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BJP’s Southern Comfort

Success in Karnataka

Sandeep Shastri ( is National Coordinator, Lokniti Network, Pro-vice Chancellor, Jain University, Bengaluru. Veena Devi ( is with Department of Political Science, Bangalore University, Karnataka State Coordinator, Lokniti Network.

Karnataka was the only state in South India where the Bharatiya Janata Party was able to record an impressive victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This article examines the reasons for theBJP’s success and the failure of the Congress–Janata Dal (Secular) alliance to transform an anticipated dividend from electoral arithmetic. Caste calculus and ground-level chemistry had clearly adversely impacted on the Congress–JD(S) alliance and led to theBJP recording its best ever victory in the state.

Karnataka was the only state in South India, that conformed to the national trend and sent a large contingent of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members to the Lok Sabha in the 2019 polls. The state saw a bipolar contest involving the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular)—JD(S)—forming an alliance to take on the BJP. This alliance was formed a year earlier when the state had assembly polls (2018) which saw no single party secure a majority and the Congress and JD(S) came together to form a coalition government. Political survival necessitated the coalition partners in the state to remain together during the Lok Sabha elections to take on the BJP (Shastri 2018b). Many argued that the electoral arithmetic was in their favour. Their combined vote share in the assembly (2018) and the last Lok Sabha elections (2014) was much higher than that of the BJP. Yet, the results indicated that extrapolating the arithmetic may prove horribly wrong if ground-level political chemistry does not work (Shastri 2019; Devi and Nagesh 2019). The BJP came up with its best ever performance in the state, winning 25 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats besides ensuring the victory of an independent candidate backed by them. The JD(S) and Congress were left desperately clutching on to a single seat each. Once again for the first time, the BJP secured more than half the votes polled, an increase of over 8 percentage points compared to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The Congress–JD(S) alliance’s vote share fell by a steep 11 percentage points.

A range of factors and forces contributed to this result. At one level, the Karnataka voter made a clear distinction between national- and state-level polls and endorsed the claims of the BJP and its leadership for a second term. Second, the Congress–JD(S) alliance failed to take off at the party worker and supporter level. In many constituencies the formation of the alliance led to ceding space to the BJP. In much of the Old Mysore region, the traditional electoral contest was between the Congress and the JD(S). By coming together, they gave an opportunity to the BJP to make inroads into what were their traditional bastions. Third, the caste equations also saw a significant shift resulting in an advantage to the BJP. The Lokniti–Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) National Election Study (NES) 2019, provides useful insights into explaining the impressive BJP victory and what contributed to the defeat of the Congress–JD(S) alliance.

Larger Context

While there is an important national context for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which saw the incumbent BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) seeking a second term in office, the specific political developments in the run-up to the parliamentary elections assume relevance. In the assembly polls held in 2018, no single party secured a majority in the legislative assembly. As the single largest party, the BJP was invited to form the government but had to resign within a few days as it could not prove its majority on the floor of the house. Meanwhile, the Congress and the JD(S) had reached an understanding and made a bid for power. Even though the Congress had more seats than the JD(S) in the assembly, they conceded the chief ministership to the JD(S) and an alliance government under the leadership of H D Kumaraswamy assumed office. The glue that brought the alliance together was the desire to be in power and keep the BJP out of power (Shastri 2018c). As a result, the alliance government moved from crisis to crisis and its stability was always a question mark. Though the alliance had the numbers, the contradictions between the alliance partners and the internal rumblings and dissatisfaction within both the parties continued to adversely affect the smooth and effective functioning of the government.

As the Lok Sabha elections approached, the BJP saw an opportunity to go back to the voter and seek votes on two important planks. First, securing a mandate for the BJP-led NDA under the leadership of Narendra Modi to return to power for a second term. Second, attacking the coalition government in the state and evoke public sympathy for what they term as being denied the chance to govern the state in spite of emerging as the single largest party. They decided on their candidates well in advance. All their sitting members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha from Karnataka were renominated to contest. The party decided to back an independent candidate in one seat and put up candidates in all the other 27 seats.

The Congress–JD(S) alliance was more caught up in seat sharing negotiations to divide the 28 seats in the state between themselves. This became a very ticklish issue in many of the constituencies, especially in the Old Mysore region, as the traditional fight was between the Congress and the JD(S). Indecision on a few seats continued till close to the last date of filing nominations. The final seat sharing arrangement saw the Congress contest 21 seats and the JD(S) field candidates in seven.

The Lok Sabha elections saw the active campaigning of the leaders of all the three major parties. Prime Minister Modi was the BJP’s star campaigner and addressed as many as seven rallies across the state. The BJP president flagged off the BJP Lok Sabha campaign in the state with a rally in Bengaluru on 2 April. The then Congress president, Rahul Gandhi addressed rallies across Karnataka, coming to the state on four different days and addressing more than six rallies. The JD(S) chief H D Deve Gowda, though a contestant himself in Tumkur, toured the entire state and campaigned on behalf of his party. Chief Minister Kumaraswamy was also active in the campaign, though he devoted a lot of his time to Mandya, where his son was the JD(S) candidate. The Lokniti–CSDS NES data indicate that close to half of those who voted for the BJP, Congress and JD(S) said that they took the decision on whom to vote much before the election campaign began. It is important to record that the impact of the election campaign was seen much more in case of those who voted for the BJP than those who voted for the alliance. More than one-third of those who voted for the BJP said that they took the decision on whom to vote a few days prior to the day of voting or on the day of voting. The percentage of last-minute deciders among those who voted for the Congress–JD(S) alliance was merely one-fourth. Thus many more moved towards the BJP during the campaign rather than the Congress–JD(S) alliance.

Analysing the Results

The BJP retained not just all the 17 seats it had won in 20141 but wrested another eight seats from the Congress. The JD(S) and Congress were able to retain only one seat each and the JD(S) conceded one seat to an independent. It is important to assert that the margins of victory of the winning candidates across parties was impressive. Twenty-one of the 28 winners won by margins of over one lakh votes. This includes the Congress, JD(S) and the independent candidate who won. Four of the BJP victories were by margins in the range of 50,000 to one lakh and only three victories were by margins of less than 50,000. The voters in Karnataka thus gave a decisive mandate in each of the constituencies in the state.

Much of the focus of the BJP campaign was an appeal to the voters to secure another term in office for Prime Minister Modi. All the 27 BJP candidates sought votes in the name of their prime ministerial candidate.2 When asked as to who their preferred prime ministerial candidate was, there was a 21 percentage point difference between support for Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi (Table 2). Nine of every 10 of those who voted for the BJP said that Modi was their preferred prime ministerial candidate. It is also important to note that two of every 10 of JD(S) voters and one of every 10 of those who voted for the Congress, preferred Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. Interestingly, only six of every 10 of those who said that they voted for the JD(S) said that Rahul Gandhi was their preferred Prime Minister while close to three-fourths of the Congress voters took that stand. The preference for Modi was clearly very strong among BJP supporters and also visible among JD(S) and Congress supporters.

The role of Prime Minister Modi in swaying the vote towards the BJP is also evident in the response to the question on whether respondents would have changed the way they voted if Modi were not to be the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP (Table 3). More than half of those who voted for the BJP said that they would have changed the way they would have voted if Modi were not to be the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP. This figure is much higher than the national average where one-thirds of the BJP voters said that they would not have voted for the BJP if Modi were not to be its prime ministerial candidate.

Yet another factor that contributed to the BJP victory was the positive rating given by the voters to the BJP-led NDA government at the centre. The NES data show that if close to one-fourth of the respondents were fully satisfied with the performance of the government, close to half were somewhat satisfied with the government’s record in governance. This implies that close to three-fourths of the respondents were satisfied with the performance of the central government. Only one in every 10 was deeply dissatisfied with the central government and the remaining one-seventh of the respondents were somewhat satisfied with the government performance.

Which were the social groups that voted much more for the BJP as compared to the Congress–JD(S) alliance? The predicted probability of voting for the BJP indicates the groups in which the party received higher support (Figure 1).

The BJP enjoyed much higher support among younger (less than 25) voters and middle aged (46–55) voters. It also had much higher support among the economically well off and the lower middle class. These have always been the traditional economic groups that have backed the BJP at the national level. Among the poor, the Congress–JD(S) alliance seems to have greater support than the BJP. The intensity of media exposure also shows a trend in support for the BJP. Three fourths of those with very high media exposure supported the BJP. As levels of media exposure reduce, the support for the BJP also witnesses a decline. Among those with no media exposure the support for the Congress–JD(S) is marginally higher than for the BJP.

Six of every 10 from among the upper castes have voted for the BJP. The BJP has retained its support among the Lingayat community and this explains the sweep it achieved in northern Karnataka. Its improved performance in the Old Mysore region is possibly on account of the significant swing of the Vokkaliga vote in its favour. In earlier Lok Sabha elections one has noticed a three way split of the Vokkaliga vote (Shastri 2018a). With the Congress–JD(S) coming together one had thought that the Vokkaliga vote could well consolidate in favour of the alliance. However, the data indicate that the consolidation has happened in favour of the BJP. The Congress–JD(S) alliance seems to have done better than the BJP in terms of garnering the Other Backward Classes and Dalit vote. The tribal vote has again consolidated behind the BJP. As compared to 2014, the BJP has seen a marginal rise in the share of Muslim vote though the Congress–JD(S) alliance seemed to find favour with the minority community.

The inability of the Congress–JD(S) alliance to sustain their vote share and benefit from the alliance is clearly evident in the election results. The inability of the alliance partners to work together—both at the constituency and local level—was clearly evident throughout the election campaign. The NES survey also provides an indicator of the attitude of the supporters of the Congress and JD(S) towards each other’s parties. Only four of every 10 of the Congress voters liked the JD(S) as a party. Similarly, only three of every 10 Congress voters liked the JD(S) as a party. Thus, the inability of the two parties to ensure a mutual vote transfer is evident. This was clearly evident in the Mandya Lok Sabha constituency. This seat went to the JD(S) in the seat sharing. The JD(S) decided to field the son of the chief minister as the candidate. A former Congress minster and film star Ambareesh had passed away just before the election. His wife Sumalatha had sought the Congress ticket for the elections. As the seat went to the JD(S), Sumalatha decided to stand as an independent. She was officially backed by the BJP which decided not to field a candidate in the constituency. This was one of those rare constituencies where the independent (who finally won) got the official support of the BJP and the unofficial support of the local Congress leaders and workers.

The attitude of the respondents to the formation of the coalition government in the state was clearly on partisan lines. More than two-thirds of those who voted for the BJP argued that the Congress and JD(S) coming together to form a government in the state was wrong. A little over two-thirds of the Congress supporters and more than three-fourths of the JD(S) supporters saw nothing wrong in the two parties coming together to form a coalition.

The inability of the Congress–JD(S) to get their act together and the positive mood in favour of the BJP and its national leadership led to the defeat of many stalwarts from the JD(S) and Congress. Mallikarjun Kharge, who led the Congress in the Lok Sabha faced the first electoral defeat in his four-decade-long career. Veteran Congress leader who had represented Kolar for several terms, K H Muniyappa had to face defeat as did former minister Veerappa Moily. The JD(S) supremo and former Prime Minister Deve Gowda lost from Tumkur. Once the election results became clear, the defeated Congress and JD(S) candidates blamed the coalition partner for their defeat.

The Karnataka result sent two clear messages. First, it was a clear endorsement of the BJP-led central government and its leadership. The satisfaction with the performance of the central government and the support for Modi to be Prime Minister clearly swayed the verdict in favour of the BJP. Second, the unease between the Congress and the JD(S) and the incessant squabbles that one witnessed in the last one year did dent the image of the coalition. The workers of the two parties in the coalition do not seem to have gelled at the ground level and this inhibited the vote transfer to the coalition partner. In the process, the BJP was able to make the best of the situation and achieve its best ever result. The tremors from this verdict has already had an impact on the state, with the coalition government losing its majority and submitting its resignation. A direct impact in the short run is the collapse of the coalition government and the long-term impact could well be a fresh mid-term poll in the state.


1 The BJP lost one seat (Bellary) to the Congress in a by-election. Another seat (Bangalore South) fell vacant as the sitting MP Ananth Kumar had passed away.

2 An interesting example is that of Ramesh Jigajinagi, the BJP candidate in Bijapur. He asked voters “not by looking at him but at Prime Minister Narendra Modi” (Rozindar 2019).


Devi, Veena and K L Nagesha (2019): “Post-poll Survey: Karnataka Heading towards Political Uncertainty,” Hindu, 27 May.

Rozindar, Firoz (2019): “Rivals Slam Jigajinagi for Using Modi’s Name to Seek Votes,” Hindu, 1 April,

Shastri, Sandeep (2019): “One Saffron: Four Outliers,” Hindu, 27 May,

Shastri, Sandeep (2018a): “Karnataka: Emerging Patterns in National and State-level Elections,” How India Votes: A State-by-state Look, Ashutosh Kumar et al (eds), OBS, New Delhi.

— (2018b): “They Did Survive a 100 Days after All!” Deccan Chronicle, 31 August,

— (2018c): “Karnataka Politics: Short-term Measures without a Long term Vision,” OneIndia,
27 August,

Updated On : 2nd Aug, 2019


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