Bengaluru/New Delhi | The Congress returned to power on its own in Karnataka after 10 years, knocking the BJP off its only southern perch on Saturday as voters decisively backed the grand old party desperately seeking electoral revival ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
As the results from the May 10 election rolled in, belying several exit polls that predicted a hung assembly, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai conceded defeat - the second loss for the BJP after Himachal Pradesh in December last year. The BJP, Bommai said, could not make the mark “in spite of a lot of effort put in by everyone, including the prime minister and workers of the party".
The Congress was winning or leading in 136 of the 224 assembly seats in the state, comfortably over the magic number of 113, and the BJP in 64, a sharp drop from its tally of 104 in 2018, according to latest trends on the Election Commission website. The JD-S, which had hoped to be kingmaker, was leading in 20 seats, down from 37 last time.
With a much-needed victory in the crucial southern state in the Congress bag, celebrations broke out at its offices across the country, from Bengaluru to Bikaner and Ranchi to Ahmedabad, as party workers danced to drumbeats and burst firecrackers.
"I am happy we contested the Karnataka polls without using hate, bad language. We fought the polls with love. In Karnataka, the market of hate ('nafrat ka bazaar') has closed down and shops of love ('mohabbat ki dukaanein') opened," said former party chief Rahul Gandhi, who has been disqualified as an MP.
The strength of the poor has defeated the power of crony capitalists and this will happen in all states, he added amid loud cheers by party workers at the Congress' headquarters in Delhi.
It was a bitterly contested, often vitriolic election campaign punctuated by Bajrang Dal, Bajrang Bali, corruption and intense debates on the state government scrapping 4 per cent reservation for OBC Muslims and issues such as the hijab.
For the Congress, looking to position itself as the main opposition player in 2024, this was the moment they had been waiting for.
“This is the victory of ‘janata janardhan',” Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge said on the party's performance in his home state.
“All our leaders have worked unitedly and people have voted for our guarantees,” Kharge added.
The result, said senior state leader Siddaramaiah, will be a stepping stone for Congress victory in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
Siddaramaiah, who could be the state's next chief minister, also expressed the hope that Rahul Gandhi would become prime minister in 2024.
KPCC president D K Shivakumar, the other contender for the chief minister's post, was effusive in his praise of the Gandhi family.
“I can't forget Sonia Gandhi visiting me after the BJP people jailed me,” an emotional Shivakumar told reporters, adding that he had told the Gandhi family and Kharge that he would deliver Karnataka to them.
Attacking the Basavaraj Bommai-led administration months before the elections, the Congress alleged that it was a "40 per cent commission" government. It also announced five key pre-poll guarantees -- including 200 units of free power and 10 kg of rice free to every member of a BPL household -- and said it would approve them in its first cabinet meeting if voted to power.
Besides the corruption plank and its guarantees, what also worked in the Congress' favour was the Muslim vote, which accounted for nearly 13 per cent of the electorate, party leaders said.
“The Bharat Jodo Yatra made a lot of difference,” added party leader Shama Mohammed, referring to the Kanyakumari to Kashmir campaign headed by Rahul Gandhi who walked some 3,000 km over three months.
Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh agreed.
"The Bharat Jodo Yatra was the Sanjeevini for the party," Ramesh told PTI.
As the Congress savoured its moment, BJP leaders, who had been hoping to break a 38-year jinx of Karnataka not voting an incumbent to power, were contemplative in defeat.
"We will do a detailed analysis as the results conclude. We will take these results in our stride and try to reorganise the party for next year's Lok Sabha elections," Bommai said.
The BJP's vote share slipped from 36.22 in the last assembly election to 35.8 per cent, according to Election Commission of India trends. The Congress' vote share has gone up from 38.04 per cent to a possible 43.1 per cent.
The gains were perhaps from the JD-S - the party's vote share came down 18.36 per cent to 13.3 per cent, according to the trends.
Hoping for a win that would make his party a key player come government formation, JD-S leader and also former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy visited the Shri Basaveshwara Gayatri temple to offer prayers.
The Congress' win in Karnataka also gave a fillip to the opposition with several leaders, including from the JD-U, CPI-M, TMC and PDP, hailing it.
"This is a strict mandate of a new positive India against inflation, unemployment, corruption and animosity," is how SP chief Akhilesh Yadav put it.
"The land mass of Dravidian family stands clear of BJP. Now let us all work together to win 2024 (LS polls) to restore democracy and constitutional values in India," said DMK leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin.
Counting for the elections - which witnessed a record turnout of 73.19 per cent - began at 8 am across 36 centres with heavy security in place.
"A government with full majority" was the strong pitch of leaders of all political parties during the high-decibel, no holds barred campaigning that ended on Monday.
The stress was on a clear mandate to form a strong and stable government, unlike 2018 when BJP emerged as the single largest party with 104 seats. The Congress had 80 seats and JD-S 37. There was also one independent member, while the BSP and Karnataka Pragnyavantha Janatha Party (KPJP) had one seat each.
With no party getting a clear majority, the Congress and JD-S tried to forge an alliance. BJP's B S Yediyurappa staked claim and formed the government. However, it was dissolved within three days, ahead of a trust vote, as the saffron party strongman was unable to muster the numbers.
Subsequently, the Congress and JD-S alliance formed the government with Kumaraswamy as chief minister. The wobbly dispensation collapsed in 14 months, enabling the BJP's return to power.
In the outgoing Assembly, the ruling BJP has 116 MLAs, Congress 69, JD-S 29, BSP one, independents two, speaker one and vacant six (following deaths and resignations to join other parties ahead of the polls).