NEW DELHI – The overwhelming victory of the Indian National Congress in elections in the important southern state of Karnataka in early May has shaken up the country’s political scene. India’s troubled ruling party had appeared headed downhill in the build-up to the next general elections, which must be held by May 2014. Now, following its huge win in Karnataka, all bets are off.
Karnataka (whose capital, Bangalore, is a symbol of India’s thriving software and business-process-outsourcing industries) had been ruled for the previous five years by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the country’s main opposition party, which governed India from 1998 to 2004. The BJP’s victory in the state in 2008 was hailed as a milestone in its effort to position itself as a natural party of government. Support for the BJP in Karnataka, with its affluent, well-educated voters and its significant Christian and Muslim minority populations, was widely depicted as evidence that the party – usually identified with Hindu chauvinism and an electoral base concentrated in Hindi-speaking northern states – could broaden its appeal beyond its traditional constituencies.
As the Congress-led national government (of which I am a member) reeled under a series of political and financial scandals, the BJP increasingly sought to position itself as the obvious national alternative. India’s hyperactive media began to celebrate the ambitions of the BJP’s most visible leader, Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat, who has assiduously presented himself as an avatar of effective government, in contrast to the controversy-ridden establishment in New Delhi. The BJP, however, proceeded to paralyze Parliament with unruly calls for the government to resign.
And yet, amid this turmoil – indeed, in a week in which two government ministers resigned in the face of allegations of corruption and impropriety – Karnataka’s voters gave Congress 121 of the state assembly’s 224 seats and reduced the BJP’s total to just 40. The BJP’s record in government – flagrant financial malfeasance, a procession of Chief Ministers, charges of nepotism and crony capitalism, real-estate and mining scandals, policy paralysis, and a free rein to Hindu-chauvinist groups (who attacked pubs, assaulted girls for “indecency,” and disrupted Valentine’s Day) – elicited a decisive rebuke from the electorate.
Instead of turning to the state’s two regional parties – one headed by a former prime minister of India, the other by a former chief minister – Karnataka’s voters sought refuge in the tested Congress, enabling it to secure a firm majority in the state assembly. Modi came and campaigned for the BJP, but the party lost seats in every location at which he appeared – a huge setback in a state that it had hoped to use as a platform for its national ambitions.
The BJP will not be viable in national politics unless and until it moves away from the limited platform of Hindu chauvinism and shows itself to be more capable than Congress of governing India’s vast diversity. Its performance in Karnataka for the past five years has given the lie to claims that it has begun this necessary shift. Given widespread revulsion at the BJP’s record of corruption and pandering to extremism, it is highly unlikely that the party will be able to retain its current 19 MPs from Karnataka in next year’s general election. Congress, by contrast, will be eyeing the state’s 28 parliamentary seats confidently.
The Karnataka state election marks a decisive step forward in the Indian electorate’s journey from the politics of identity to the politics of performance. For too long, politics had become a vehicle for the aspirations of various groups that felt marginalized by the cosmopolitan secular consensus developed in India under its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. They have asserted themselves in recent years by using the power of the ballot box to claim power on the basis of caste, religion, ethnicity, and other sectarian appeals.
Voters initially proved susceptible to such appeals: “Isn’t it time people like us came to power?” is a question that resonates with those who see themselves as excluded. But, in state after state, “identity” voters were soon asking what “people like us” were doing with the power they won. They began to demand improvement in roads, sanitation, electricity, public security, and other necessities of rural and urban development – in short, they demanded better governance.
The Karnataka elections even gave rise to a new phenomenon with the creation of the Bangalore Political Action Committee, led by Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the chairman of the Bangalore-based biotechnology company Biocon. The BPAC led a non-partisan better-governance campaign to mobilize the city’s young voters, who have often not bothered to vote in state and national elections, registering more than 600,000 new voters and supporting over a dozen candidates from four parties, several of whom won. The message: good governance yields votes, and is thus good reason for politicians to focus on infrastructure and development.
Those who in recent years assumed that they could sweep into power by disrupting Parliament and agitating against the government should take heed. Congress has no grounds for complacency, but it knows that if it delivers, the voters will remember. That could make for a far more constructive election campaign in 2014.