masses. The recent Bharat JodoYatra (unite India march)launched by the Congress party under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi has no doubt brought secular issues (jobs, rise of prices of essential commodities, corruptions, and plunder of resources by corporate houses) to the center stage of India‘s politics. The defamation against Rahul Gandhi (which led to the disqualification from Member of Parliament) has also been capitalized by the Congress party electorally.

Apart from the Congress Party, the role of the social justice parties and Left parties to counter the communal narrative of the BJP in the larger public domain cannot be underestimated. Besides, ongoing protests led by Wrestlers at Jantar Mantar (Delhi) can be cited as an example that has also triggered resentment against the BJP in the public domain. Besides, recent Satya Pal Malik’s statement about Pulwama terror attack has also created discontent against the BJP. To put it differently, the communal narrative set by the godi media and the BJP-RSS combined has been now challenged not only by the Congress Party but also by the combined efforts of the opposition parties, civil society and people at large. The fact cannot be ignored that, Bharat Jodo Yatra which covered various constituencies of Karnataka has made a huge impact and given electoral dividends to the Congress.

In short, perhaps for the first time since 2014, it appears that to large extent if not completely, the Congress Party along with opposition parties and tireless efforts of civil society groups have vehemently challenged the communal narratives of the BJP-RSS. Therefore, if any political party including the BJP wants to sustain in Indian politics for a long time, it should focus on genuine issues and problems of the people at large otherwise, it will face further electoral consequences in the upcoming elections.

To counter the BJP communal narrative at national level, it is crucial to set an electoral agenda around secular issues. While setting discourse around material needs, the Congress and Opposition parties should not follow the ‘soft-Hindutva’ approach (mainly, to counter the communal narrative of the BJP-RSS) and compromise with secular values and social justice, as enshrined in our Constitution of India. Karnataka election verdict has shown that people of state are not interested in religion and communal based politics rather they would prefer to vote for those parties which will try to address the everyday problems rather than foregrounding emotive issues.

The author   is PhD from the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.

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