Karnataka: Why did Congress fail?

As the final tallies come in, the Congress came a distant second and the only hope for it lies in a tie-up with JD(S). The tie up is fraught with numerous risks given the abilities of Prime Minister Narendra Modi-BJP president Amit Shah combine to create alliances out of thin air.

As far as the election is concerned, while the party performed better than the 2013 election as well as its main rival the BJP in terms of the vote share, it appears that the BJP was much more efficient and won 25 seats more giving it an edge now and in the future.

Here are six reasons I believe led to the defeat of the Congress in Karnataka:

1. Too many incumbent MLAs with high anti-incumbency: While outgoing chief minister Siddaramaiah enjoyed high positive ratings, many of the MLAs were just about struggling to make the grade. A survey suggested that voters were inclined to vote back just about half of their MLAs.

In that context, to re-nominate almost 90% of the candidates was hara kiri. I understand that the Congress went through a detailed evaluation and after having evaluated the bench strength, went ahead with the nominations. Still, the result was disastrous with more than 50% of sitting MLAs including many ministers failing to get re-elected.

2. Defeat in rural areas: In one of the most remarkable findings from this election and continuing with the trend in Gujarat where the ruling BJP got hammered by the Congress in rural Gujarat, in Karnataka, too, the Congress got hammered.

Of the 65 rural seats the Congress won in 2013, it was able to retain just 35. It has retained 43 of the 55 urban seats it won in 2013. This is remarkable given the resources and effort put up by Siddaramaiah in rural Karnataka. It also tells us a lot about the condition of farmers across the country irrespective of the party in power. Two failed monsoons plus demonetisation has hurt farmers severely and politicians have not been able to find solutions that assuage their concerns.

3.Counter polarisation amongst Vokkaligas: Congress was hoping to make some headway in the 47 Vokkaliga seats by hurting JD(S) but at the end, JD(S) retained their tally of 20 of those seats.

The Congress strategy of aggressively courting Muslims and Dalits as well as loose comments against JD(S) leaders Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy led to counter polarisation in many seats leading to losses to the regional party. Further, BJP set up some friendly contests leading to small gains for the JD(S). At the end, the party made little headway.

4. AHINDA did not hold up well: Apart from counter polarisation in coastal districts and in Vokkaliga seats, the Congress did poorly even among its traditionally strong SC/ST seats. It won 26 out of the 51 SC/ST seats in 2013. It ended up with just 18 of these seats in 2018.

The credit goes to the BJP which has built up leaders bottoms up and who were able to sustain the momentum in favour of the BJP. The Congress continues to struggle with Dalits and tribals after having lost tribal seats in Gujarat, too.

5. Resources: Contrary to the expectations, the Congress did not appear to have adequate resources to fight the media war at the fag end of the campaign. Our online platform suggested that during the Modi visit, the BJP overwhelmed the air waves in Karnataka.

According to Sensara Technologies, the advertisement spends of BJP were almost four times that of Congress. In modern elections, advertising and marketing play as much critical role as anything else. With the bulk of the Congress spends a few months before the election and not during the final week, the BJP gained some momentum and seats during the last one week of the campaign.

Modi’s tour

Last but not the least, while Modi is not as popular in Karnataka as he is in the Hindi speaking states, he is more popular than every other leader in Karnataka. The BJP chose his tour plan very cleverly to ensure large-scale mobilisation within its strong and semi-strong seats. This gave the impression of a wave to undecided voters.

During the period of his travel, the Congress aggressively went after him. However, that gave them few dividends and in fact, spurred Modi even more to counter attack the Congress. Instead, the effort should have been to continue to attack Yeddyurappa, who was clearly struggling against Siddaramaiah. This was a tactical mistake and must have cost at least 1% vote for the Congress. In a close election that could be 5-6 seats more.

At the end, the Congress did quite a few things right and that is why it ended up with a higher vote share. However, a few strategic mistakes, a few uncontrollable circumstances and a strong rival, all contributed to a significant fall in seat share. There is much to learn and improve before the big election of 2019.

(The writer is political insights consultant, Campaign 360 Consultancy)

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