Karnataka has voted a hung Assembly, and it is to be seen whether the Congress and the Janata Dal (S) are able to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power. Yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi almost took the Bharatiya Janata Party past the half-way mark in an electoral battle that had seemed lost just two months ago. His party and political pundits will credit the turnaround to Modi carpet-bombing the state with rallies in the 10 days leading up to voting day. It will burnish his aura of invincibility and reinforce the impression that he will win a second term as prime minister with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Some will claim that the BJP’s showing is not unexpected, given that the Congress was battling an anti-incumbency sentiment in Karnataka. Yet the question needs to be asked: how is it that the BJP repeatedly defies anti-incumbency, as it has in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, but not the Congress? It wasn’t even that Chief Minister Siddaramaiah was ineffective. He was rated highly and seemed effectively to have pitted Kannadiga subnationalism against the BJP’s pan-Indian notion of nationalism to deny the BJP the advantage it derives from Modi.

Yet Modi beat back the Congress challenge. He has proved that Congress president Rahul Gandhi is no match for him. Gandhi travelled around Karnataka for two months in a desperate search for the big victory that could change the narrative around him. This failure will dent his prestige both inside and outside the Congress.

The poor showing in Karnataka will also demoralise the Congress workers in their assault on the BJP’s forts of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the three states that will have Assembly elections in December, four months before the Lok Sabha elections. Even though The Congress will not suffer from the drawback of incumbency, as it did in Karnataka, Modi and his party’s formidable organisation might just be sufficient to tilt the scales in the BJP’s favour.

Regional formations are the key

More significantly, Gandhi will not be able to call the shots or dictate terms to other parties in a Congress-led alliance. His inability to pull off victories means he is very unlikely to become prime minister in 2019. In fact, the Karnataka results will give a fillip to the idea of forming a federal front, which would comprise regional or state-based parties. It is they who have or can keep the BJP at bay. Their support base has proved durable, as is evident from the strong performance of the Janata Dal (S).

These regional formations perceive the national parties – the BJP and the Congress – as a grave threat to their existence. But for the YSR Congress Party and the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, most have exclusive turf that other regional outfits do not encroach upon. This seems more so as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party seem headed to forge an alliance in Uttar Pradesh.

But such a grouping also has a set of problems – it does not have a leader who can cohesively hold such a front together or give a federal perspective to the national politics. This is the role that the Left previously played in the era of coalitions, but it cannot do now as it has progressively been downsized. Besides, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress will look askance at the communists, who they ousted from power in the eastern state.

The BJP’s victory in Karnataka may not lead to it dramatically improving upon its 2014 Lok Sabha performance in the state. That year, it bagged 17 out of Karnataka’s 28 seats. It won only four other seats in South India – three in united Andhra Pradesh and one in Tamil Nadu. This means that out of 129 Lok Sabha seats in Telangana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the BJP won 21 seats, out of which 17 came from Karnataka. This makes it unlikely that Karnataka will become the BJP’s gateway to the South in 2019.

The BJP’s prospects have not improved in other southern states since 2014. For instance, its ally, the Telugu Desam Party, has broken away from the BJP. As a consequence, the BJP will now hope to align with the YSR Congress Party. But given that party leader YS Jaganmohan Reddy has focused on the Centre denying special status to Andhra Pradesh, it is unsure whether he would want to ally with the BJP before the 2019 elections.

Perception problem

Kerala has not yet provided the BJP any space. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP is tied to the AIADMK, which is clearly on the backfoot. The BJP would prefer the DMK, but cadres of the party waved black flags at Modi during his trip to Tamil Nadu in April to protest his government’s position on the Cauvery water-sharing dispute. A pre-election alliance between them is ruled out. Telangana chief minister KC Rao has been quite open about his ambition to form a federal front comprising regional parties.

The BJP faces a perception problem in the South. It is seen as a North Indian party trying to establish domination over the South. It is the subcontinent version of culture clash. Its Hindutva project of cow-protection is not popular across all the southern states. Since most of these states have regional players calling the shots, they are instinctively averse to Modi’s quest for domination. They do not want a more Brahminical version of the Congress ruling them.

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi with Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah and others at an Indira Canteen in Bengaluru. Credit: PTI

All this means that South India is not where the BJP can hope to offset in 2019 the likely erosion of the gains it made in 2014. Four years ago, it took everything in Rajasthan (25 seats) and Gujarat (26), and won 27 out of 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh and 10 out of 11 in Chhattisgarh. Anti-incumbency should, ordinarily, reduce the BJP’s tally in these states. It won 73 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh and 31 out of 40 in Bihar. The arithmetic in Bihar is not yet unfavourable to the BJP. But the emerging alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party will likely see the BJP’s seats dwindle.

The BJP will look eastward to make up for its losses elsewhere. Since 2014, it has made deep inroads into the seven Northeast states, which together elect 25 MPs, though Assam (14) is witnessing a fissure over the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016. It will swing into Odisha (21 seats) and West Bengal (42) with greater vigour. A bruising Hindutva campaign will be the BJP’s preferred method in these states.

Demoralised workers

On paper, the Congress should perform well in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, which together account for 65 seats. There is no third party in these states to complicate the bipolar contest. Yet the Congress and Rahul Gandhi’s consistent failure to win will enthuse the BJP into thinking it can repeat 2014 in 2019. Worse, even demoralised Congress workers might believe the BJP is unstoppable – and that is half the battle won. Disaffected Congress workers and leaders may just start migrating to the saffron camp.

The Congress should give up its pretensions of being a national party that needs to devote energy in every state. It should focus on states where there is bipolarity, with the BJP or a regional player representing the other pole, or where it is a senior partner in an alliance, such as Maharashtra and Kerala. The Congress will have to take a hard decision on states like West Bengal, Odisha, and even Delhi: should it weaken Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Arvind Kejriwal in its quest to marginally increase its tally?

In a nutshell then, the Congress has to improve its tally as well as create an electoral architecture that strengthens regional parties in their battles against the BJP. This much should be clear to Gandhi – five years more of Modi and the Congress might find hard to resuscitate itself.

The Opposition, particularly the Congress, will also have to face the fact that the party in power is always at an advantage before an election. This is because it can set an agenda to which the others will have to react. This is more true of Modi, who is an indefatigable warrior. He will speak of his performance, mixing spin with facts, to the beat of the Hindutva drum. The BJP already has some deadly weapons in its arsenal – for instance, the expected Supreme Court judgement on the Ayodhya issue and the decision to subcategorise the other Backward Classes for reservations.

For Gandhi, electoral politics still remains a long, lonely walk in wilderness. Karnataka should teach him that visiting temples and invoking Lord Shiva are not sufficient. Nor do sneering remarks against Modi. The Congress lacks the ideological clarity that was primarily responsible for the BJP losing in Delhi and Bihar. By contrast, Modi and the BJP possess a distinct ideology, regardless of how socially damaging this may be.