Karnataka 2023: What the results tell us, and what they don’t

On voting patterns, vote shares versus seats, and what this might – or might not – mean for the 2024 Lok Sabha poll.

ByAnand Vardhan
Karnataka 2023: What the results tell us, and what they don’t
Shambhavi Thakur
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As is usual with poll outcomes, the Karnataka poll results have seen a flurry of commentary and takeaway exercises. This has resulted in the media space being clogged by an overdose of reading between the lines. One media portal even permitted a historian to slip into the role of political analyst. This was baffling because the Karnataka election was marked by carrying the weight of a 38-year-old history of voting out incumbent governments, rather than marking a watershed moment.

In the midst of this spree, however, we can identify a few time-bound indicators for state politics in Karnataka and its implications for opposition politics on the national stage. As the two key parties in this regard, the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party can be taken as the focus of such assessment.

To begin with, the numbers tell a story. The Congress won 135 seats with a vote share of 42.9 percent – a rise of 4.9 percent from its vote share in 2018. This implies a consolidation of its traditional voter base that had been identified in the 1970s by then Congress chief minister Devraj Urs as an Ahinda vote base. Ahinda is an acronym for Alpasankhyataru (minorities), Hindulidavaru (backward classes) and Dalitaru (Dalits). This consolidation means the party had a greater chance of converting a  vote share into seats. 

This has to be seen in the context of the fact that after it got a higher vote share in the 2004, 2008 and 2018 assembly polls, the Congress still won fewer seats than the BJP. Before the 2023 poll, the gap between vote share and seats was attributed to the Congress’s support being dispersed across OBC groups like Kurubas, Dalits and Muslims in Karnataka. It wasn’t concentrated densely in a region-specific cluster of constituencies, unlike the Lingayat voter base which is more concentrated in 70 seats – an advantage in the first past the post system. It’s a cluster where the Congress’s influence had weakened after S Nijalingappa’s departure in 1969, when the party split, and lost again after Veerender Patil’s dramatic ouster in the 1980s. 

The BJP benefited from this in the last three decades. However, poll figures indicate that a sizeable section of the Lingayat vote base has now drifted and sided with the Congress.

The same can be said about the Vokkaligas cluster in Old Mysore, the stronghold of the Janata Dal (Secular). The JDS’s vote share slipped from 18.3 percent in 2018 to 13.3 percent in 2023, a dip of five percent, indicating the Congress managed to wrest back a section of this group, which had been its main pillar of support until the late 1960s. The BJP had eyed the Vokkaligas of Old Mysore to gain additional vote share, though it made little progress.

Importantly, the BJP won 65 seats this election, 39 less than 2018 when it won 104 seats. However, it only recorded a 0.3 percent decline in its vote share from 36.3 percent in 2018 to 36 percent in 2023. In its clear defeat in this poll, the party can draw solace from these numbers. But its failure to strike a higher number of seats with almost the same vote share will prod it to examine strategic mistakes.

One obvious factor behind the gap between the BJP’s vote share and seats, which is a problem the Congress earlier faced in a number of assembly polls, is the drifting away of the consolidated cluster of Lingayat votes in over 70 constituencies. The second factor could be that in many constituencies, the chipping away of JDS support ended up in the Congress being the beneficiary of the shift.

Another set of numbers shows that the nature of the electoral contest in several constituencies was far closer than suggested by the results. The median victory margin, for instance, was 9.1 percent of the total votes polled, reflecting a close fight in line with the last two assembly polls in the state, as the victory margin was nine percent in 2018 and 9.8 percent in 2013.

In its national implications, the parties will look at results in different ways, more so as Karnataka is known to vote differently in state and parliamentary polls. In 2019, for instance, the BJP with almost the same vote share in the 2018 assembly poll won 25 out of 28 Lok Sabha seats in the state. The Congress, with 38 percent vote share in the 2018 poll, could win only one seat. The JDS too, with a vote share of 18.3 percent, scored one seat. 

This might change, and both the Congress and JDS would like the electorate to go against the weight of history.

Besides these small shifts within voter base groups, the Congress’s win has largely been seen as the foregrounding of strong regional leadership, contrasted against the BJP’s lack of local leadership to match its rival. The way the BJP’s state unit handled dissidence and defections might also be part of the central leadership’s road ahead for a revamp.

There have been indications that the Karnataka BJP was in purge mode – doing away with the old guard of state leadership to make state units more streamlined to a centralised structure of leadership. The party did not make eager efforts to placate veteran leaders who deserted it, indicating the BJP was either too confident or prepared to risk the election to rebuild afresh its state leadership. The famed de novo approach of state unit rebuilding is a possibility.

This also leads to a situation where prime minister Narendra Modi is the face of even state campaigns, pitched as the party’s pivotal vote-catcher. This approach is obviously fraught, exposing chinks in the BJP’s regional organisations. But Modi’s political capital draws on public outreach and political communication as a second skin to his repertoire of leadership. So, relentless campaigning fits neatly into this imprint of a centralised structure and messaging on what the party means when it seeks votes in state assemblies and the Lok Sabha. Though he’s actively involved in state campaigns (wins as well as defeats), Modi has long managed to delink his political capital from the outcome of state polls.

The Congress, however, is keen on leveraging the momentum of state polls to make itself the pivot of a strong opposition alliance for the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Since 2019, this is the first time the Congress has been in power in four states: Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. This can stand the Congress leadership in good stead during negotiations on seat-sharing as the forming of alliances for 2024 takes concrete shape.

That, however, hinges on the outcomes of the assembly polls in three states later this year. At present, two forms of opposition alliances are being considered and the role of the Congress is the crucial difference between the two. Parties with national ambitions, like the Trinamool Congress and Aam Aadmi Party, haven’t been inclined towards the Congress’s key role in a future alliance. But poll outcomes will look at the Congress’s capacity to occupy the national challenger space in a new light.

Given the essential haziness of the national electoral battle in 2024, the immediate milieu of state politics, as seen in Karnataka, has 12 months to strike any chance of national ferment. Meanwhile, like any poll outcome, different stakeholders can infer different messages for their strategies but with attention to the time and space of the battle – more so when bipolar duels involve two key national players.

Also see
Decoding the Karnataka mandate with the free press

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