The resounding win of the Congress party in the Karnataka assembly elections in May 2023 has helped lift the self-doubt that plagued the opposition parties about beating the majoritarian politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming general elections in 2024. The critical learning from Karnataka for the Congress party, and perhaps for the BJP, is that there are limits beyond which a well-worn tactic of small parties and individuals propped up to cut votes of a winner does not work.
Spurred by Karnataka, the opposition parties believe they have a fair chance to overthrow the BJP from power at the centre if they can all field one candidate against the ruling party. During a recent trip by Rahul Gandhi to the United States, he had dropped a hint that the opposition parties would have an understanding in about 450 seats in the country. The exact number was bandied around in the opposition meetings that have taken place recently. This seems quite optimistic if one factors in the noises that have been heard in the two opposition conclaves. For instance, in Patna, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee claimed that her state did not need any alliance as she was ready to take on the BJP alone. She was also happy to support any other opposition party candidates in other states. This claim left other parties, like the Communist Party (M) and the Congress that have a presence in West Bengal, bewildered. If, indeed, that's how parties will go about staking claim over the state where they have sway, then how will other parties work together? Hemant Soren, the CM of Jharkhand and leader of JMM, is reported to have asked the West Bengal CM - how will you support our candidates in Jharkhand as you have no presence in this state. The Trinamool Congress chief was left speechless.
What is also coming out strongly - not just after the Karnataka polls - is the sphinx-like rise of Congress after many years. Though constantly reviled, this has much to do with the campaign launched by Rahul Gandhi. He has not just shown stamina - he covered some 4000 kilometres while on a long march - Bharat Jodo Yatra - but also due to his fearlessness in the face of challenges faced at the hands of the Modi government. In the past few months, Rahul has not only been ejected from his seat in Lok Sabha for an allegedly defamatory remark against those with the surname Modi but consequently had to leave his official home too. Technically speaking, he is homeless. During his long march - he garnered big crowds and also managed to revive the party in states where it went through. Many Karnataka leaders don’t shy away from admitting that the Yatra worked to their advantage.
Another important Karnataka lesson was that the minorities that were earlier experimenting with voting for BJP swung entirely in favour of the Congress party. Though technically a minority, they are about 14.3 percent in the country and 13 percent in Karnataka state. They have an impact on 40 assembly segments of Karnataka. Due to the revival of the Congress party and improved organisation, the party managed to get most of those who belonged to minorities. Contrary to the assertion by many, it was not just the Muslim vote that came the way of the Congress, but Muslims voted for them as others were too! This is likely to be worrying for the BJP, which spent a colossal amount of money on majoritarian politics and leaned on its phenomenal media power to dominate the narrative for 2024 general elections.
Uttar Pradesh, which, till now, seems to be going the way of the BJP, could be in for a surprise if those opposing the ruling party could work together. Before the INDIA alliance came together, there were misgivings in the Samajwadi party about contesting along with the Congress. Even UP Congress passed a resolution - no truck with SP. Due to its ambivalence, even Jayant Choudhary’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, which was in an alliance with the SP and the Congress, was in dithers about what it should do with itself. It was clear about one thing - it could not fight the elections without being in an alliance with some party. For a while, it toyed with the idea of allying even with the BJP, but surely the ruling party, after stealing RLD’s voter base, had no use for it.
It seems that Akhilesh Yadav, the leader of the SP, has sensed that without the Congress party, it may not get back the support of the minority community. In the 2022 assembly elections, SP did not do enough to win the polls, as the minorities voted for him in significant numbers. Still, his backward caste support base did not support him. That way, he lost a winning hand. Minority leadership has been routinely critical of him and made it amply clear to him - publicly or otherwise - that he will get their votes if he is part of the Congress-led alliance. This is the reason why Akhilesh, Rahul, and Jayant were seen hanging out together in Bangalore during the opposition conclave. If this burgeoning alliance can be accompanied by a long yatra by Rahul Gandhi, then Uttar Pradesh could also be a toss-up.
Due to this dramatic shift in the manner in which Karnataka has voted and also over how the opposition politicians are reading the straws in the wind, there is visibly an urgent need for them to get on with seat adjustment between allies. The big challenge will be UP, where SP may only be keen to share a few seats with Congress and would use the formula of past performance to allot seats to partners. This could be the undoing of the alliance. BJP will watch closely how the INDIA parties cobble together their understanding in West Bengal, Kerala, Delhi, and Punjab.
These troublesome states, apart from many others, have settled alliances between Congress and other regional parties - Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Bihar, for instance. Alongside these states where alliances are a settled issue, there are many others, besides Karnataka, where the Congress is in power - for instance, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan. There are other states like Madhya Pradesh and certain north-eastern states where the Congress will be in direct contest with the BJP again. Here again, the opposition parties will hope that the voting behaviour for the 2024 general elections for the masses will not be determined by majoritarian politics.
Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine. He is a Member of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and, until recently, served as the General Secretary of EGI.
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