Reports of the BJP’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

Pundits are making much of the opposition Congress Party’s emphatic victory over the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Some even think it spells trouble for Prime Minister Narendra Modi heading into next year’s national elections. Karnataka is an impressive win for the beleaguered Congress Party, which now boasts a nearly two-thirds majority in the state Assembly, but drawing national lessons from a state election is woefully premature.

It’s true that Karnataka carries a particular political significance. With about 70 million people, the state is only India’s ninth most populous, roughly analogous to North Carolina in the U.S. in terms of electoral heft. But by some measures Karnataka boasts India’s third-largest state economy—an important consideration for a cash-strapped party like Congress. The state’s capital, Bangalore, is a technology and startup hub. The election is also the first of a string of important state elections this year leading up to general elections next summer. This makes it a logical place to begin the countdown for 2024.

Congress’s victory also seems to underscore the geographical limits of the BJP’s strident brand of Hindu nationalism. Of the five relatively prosperous states that make up southern India, the BJP has held power only in Karnataka. The party has struggled to make inroads in the south, with its relatively large Christian and Muslim populations and more relaxed approach to fraught cultural issues such as beef consumption and interfaith marriage. The BJP government Karnataka just turned out tried to ban the hijab from high schools, scrapped educational and job quotas for Muslims in favor of Hindu caste groups, and demonized an 18th-century Muslim ruler who fought the British.

The BJP’s traditional association with Hindi—the language Mr. Modi speaks most often in public—doesn’t do it any favors either in this part of the country, which values English as a tool for educational and professional advancement.

So while the BJP dominates the Hindi heartland and western India, it has performed pitiably in the south. The five southern states account for about a fourth (129 of 543) of the seats in the directly elected lower house of Parliament. In the last national election, in 2019, the BJP managed to win only 29 of those seats, and 25 were in Karnataka. The party does even worse in state elections. Outside Karnataka, it has struggled to get more than 12% of the vote in southern states.

These factors explain why pundits are making much of the BJP’s defeat. Historian Ramachandra Guha told the Wire that Congress’s victory means all of southern India is free of Mr. Modi’s party. “A large part of the country, that is the most economically dynamic, that is the most socially progressive» and “much more open to scientific research and innovation,» he said, is “completely outside the realm of the BJP.» To Mr. Guha’s mind, Karnataka was “inarguably the most significant victory» for Congress since Mr. Modi became prime minister in 2014.

And to some, it raises serious doubts about Mr. Modi’s re-election next year. Opposition leader Yashwant Sinha, a former Indian foreign minister and finance minister, told the Wire in a separate interview that the BJP’s Karnataka defeat was “the beginning of 2024.» According to the political analyst Yogendra Yadav, the election result shows that “2024 is an open election.»

But while southern exceptionalism may be real, pinning the opposition’s national hopes on it is a stretch. Indians often vote differently in state and national elections. Five years ago, a little more than a third of Karnataka voters picked the BJP to lead the state, but more than half voted for the party in national elections the following year. And as we saw in the last two national elections, the BJP can perform relatively poorly in the south and still win a comfortable majority in Parliament by dominating its traditional strongholds in the north and west.

Fundamentally, the national picture heading into 2024 is unchanged. The BJP is still entering that contest with a bulging war chest, fawning national TV coverage and a prime minister who enjoys enviable approval ratings. Morning Consult shows him at 78% after the election and a poll for NDTV by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies shows the BJP leading Congress by 39% to 29%. Karnataka may have put a little wind in the opposition’s sails, but it’s a long way to safe harbor.

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