Karnataka Verdict

BJP leaders Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh felicitate Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the party's performance in the recently-concluded Karnataka Assembly Polls at party headquarters in New Delhi May 15. Also present are party leaders Sushma Swaraj, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Nitin Gadkari. (IANS photo)

NEW DELHI — The results of Karnataka assembly polls must have come as a disappointment for the Congress party and its ambitions for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, but the party can take some solace from the fact that it was able to deny the Bharatiya Janata Party an outright victory in the crucial southern state.

The results are likely to boost the present churning to forge an anti-BJP front for the next general elections with opposition parties expected to exert more pressure on the Congress to go for state-specific alliances even in states where it is the main force against the BJP. 

The party's decision to support Janata Dal-Secular in the government formation in Karnataka to prevent BJP from coming to power has implications for the party's preparations for the 2019 elections. 

While it will be required to share political space with JD-S in Karnataka when a coalition government is formed, there will be demands from other parties for alliances in states such as Madhya Praesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, which will go to the polls later this year. 

The Karnataka elections were crucial for the Congress to build momentum for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and for three assembly polls later this year. 

It was also significant to raise morale of Congress workers as the party is in power now only in two other states – Punjab and Mizoram, besides the union territory of Puducherry. 

The results were also seen as crucial to boost Congress president Rahul Gandhi's image as an effective campaigner against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in view of their likely run-in in the 2019 polls. 

The election saw the Congress put its heart and soul in the campaign, with Gandhi campaigning in a large number of constituencies but the results showed party's vulnerability to BJP's skills at executing social coalitions, micromanagement and intense campaigning. 

Gandhi had spearheaded the party's campaign in Karnataka with frontal attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi but it apparently did not have the kind of impact the party was hoping for – far from it.

Gandhi repeatedly hammered the issues of jobs, atrocities against Dalits and women and the multi-crore banking frauds during his campaign.

During the campaign, he also expressed his willingness to become the prime minister if the Congress or a coalition led by the party wins next year's Lok Sabha elections. 

The Congress suffered a sharp drop in its numbers in Karnataka despite favorable factors such as apparent lack of anti-incumbency and the party having a strong state leader in Siddaramaiah whose government was seen to have delivered on pro-poor schemes in the last five years. 

But it was successful in garnering more votes than the BJP, while getting 26 fewer seats at 78. Also, had it fought jointly with JD(S) in a pre-poll alliance, the total tally of the two parties, at over 54 percent of votes, would have overshot BJP's by a large number. This shows a lack of planning or political vision.

It was cold comfort for the party its vote share had risen compared to 2013 elections when it won 122 seats. The party had polled 36.79 percent votes in 2013 and 38 percent in the May 15 results.

As in Gujarat, where Congress also put up a spirited fight, Prime Minister Narendra Modi energized the BJP's campaign in Karnataka in the last phases, holding 21 rallies in a span of nine days. 

The Congress will continue to face challenge of meeting the BJP's formidable election machine in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, with Modi expected to help the BJP governments beat anti-incumbency with his oratorical skills. 

The Congress also apparently miscalculated that the Dalit community, which has a sizeable presence in Karnataka, was quite upset with the Modi government on a range of issues including the "delay" in filing review petition in the Supreme Court over "dilution" of the SC/ST Act. 

The Congress decision to recommend minority status to the numerically strong Lingayat community and spur sub-nationalism in the form a separate state flag also apparently did not work in the desired way for the party. 

Gandhi has largely been unable to come up with an answer to Modi's oratorial and Amit Shah's managerial skills. He will get three more opportunities this year where he can at least show political acumen of bringing together the right coalitions – before polls – to challenge the main weapon that the BJP has. If he cannot, then 2019 will turn out to be a bigger disappointment for him and his party.

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