Switching Sides: Decoding Politics of Numbers Between Polarisation and Mobilisation in 2023 Karnataka Assembly Elections

With the results being declared, the Indian National Congress (INC) under the national leadership of Mallikarjun Kharge and local mobilisation led by D.K. Shivakumar, the President of Karnataka Pradesh Committee, returned to power with the thumping majority of hundred and 35 seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 66 seats, whereas the Janata Dal (Secular) (JDS) won 19. The independents won two seats, and the Kalyana Rajya Pragathi Paksha and Sarvodaya Karnataka Paksha won one seat each. The result of this election has a far-reaching impact on the future aspirations of the INC and other opposition parties. This article looks at the factors that have helped the INC in its landslide win and emphasise existing data to understand the status of turncoats and the parties’ performance in the reserved seats.

Karnataka is one of the states where the INC had to contest one on one with the BJP and the JDS, where JDS was projected as a potential kingmaker according to various exit polls. Others being Chhattisgarh and the state of Rajasthan, where the elections will happen later in the year, will again see direct contests between these two national parties.

This year INC won the elections in Himachal Pradesh, but irrespective of an increase in 19 seats, it could only increase its vote share by 2.22 per cent from the previous election. On top of it, the difference between the vote percentage of INC and BJP was merely 0.9 per cent. In the Karnataka elections, the difference between the vote share of the INC and the BJP is around 6.88 per cent.

In the last election for the Legislative Assembly in West Bengal, the BJP gained a massive increase of 27.81 per cent of the vote share. Similarly, in the last Delhi Legislative Assembly Election, the vote share of the BJP increased by 6.21 per cent. Going through the vote share would be comforting for the INC in Karnataka as both the increase in vote share and the seats are significant in proportion.

The state of Karnataka was the Gateway to the South for the BJP, but losing it creates an obstacle in its quest to achieve a significant presence in the region. It had a somewhat similar experience in West Bengal. The elections being won by the INC not only provide relief to its leaders, cadre and support base but also to the regional parties and their leaders in Southern India, especially to the Bharat Rashtra Samiti and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. But one should not assume that this will positively impact the prospect of unity of the Opposition Parties, especially those with strongholds in the states of Northern India. The result will increase the bargaining power of the INC, which other opposition parties will not like and shall not be feasible for them in their perspective regarding their future aspirations in both state and national politics.  There are various reasons which have a significance in the win of INC:

Anti-Incumbency and Corruption

Anti-Incumbency is the norm in the state politics of Karnataka. From the start, it was perceived that the government might need help to hold on to its position. Since the 1990s, this trend has been strictly followed. Along with that, the allegation of rampant corruption and the Congress consistently pursuing it in its campaign helped convince the electors. The jibe at the government of “40 per cent Commission Sarkar” and PAYCM helped it curate its efforts. The regular rhetoric of double-engine sarkar could not counter the well-executed and constant corruption allegations. The consideration of the BJP of not responding to it turned out to be futile.

Impact of Bharat Jodo Yatra

The Bharat Jodo Yatra covering 4000 Kilometres across 12 states, continued for almost 150 days and attracted immense interest amongst the masses. Although it was criticised and even mocked by several for not covering the states with immediate elections like Gujarat and the only one-day yatra in Himachal Pradesh.

Rahul Gandhi-led Yatra spent 23 days in the state covering 53 constituencies. This adds a feather to a cap, as it suggests a direct impact of the Yatra and the efforts of Rahul Gandhi. The INC has won significantly over here.

Many people expect the same results from the yatra in Rajasthan, but the position there is unclear. First, the election will be held later in the year. But the INC is placed in a similar situation regarding anti-incumbency as the BJP was placed in Karnataka. Since 1993, no party has ever managed to return to power in Karnataka, and this will be a real test to check the significance of Bharat Jodo Yatra in its true capability of breaking the norm.

Performance in the Reserved Seats and

The Congress Party demonstrated exemplary performances in the seats reserved for the Schedule Castes and the Schedule Tribes. Out of the thirty-six seats reserved for the Schedule Caste, INC won twenty-one seats, the BJP won 12 and the rest by the JDS.  INC won only 12 seats in the previous elections, BJP won 16 seats, JDS won six, and the BSP and an Independent won one seat each. Congress carried this performance in the seats reserved for the Schedule Tribes and succeeded in winning fourteen out of fifteen seats, and the JDS won one. Astonishingly, the BJP did not win any seat reserved for the Schedule Tribe, where in the last elections, it was placed in a comfortable position by winning six seats.

The Bommai government announced an internal reservation within the 17 per cent reserved for the Schedule Caste quota. Due to this, massive protests were held by members of the Banjara, Bhovi, Koracha and Korama communities. There was an attempt to discredit the protest by alleging that the local congress leaders had fueled it. Under the internal reservation, the SC ‘Left’ who are most backwardly placed in the SC community, had a six per cent share, the SC ‘Right’ had 5.5 per cent, touchable communities had 4.5 per cent and the other SC communities had the remaining one per cent. Many people believed that without the data and caste census, how can the government bring internal reservations when it lacks the pertinent data to back it up.

The government also withdrew the four per cent reservation to the Muslims within the backward category and allocated it to the dominant groups like the Lingayats and the Vokkaliga. The INC was vocal on the reservation issue; in its manifesto, it went on to state that it shall increase the reservation ceiling from the 50 per cent threshold to 75 per cent to accommodate the aspirations of the reserved categories. It also promised to restore the four per cent reservation for Muslims. It also promised to release the Socio-Economic Caste census. Unlike the various election campaigns in the past, this time INC did not shy away from taking the stand on the Muslims, despite being aware that the BJP shall term it as Muslim appeasement and will try every possible means to antagonise the Congress within the majority community. Also, Congress did not fall into the trap of responding to it and maintained its stand. The Congress party was not reactive in its campaign but proactively steered its campaign through all the odds.

The dip in the Lingayat vote added to the decrease in the vote share despite the community having a long association with the BJP. The BJP tried to make inroads in the Vokkaliga concentrated seats in Old Mysore. The BJP failed to project any of its leaders as the potential Chief Ministerial candidate, resulting in a lack of serious consideration.

On the other hand, DK Shivakumar, who is not only the Chairperson of the Pradesh Congress Committee but also the contender for the Chief Ministerial post, made sure the vote share sticks to the Congress. BJP only won nine seats, the exact number of seats won in the 2018 elections, whereas the Congress won 19 seats, with an increase of 11 from the past election. Despite the fact that the BJP has successfully garnered votes in the reserved constituencies due to its strategic outreach to the community, the Karnataka elections did not toe the continuing trend. This also suggests that the politics of reserved communities differ from state to state, especially because of the state’s own right to allocate a quota of reservation.

  Reserved Seats for Scheduled Castes  
S.No.ConstituencyWinning Party2018 ElectionRegion
1KortagereINCINCSouthern Karnataka
2PavagadaINCINCSouthern Karnataka
3MulbagalJDSINDSouthern Karnataka
4Kolar Gold FieldINCINCSouthern Karnataka
5BangarapetINCINCSouthern Karnataka
6MalavalliINCJDSSouthern Karnataka
7SakleshpurBJPJDSSouthern Karnataka
8NanjangudINCBJPSouthern Karnataka
9T. NarasipurINCJDSSouthern Karnataka
10KollegalINCBSPSouthern Karnataka
11ChittapurINCINCHyderabad Karnataka
12ChincholiBJPINCHyderabad Karnataka
13Gulbarga RuralBJPBJPHyderabad Karnataka
14LingsugurBJPINCHyderabad Karnataka
15KanakagiriINCBJPHyderabad Karnataka
16AuradBJPBJPHyderabad Karnataka
17HadagalliBJPINCCentral Karnataka
18HagaribommanahalliJDSINCCentral Karnataka
19HolalkereBJPBJPCentral Karnataka
20MayakondaINCBJPCentral Karnataka
21Shimoga RuralJDSBJPCentral Karnataka
22MudigereINCBJPCentral Karnataka
23SulliaBJPBJPCoastal Karnataka
24KudachiINCBJPMumbai Karnataka
25RaybaygBJPBJPMumbai Karnataka
26MudholINCBJPMumbai Karnataka
27NagthanINCJDSMumbai Karnataka
28ShirahattiBJPBJPMumbai Karnataka
29Hubli Dhanwad EastINCINCMumbai Karnataka
30HaveriINCBJPMumbai Karnataka
33Cv Raman NagarBJPBJPBengaluru
TotalINC= 21 SeatsINC= 12 Seats
BJP=12 SeatsBJP=16 Seats
JDS= 3 SeatsJDS= 6 Seats
BSP= 1 Seat
IND= 1 Seat
  Reserved Seats for Schedule Tribes  
S.No.ConstituencyWinning Party2018 ElectionsRegion
1HeggadadvankoteINCINCSouthern Karnataka
2Raichur RuralINCINCHyderabad Karnataka
3ManviINCJDSHyderabad Karnataka
4DevadungaJDSBJPHyderabad Karnataka
5MaskiINCINCHyderabad Karnataka
6ShorapurINCBJPHyderabad Karnataka
7KampliINCINCCentral Karnataka
8SiruguppaINCBJPCentral Karnataka
9BellariINCINCCentral Karnataka
10SandurINCINCCentral Karnataka
11KudligiINCBJPCentral Karnataka
12MolakalmuruINCBJPCentral Karnataka
13ChallakereINCINCCentral Karnataka
14JagalurINCBJPCentral Karnataka
15YemkanmardiINCINCMumbai Karnataka
TotalINC=14 SeatsINC=8
JDS= 1 SeatJDS=1
BJP= 00BJP=6

Did the turncoats succeed in turning the tables?

The BJP did not offer candidature to various sitting members, especially trying to give the young leaders a chance to prove their mantle. This and other reasons led many MLAs and senior leaders to leave the party. This was not unique to the BJP, leaders from the INC, JDS and the BSP have also changed their guards before the polls. Some were accommodated by giving them the opportunity to contest elections, but many could not get the opportunity to contest. 16 such leaders previously held ministerial posts, members of the parliament, MLAs, MLC, and the zilla panchayat post. Out of these eight were offered candidature, and the rest were not. One thing to note is that the number of elites who switched to INC was more than the BJP and JDS, seeming to suggest that they could sense the ground reality and made their decision, irrespective of whether they were given the candidature.

One of the most covered switchings of parties was that of BJP’s old guard and the former Chief Minister, Jagadish Shettar. He was a six-time MLA from the Hubli Dharwad Central but lost to the BJP candidate by a massive margin of 21.38 per cent of votes. His family has been associated with the party since the Jan Sangh days. BJP fielded its State General Secretary Mahesh Tenginkai, who won with a thumping margin.

Another, Laxman Savadi, a three-time MLA and an incumbent MLC, was denied a ticket from the Athani constituency. The BJP offered it to the incumbent MLA from the seat, Mahesh Komathalli, who, along with others, defected to the BJP in 2018 and helped bring the BJP and JDS government. This suggests that the parties may prefer the defectors over the old guards, and the latter themselves will explore other options. Since Savadi won the elections, he won’t regret joining the party. It suggests that opportunities are prioritized over ideology, and the focus of the political parties is on winnability, the rest of everything seems to be secondary.

MP Kumaraswamy, on the other hand, was the incumbent MLA from the Mudigere constituency but switched to the BJP when denied the ticket. The JDS had already fielded B.B Ningaiah, who won from the same constituency in the 2013 elections. After that, the JDS gave the ticket to him, and he lost to the INC’s candidate Nayana Motamma by a margin of 18.46 per cent.

Out of the eight offered candidates, four succeeded in winning the elections, out of them, three switched to INC prior to the elections, and one belonged to the JDS. 50 per cent of the turncoats won the elections. Those belonging to the INC, it rises to 75 per cent.  Five of the eight turncoats who were not offered the candidature belonged to the INC. It suggests that when the party is expecting a better performance compared to the last elections, it might not be interested in offering the candidature to the new entrants. Secondly, on the part of the elites, they want to be associated with the party in power even if they are not contesting.

The possibility of getting responsibilities in the organisation, nomination in the upper house or other benefits which come with being associated with the government of the day cannot be denied. In light of nominations in the Upper House and the Lok Sabha elections, it would be crucial to observe the turncoats carefully. The 2023 Karnataka elections produce a profound effect. Usual things, like the BJP getting the support of the reserved category, did not happen in the same manner as in the past elections, but other, like change in power, has happened as usual. The role of anti-incumbency and its continuing trend cannot be ignored in the analysis of this election. Whether the party can save its power in 2024 and 2028 will prove its mantle. However, it is too early even to pose that question.

Relying on Prime Minister Modi in every election will not benefit the BJP itself, as it will halt the process of leader-making within the party. The able leadership of the other party, along with the genuine grassroots issue, consistency within the campaign and bringing the state leaders at the forefront of the campaign, can be a blueprint for the opposition parties in the state elections to counter the charisma of the PM. The case of West Bengal and Karnataka will serve as the prime example of it.

The groups that have supported BJP for long, cannot be taken for granted and should not be expected to continue their support in every circumstance. Lack of due attention to issues of various communities opens up a space for the opposition to make efforts towards shifting the allegiance of disaffected groups, even if it is in small proportion. Winning the election was a challenge for the INC, and so is to win the confidence of other opposition parties to run a stable government and face the upcoming elections It is not farfetched to argue that the elections in Karnataka might have concluded with a win for the Congress, but the battle for 2024 shall continue to haunt it.


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Sidrat Ullah is a Research Intern at CSPS