BJP led but JD(S) in pole position: Bengaluru game of thrones offers salutary lessons for Congress to take on Brand Modi in 2019

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In an election in which Siddaramaiah likened himself to the legendary seventh century Chalukya ruler Pulakesin II, who defeated the north Indian emperor Harsha, his Kannada First vs Outsider narrative clearly couldn’t stave off a saffron surge. While BJP finished as the single largest party in what still is its first major state south of the Vindhyas, the irony is that Congress has won a higher vote-share – 38% to BJP’s 36.2% – which has allowed it to prevent BJP from staking an immediate claim.
The unlikely beneficiary of this fractured mandate is JD(S) which may end up as king instead of kingmaker. While we are in for a messy few days of political give-and-take before Karnataka’s next government is finally sworn in, the underlying levers driving this tantalising result are clear.

First, BJP won more seats than Congress because its vote is more concentrated in specific regions. BJP has historically had a much higher vote-to-seat conversion ratio in Karnataka, needing on average only 86,525 votes to win a seat as opposed to Congress’s average of 1,13,642 votes per seat to win. This is because the Congress vote is more dispersed.
In 2018, that trend got accentuated further. For example, BJP won with good margins across coastal Karnataka, winning everything in a straight line from Karwar (8.8% margin) to Virajpet (8.5% margin) and all over central Karnataka from Shimoga (26.8% margin) to Hosadurga (16.3% margin). While most parts of the state have been painted saffron, BJP virtually ceded the Old Mysuru region where it won only 9 out of 55 seats. This is why just looking at vote shares indicates no signs of anti-incumbency while looking at the overall seat map shows major BJP gains.
Second, the 2018 result is a virtual repeat of the 2008 verdict in Karnataka, where again Congress had fewer seats in a BJP sweep, despite having a larger vote share (34.8%) than BJP (33.9%). The 2008 and 2018 constituency maps look identical.

Essentially, BJP’s 2018 tally is its 2013 bag of seat plus those that have come back to it with the return of Yeddyurappa and B Sreeramulu to the party plus another new 3% of the vote which it has gained additionally. Most of this new vote has most likely come to BJP from JD(S) and others – in seats like Kadur and Mudigere in the central Vokkaliga heartland.

Third, in a state which has not returned an incumbent chief minister to power since Ramakrishna Hegde in 1985, it is remarkable that Congress did not lose vote share to BJP. In fact, it increased vote share by almost 2%. BJP has essentially gained by being more tactically astute about where it chose to compete and where it focussed its resources.

BJP clearly had a significantly better ground game and constituency level micro-management. Thousands of RSS workers were mobilised for the campaign and Amit Shah personally travelled to over 162 constituencies.

The fact that BJP virtually left parts of the Old Mysuru region open to JD(S) meant that Kumaraswamy’s advances here checkmated Congress. It deprived Siddaramaiah of a crucial region even as BJP made advances elsewhere. Yet, the moot point here is whether giving JD(S) a leg up on the ground eventually ended up harming BJP in the end?

Fourth, like it has done in Uttar Pradesh before, BJP won almost half of Karnataka’s 33 Muslim dominated seats. In national terms, this means that counter-mobilisation by other communities can offset consolidation by a dominant group in a particular seat.

Fifth, BJP has made a return in Karnataka’s urban areas, aside from Bengaluru. Interestingly, while BJP also won almost half of the 74 rural seats hit by an agrarian crisis, that Congress managed to remain competitive here means that Siddaramaiah’s welfare politics did have resonance on the ground.
For national politics as we head into 2019, there are two clear ramifications. First, Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains BJP’s unquestioned leadership talisman. Rahul Gandhi, who has become much more aggressive in his political outreach in recent months, is still no match for him as a vote catcher. Modi flew 28,634 km in a late blitzkrieg of a campaign which brought BJP back into the game, in comparison to Rahul’s 52,121 km of campaigning which he began much earlier. Rahul talked of becoming PM at the end of the campaign but Congress remains in the game because of Siddaramaiah’s caste arithmetic and political chessboard moves.

Secondly, unlike in Goa and Manipur where it was blindsided by a more agile BJP, Congress has reacted faster in Bengaluru with its unconditional offer of support to JD(S). The result shows that heading into 2019, Congress has enough residual power to at least mount a challenge, but only if it works out strategic alliances state-by-state. A pre-poll Congress-JD(S) alliance in Bengaluru, for example, even at the cost of losing Siddaramaiah, would have been insurmountable.

Congress must learn from Amit Shah’s playbook of political ruthlessness and be much more tactical and smarter at the micro-level to challenge the Modi-Shah juggernaut. BJP continues to benefit from a Modi premium and from the extra push it gets from Shah’s superb ground organisation. Being more adaptive to alliances is crucial for Congress, even though its putative allies all compete for the same social groups it targets, making a coherent united front much more challenging.





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