Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party celebrate as they carry cut-outs of party President Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi after learning of the initial poll results in the Karnataka state assembly elections in Bengaluru, India, on May 15, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Abhishek N. Chinnappa
Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party celebrate as they carry cut-outs of party president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi after learning of the initial poll results in the Karnataka state assembly elections in Bangalore on May 15, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Abhishek N Chinnappa

The ruling Congress government suffered big losses in Karnataka as vote counting on Tuesday indicated a saffron surge in the South Indian state.

It is likely that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will form the government in Karnataka, while crucial losses in key constituencies considered party bastions contributed to Congress’ defeat.

But a last minute-gamble by Congress has put all bets on hold. As results became apparent that Congress did not have the numbers, the party immediately issued a letter of support for the regional party, the Janta Dal-Secular (JD-S), offering to support a coalition government. If this works, it will deprive the BJP of a crucial state.

Apart from setting the tone for the next Lok Sabha, or lower house, elections for the BJP, the outcome of the Karnataka elections will have a significant impact on upcoming assembly polls due in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The BJP was aware that the Karnataka result would be crucial. Following recent by-election defeats in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the BJP was under pressure and wanted to show Narendra Modi’s popularity was intact.

A Karnataka win would ensure the BJP had the edge over its rivals ahead of the Lok Sabha elections and the other three big state elections later this year. It would also boost the Modi-Shah juggernaut, proving their political gambles are paying off and party president Amit Shah’s high-risk “go for the jugular” style is reaping dividends.

A BJP win in Karnataka would also jolt the opposition parties trying to prop up a non-BJP front.

Now the BJP’s allies will realize it is in their own interests to stick with the NDA. Shiv Sena has already announced it will contest the Maharashtra assembly and the 2019 Lok Sabha polls on its own. A win for the BJP in Karnataka would likely force the Shiv Sena to rethink its strategy and remain in the NDA.

It will also give an indication that the TDP may come back in the NDA.  In Jammu and Kashmir too, the PDP-BJP alliance appears to be developing cracks. Inherent contradictions and divergent political interests have led to a big split. Now the PDP, despite disagreeing with the BJP on sensitive issues facing the state, may consider it prudent to put aside their differences in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Also, a favorable outcome in the state may encourage more regional parties to form an alliance with the BJP-led NDA. Amit Shah’s shrewd tie-ups have already led the party to form or join a government in six of eight northeastern states. Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu could be next on his radar with possible alliances with the YSR Congress and Rajinikant’s party.

A BJP win in Karnataka will increase its tally of states to 22 and reduce Congress to two – Punjab and Puducherry. After winning Karnataka, Modi and Shah’s goal of a Congress-Mukt Bharat (Congress Free India) had a boost within the BJP’s first term in office.

Early general elections?

The Karnataka election was a challenge for Modi too. He proved his ability to translate his charisma into votes in a southern state. He had managed it once before in the 2014 general election when the BJP won a majority of parliamentary seats from Karnataka. Given how high the stakes are, there is little doubt that he and his lieutenant, Amit Shah, will do everything they can to repeat that success.

There is growing speculation and rumors that general elections might be called as early as at the end of this year to make sure that the state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh scheduled for the time are held concurrently. The reasoning is that the setbacks that Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chouhan might suffer as incumbents in standalone state elections might be offset by the general elections win achieved by Modi.

The BJP’s prospects in the next general elections are already bright. After winning Karnataka, the BJP is close to a two-thirds majority in the Rajya Sabha. Four Rajya Sabha members from Karnataka will be retiring in June 2020. Only one is from the BJP.

It could also change the dynamics of national politics ahead of the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The Karnataka victory for the BJP can further marginalize Congress in Indian politics, which could hasten the anti-BJP forces to cobble together a broader coalition to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019.

It also reflects the enduring charisma of Prime Minister Modi and his capacity to power his party to victory across the country, clearing demographic and topographical obstacles.

The Karnataka win is the BJP’s first big victory in a major southern state under the leadership of Modi and Shah. The party could not improve its performance significantly in the assembly elections in Tamil Nadu and Kerela, which were held in 2016. With the Telugu Desam Party withdrawing from the NDA, the BJP has lost an important ally in the south. A victory for the BJP suggests it is capable of defeating all these challenges and will advance further as a pan-Indian party.

Congress loss vis-a-vis national politics

After the big loss in Karnataka, doubts loom over Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s leadership skills. There will be growing impatience within the party to address the leadership issue. Its cadres and leaders will start reassessing Gandhi and his inability to win elections in spite of the presence of several factors.

Senior Congress leaders may raise questions about Gandhi’s leadership. There is a possibility that some Congress leaders at national and state level will leave the party and join the BJP.

The Congress defeat may also give impetus to the formation of a non-Congress front ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Now, Gandhi’s ambition to emerge as an alternative to Modi in national politics lies in tatters. The sagging morale of Congress workers is also likely to take a further hit as Congress is going downhill, losing state after state since Modi came to power at the Center. Losing Karnataka is likely to weaken its claim drastically for the leadership of a broader anti-BJP alliance that is being talked about.

It seems that winning Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will be difficult for Congress now. Last but not the least, the Karnataka loss is likely to take its toll on Congress’ finances. It could have an extremely adverse impact on the Congress party’s ability to raise funds as it would not have an elected government in any major state except Punjab.

Given the fact that the BJP is already way ahead in terms of income and expenditure, this will only add to the disadvantage of Congress while competing with the BJP’s efforts in the 2019 elections.

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