NEW DELHI: India’s Congress Party cleanly defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the crucial state of Karnataka on Saturday, subverting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hopes of expanding his muscular Hindu nationalism into the southern provinces.

The BJP had grabbed power in Karnataka in 2019 by inducing defections from the fragile Congress coalition government, and not winning it fairly. The Congress staged an emphatic victory this time, winning 136 seats in the 224 member state assembly, well beyond the halfway mark.

Congress cleanly regains Karnataka

That Mr Modi held several rallies over a number of days, ending the campaign with a desperate religious appeal to Hindu voters magnified the importance of the BJP’s defeat. “The bazaar of hate has shut down. The shops of love are re-opened,” said Rahul Gandhi, whose recent marathon ‘March to unite India’ spent several days in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.

But the Congress’s troubles are not entirely over. It has to decide on the chief minister’s post between two contending stalwarts with different ideological thrusts. Ex-CM Siddaramaiah belongs to the social justice plank, while D.K. Shivakumar is a wealthy farmer with muscle power. Reports say both could be accommodated as chief ministers, splitting the five-year tenure into equal halves.

The problem of local satraps also dogged the BJP and it had to sideline an influential former chief minister to put the focus in the campaign on the prime minister. That Mr Modi’s overused charisma failed in Karnataka is said to be good news for the shunned B.S. Yeddiurappa, now even more vital for Mr Modi’s poll bid in May 2024.

The fact that the Karnataka results were decided by a marginal shift in votes should also worry India’s opposition parties. Two other results should make the opposition parties ponder their future, as Aam Aadmi Party won a single Lok Sabha seat from Jalandhar, defeating the Congress Party by a large margin and BJP led by an avowedly anti-Muslim CM has swept local body polls in Uttar Pradesh. The results are being seen as troublesome for former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, but the good news is that Lalu Yadav, recently freed on bail, has started working intensively for opposition unity. As the results from Karnataka trickled in, Lalu headed for a Muslim shrine known as ‘High Court Mazaar’, to offer prayers there. Adding to his joy was the Supreme Court’s verdict that proclaimed the recent change in government in Maharashtra to install a BJP rule by inducing defections as illegal.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2023

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