Unpopular Nationwide, India’s Ruling Party Wins State Election

Voters in Karnataka punish India’s conservatives for corruption and cronyism.

Seat of the Karnataka state legislature in Bangalore, India, December 30, 2010
Seat of the Karnataka state legislature in Bangalore, India, December 30, 2010 (David Bennett)

India’s opposition conservatives suffered a crushing defeat in the southwestern state of Karnataka last week, home to India’s technology hub Bangalore, prompting the chief minister and party’s leader there to resign on Wednesday.

The Bharatiya Janata Party lost 72 of its seats in the state assembly compared to the last election when it got nearly 50 percent support. Whereas Congress typically performs well in the countryside nationwide, it also took many urban constituencies in Karnataka, largely owing to middle class discontent with the incumbent government which is marred in corruption scandals.

With some justification, Bharatiya Janata routinely accuses Congress of corruption and crony capitalism in the provinces where it has been able to wrestle control from the left in several local elections in anticipation of next year’s parliamentary election, including in Uttar Pradesh last year, the country’s largest state.

In Karnataka, however, it was the conservatives or nationalists who had been implicated in doling out coal mining and digital network licenses, leading to a decline in popularity and a split in their coalition — usually a harbinger for Congress victories in India.

Congress leaders were quick to seize on their win in Karnataka to discredit the Bharatiya Janata Party nationally. “The people of the country know what is what and they will reject the BJP ideology as the result in Karnataka shows,” said Manmohan Singh, the prime minister. He praised the party’s vice president and presumptive prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi for taking a “leading role” in achieving Congress’ victory.

Rahul, a descendent of India’s first premier Jawaharlal Nehru, had campaigned in Karnataka and argued that the government there “created a world record in corruption.”

The right’s likely leader next year, Narendra Modi, made his first appearance in Karnataka just a week before the vote, possibly to avoid being tainted by his party’s graft scandals there. Modi has built his reputation as the resolute manager of Gujarat, a prosperous state in western India where he is chief minister. If he is nominated for the premiership, he is expected to chastise the ruling party for failing to implement more liberal economic reforms.

The conservative defeat in Karnataka will force Bharatiya Janata’s leaders to rethink their southern strategy but nationwide disillusionment with the Congress party remains high.

Prime Minister Singh, who initiated the liberalization of India’s economy as finance minister in the 1990s, has been unable to unite his coalition, which covers the entirety of the left-wing political spectrum, behind any convincing economic program. Growth has been cut in half from an almost 10 percent high before the global financial crisis to under 5 percent in the last quarter of 2012.

Recent surveys conducted for India Today magazine and Times Now television both showed that Congress could lose up to one hundred seats in next year’s election, denying it a majority, although the Bharatiya Janata Party also struggled to attain a ruling majority in the two polls.