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India: Narendra Modi's BJP poll defeat boosts opposition

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
May 16, 2023

The Indian National Congress, the top rivals of Narendra Modi's BJP, scored a resounding victory in the southern state of Karnataka. What happens now?

A group of BJP supporters hold up a large portrait of Modi ahead of the Karnataka vote
Narendra Modi held rallies in Kanataka to boost his party's chancesImage: Manjunath KIRAN/AFP

A fiercely contested election in the southern Indian state of Karnataka ended with Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) losing power to their main rivals, the Indian National Congress (INC), this weekend.

India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, personally ran the grueling campaign for the BJP in the key state. Karnataka is considered an economic powerhouse: it has a population of around 64 million people, including the tech hub of Bengaluru (Bangalore). It was also the only state in India's south governed by the BJP.

Now, the INC has managed to secure 136 out 224 seats in Karnataka's state assembly. The BJP, by contrast, will hold just 66 seats.

"The myth of BJP's invincibility stands shattered," Pawan Khera, an INC spokesperson, told DW.

Political commentators believe the results from Karnataka will resonate across India as the country prepares for a general election next year. This could energize the largely divided opposition to form a united front against Modi.

Boost of energy for Indian National Congress

Karnataka is the second state the BJP has lost to the INC in the last six months. In December, the party ousted the BJP in northern Himachal Pradesh. Although regional losses may not have a direct bearing onto the 2024 general elections, it is a cautionary tale for the party that has continuously banked on Modi as its key campaigner.

"It has lost a crucial state in the south, robbing it of a pan-India status," political commentator Neerja Chowdhury told DW.

"The BJP will have to really rethink its strategy going ahead given the magnitude of the Congress (INC) victory. The results show the poor are hurting badly," she added.

INC supporters celebrate their election victory by dancing in Karnataka
The INC secured more than twice as many seats than the BJPImage: Adnan Abidi/REUTERS

Since it came to power in 2014, the BJP has aggressively pursued its Hindu nationalist agenda, or "Hindutva" — a core political ideology that promotes the "values" of the Hindu religion as the cornerstone of Indian society and culture.

This strategy has worked well for the ruling party in the past. At the same time, BJP's political opponents say the party's ultranationalist rhetoric, based on Hindu nationalism and Hindutva, may be less appealing to the overall electorate than a more inclusive, secular appeal.

"The BJP campaign in Karnataka was driven by a communal narrative which has lost badly in contrast to the inclusive message of (…) the Congress," political scientist Zoya Hasan told DW.

She says the victory in Karnataka is a "morale booster" for the INC.

"The verdict can potentially change the political landscape ahead of the 2024 general election as well as the dynamics of opposition alliance with Congress well positioned to lead it," Hasan said.

In the wake of the Karnataka election, leaders from at least 12 political parties are now expected to meet in the city of Patna, in the western state of Bihar, to decide on a united opposition front against the BJP for the next year's vote.

Strengthening opposition unity

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his deputy Tejashwi Yadav are attempting to bring together leaders of regional parties to discuss tactics against the BJP on the state level.

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"Though the Congress remains the age-old rival of most regional parties in states, it will have to work out a strategic arrangement if it aspires to cobble up an alliance to take on the BJP at the national level," political commentator Rasheed Kidwai told DW.

He also noted that the BJP's anti-corruption slogans are losing their sheen, which opposition parties can capitalize on before the 2024 vote. In Karnataka, the opposition focused its campaign on targeting Modi's party over rising inflation, accusing his camp of corruption and complaining about poor infrastructure. It also promised electricity subsidies and other forms of aid to poor families and unemployed graduates.

But the BJP says it sees no threat to its narrative and questions whether any opposition bloc could survive the challenges of coalition politics.

"We have to see how this formation happens; it is too early," BJP spokesperson Tom Vadakan told DW. "Many of these parties have internal pressures and conflicts and to take on the BJP at the national level is a long shot," he added.

Opposition strategy against BJP still vague

The roadmap to the 2024 vote is still in its early stages, but the expectation is that the INC would take the lead in fighting the BJP over most seats, with other opposition parties taking a step back to avoid fragmenting the anti-BJP vote. In turn, the INC would give room to regional parties to take on BJP lawmakers in the remaining seats.

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Given the formidable electoral machinery of the BJP, the opposition parties would need a fine-tuned strategy to mount a credible challenge in 2024.

"The pace of opposition unity will gain momentum when regional parties get a greater realization that a clear understanding among them is the only way to corner or defeat the Modi-led BJP campaign," said Kidwai.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic