Karnataka has shown how to defeat Modi — India must now learn

Modi turned the state election into a referendum on himself. He lost. And southern India is now free of the BJP.

Leaders of different political parties raise their hands after the swearing-in ceremony of Congress party leader Siddaramaiah, fifth right, as Chief Minister of Karnataka in Bengaluru, India, Saturday, May 20, 2023. India's main opposition Congress party wrested control of the crucial southern Karnataka state from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party last week that boosted its prospects ahead of national elections due next year. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)
Leaders of different political parties raise their hands after the swearing-in ceremony of Congress Party leader Siddaramaiah, fifth right, as chief minister of Karnataka in Bengaluru, India, Saturday, May 20, 2023 [Aijaz Rahi/AP Photo]

India’s political landscape is again alive with new possibilities after the southern state of Karnataka threw the Hindu supremacist Bhartiya Janata Party out of power in recently-held assembly elections and elected the long-struggling Congress Party.

The decisive defeat of the BJP in Karnataka means that now, all of southern India is free of BJP rule – dashing the hopes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party to use the state as its gateway to a part of the country it has largely failed to win over. It’s a stinging rebuke for the BJP, which has been saying that it wants to make India free of the Congress.

The defeat contains other messages as well. One cannot forget that Modi’s multiple rallies and roadshows in Karnataka focused on telling the electorate again and again that the Congress ought to be punished because it had insulted him. Thus, Modi turned the election into a referendum on himself. He was rejected.

In most constituencies where he campaigned, his party lost, denting his carefully-built image of invincibility. He is trying to distract public attention by flooding TV screens with images of a rally where he addressed the Indian diaspora in Australia, but the damage is done.

Led by Modi, the BJP had run a campaign that relied heavily on dog whistles and direct references to Muslims, portraying India’s largest religious minority – 200 million strong – as a threat. Modi also used a highly-controversial and Islamophobic movie released strategically when the campaign was on. But this, too, was rejected.

The Congress Party’s reassertion of its secular resolve during the campaign is extremely significant, including in its suggestion that it might ban the Bajrang Dal, one of the most militant arms of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu supremacist parent body of the BJP. Muslims and Christians, who have long suffered from the violence of Bajrang Dal, had accepted it as a fait accompli that they would have to live with this violence irrespective of the political party in power.

Not any more.

The new Congress government in the state has announced that it would reverse the previous BJP administration’s fiat to ban the hijab in educational institutions – a move that has reassured Muslims their cultural rights will be protected and respected. Priyank Kharge, a minister in the new government, has also said that a controversial ban on cow slaughter will be reviewed: This was used by the ousted BJP government to harass and persecute Muslims but also hurt the rural economy.

The return of the rule of law is indeed welcome. But it will be a major challenge for the new government to purge the state of the majoritarian poison the previous government had injected into Karnataka’s society. And how it succeeds or fails will offer vital clues to the struggle the rest of India faces to reverse the loss of its national, secular identity since Modi came to power in 2014.

After all, it is not only the Bajrang Dal but the BJP itself – along with its numerous fraternal organisations and informal networks – that work day and night to turn Hindu communities into an anti-minority unitary block. Still, even the pursuit of the law as per the Indian Constitution by the state government would make the daily lives of religious minorities much easier.

It is not only the defeat of the BJP but the decisive victory of the Congress which is significant as many analysts had started writing off India’s Grand Old Party. It will boost the morale of the party in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where legislative elections are due later this year.

The Karnataka elections have also put a seal on the authority of Mallikarjun Kharge, the new president of the Congress Party. His leadership from the front during the campaign proved wrong those who had alleged he was merely a puppet of the Nehru-Gandhi family that has dominated the Congress Party — and indeed Indian politics — for most of the past 75 years.

Kharge, a Dalit, played a leading role in the process of government-making in the state and has emerged as a team leader. He is a fearless orator who appears to have brought a sense of purpose to the organisation of a party that previously looked disoriented in many ways.

The implications are major.

The Congress remains the only political party with a pan-India presence that can take on the BJP. Its marginalisation and decimation would have made it very difficult for a coalition of the opposition parties to look credible before the electorate, when they chose their next national government in the 2024 parliamentary elections.

This victory has underscored to regional parties why the Congress must remain the fulcrum of any oppositional national front if it is to offer a credible alternative to the BJP.

However, the obstacles for a national opposition are many and formidable. First is the collapse in the independence of Constitutional authorities– from the Election Commission to the courts to law enforcement agencies. Instead of ensuring a level playing field and serving as checks and balances against the executive, these previously hallowed institutions are today hollowed-out shells, increasingly partisan, often openly, towards the BJP.

The mainstream media campaigns against the opposition and does propaganda for the ruling party. Corporate honchos – who also control the media – have not yet deserted the BJP and major electoral funding goes to Modi’s party, while the opposition is starved of funds.

In the next year, India will see anti-Muslim and anti-minority rhetoric grow shriller. This is a time-tested election plank for the BJP. The people of Karnataka have shown that a secular appeal can still find ears and translate into votes. The big question is whether the rest of India will heed the South’s example and join it in the restoration of India as a country for all with equal rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.