The Resurrection of Congress

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.