Six days after the BJP swept Karnataka to win a dominating 25 of the state’s 28 Lok Sabha seats, a phase of polling for urban local bodies (ULBs) was held across all regions on May 29.
The election was for 1,296 wards out of a total 3,988 across all the ULBs in the state that includes town panchayats (TPs), town municipal councils (TMCs) and city municipal corporations (CMCs), which rule over what is termed as a ‘rurban’ – a combination of rural and urban – landscape.
The first phase of these polls to 2,662 wards was held in September 2018, where ruling coalition partner Congress got 982, principal opposition got 929 and ruling partner JD(S) got 375 seats, all in the regions where each party had its ‘strongholds.’ In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, these results were hailed by the coalition partners to mean the BJP’s ‘jhumlas’ were being rejected by the people. No one acknowledged the closeness of the fight, given that Congress used to traditionally dominate these polls.
The May 29 elections, results, however, has stunned all political parties. The Congress, which has got reduced to just one seat out of 28 in the Lok Sabha polls – a never-before scenario in their traditional bastion of Karnataka – won the most number of ULB wards (509), followed by the BJP (366) and the JD(S) (174).
This is a pattern that is very similar to earlier polls, with a bigger edge to the Congress. Given that the elections were held just after the stunning victory of the BJP in all regions of the state including all the traditional strongholds of the Congress and the JD(S), the apparent flip-flop by the electorate in a matter of days has given rise to a slightly hysterical euphoria in the Congress camp and some concern in the BJP.
A bemused Congress functionary said in idiomatic Kannada just after the ULB results came in: “Heng helodu yaake anta. Devarige gottu jana yavudakke vote haaktaare!” (We can’t explain it. God knows what people vote for.)
That pragmatism was not evident in his party leaders, including state president Dinesh Gundu Rao who claimed that it was a thumping victory for the Congress that instantly cast aspersions on the recent Lok Sabha results. He tweeted: “Congress wins 509/1221 of the #KarnatakaUrbanLocalBodiesElections Winning almost 42% of the seats, it clearly shows that the people of Karnataka are with the Congress. What surprises me is how did BJP lose after winning by huge margins in the Loksabha. Needs investigation.” (sic)
The results, however, are completely aligned with Karnataka’s history. The state has consistently voted differently for each level of elections, whether it is gram panchayats, ULBs, state assembly or Lok Sabha, irrespective of how close together the polls have been. Political parties have often made the mistake of assuming that the electorate is showing its preference or rejection of them based on individual election results, but the people have made the difference clear.
The minority Janata Party led Ramakrishna Hegde government in 1983, which introduced Panchayat Raj in the state, saw Karnataka voting overwhelmingly for the Congress party in the Lok Sabha polls of 1984. Hegde, as CM, took it as a referendum on his government – the first non-Congress one in Karnataka – and resigned. Elections were held again for the state assembly in 1985 and Hegde came back with a sweeping majority, barely a few months after that result for the Congress.
This pattern has continued since, with no major variations. In 2004, SM Krishna decided to dissolve the state assembly six months early and the state saw simultaneous elections for both assembly and Lok Sabha. The state gave a clear 18 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats – a majority – to the BJP. But simultaneously, even in the regions the BJP won hands down, voted for a very mixed result in the 224 member state assembly – BJP got 79 seats, Congress got 65 and JD(S) 58.
All the three parties have their distinct vote bases in the state and, in general, the voting patterns reflect these strengths. And that is what the ULB results, which all three parties fought on their individual strengths, also reflect.
The recent Lok Sabha polls were an anomaly that saw a two-cornered fight all across the state, with the division working along the lines of non-Congress votes or non-BJP votes. The JD(S) had no real role to play, as they were seen as ‘surrendering’ to the Congress that led to even their traditional votebank of Vokkaligas going with the BJP’s brand of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s muscular Hindutva.
So the ULB results are neither a matter of ‘victory’ for the Congress nor ‘loss’ for the BJP, but just a reaffirmation that Karnataka has space for both of them and for the JD(S) in their individual capacities. Each party has a base that has not changed all that much.
Sowmya Aji is a political journalist who has covered Karnataka for 26 years.
Views expressed are the author’s own.