Hope in unity: Those who want to defeat BJP in 2019 have to come together

In the end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was, as ever, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) not-so-secret weapon — his storm of last-minute rallies grabbed headlines and attention and brought the BJP within a whisker of an absolute majority in the Karnataka Assembly elections. The BJP’s combination of the mastery of booth-level politics — administered by party president Amit Shah — and Mr Modi’s unparalleled connect with the electorate continues to make the BJP unquestionably the dominant political force in India. That these two powerful factors, combined with the well-known tendency towards anti-incumbency displayed by Karnataka’s voters, failed to provide the BJP with an absolute majority is a tribute, more than anything else, to the hard-fought campaign spearheaded by Karnataka’s outgoing Congress chief minister, Siddaramaiah. 

The Congress has not done as well as it would have liked but, nevertheless, it can draw some solace from the fact that its vote share seems to be higher than that of the BJP’s — and the BJP was always going to have a better vote-to-seat conversion as its support base is more concentrated in constituencies. Moreover, unlike in the last elections in 2013, the Congress is facing a unified BJP. On that occasion, the state BJP had split into factions, one of them led by B S Yeddyurappa; these alienated splinter groups have now come together, making the Congress’ job tougher. 

The new government in Karnataka must swiftly put the concerns of electoral politics behind it. Much needs to be done in the state — and its voters are swift to punish governments that do not perform exceptionally. The state, while moderately prosperous, has pockets where rural distress is deep and widespread. Water shortages and poor agricultural infrastructure have intensified farmers’ problems. The methods chosen in the past, including by the last Karnataka government, to address rural distress are not sustainable. Loan waivers and the large giveaway promises made during the election campaign do not provide a permanent solution to the issues behind rural distress. Faster growth and more employment opportunities are a must, to act as a pressure valve for rural populations. Meanwhile, Bengaluru, which has grown swiftly over the past decades as the headquarters of India’s information technology (IT) boom, is groaning under the growing stress, and requires much more investment in its basic amenities. It will also shortly be threatened by the structural slowdown in the IT sector’s growth. The next government will have to deal with the implications of that shrinkage. It will also need to keep a lid on simmering communal tension in parts of the state. 

The implications of the Karnataka results for national politics are clear: An Opposition that is not united is one that will not just lose, but be wiped out. The Congress’ speed in reaching out to the Janata Dal (S) after the results shows that it may have learned the lessons of the past, where it was tardy in setting up coalitions and thereby lost the right to govern. Mr Modi and his party may feel emboldened to continue standing alone but the Opposition will have to draw quite the opposite lesson.