India’s political landscape has been revived with new possibilities after the southern state of Karnataka ousted the Hindu supremacist Bhartiya Janata Party from power in the recently held assembly elections and elected the long struggling Congress Party.
The BJP’s decisive defeat in Karnataka means that now, all of southern India is free from BJP rule – dashing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party’s hopes of using the state as a gateway to a part of the country that has largely failed to winning. done. It was a shocking rebuke for the BJP, which says it wants to make India Congress-free.
The defeat also includes other messages. Not to forget that Modi’s many rallies and roadshows in Karnataka have focused on telling voters to repeatedly punish the Congress for insulting him. Thus, Modi turned the election into a referendum on himself. He was rejected.
In most of the constituencies where he campaigned, his party lost, tarnishing his well-crafted image of invincibility. He tried to distract public attention by flooding TV screens with images of a rally where he addressed the Indian diaspora in Australia, but the damage was already done.
Led by Modi, the BJP ran 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 controversial and Islamophobic film that was strategically released when the campaign was underway. But this, too, was rejected.
The Congress Party’s reassertion of its secular determination during the campaign was particularly significant, including its proposal to ban the Bajrang Dal, one of the most militant wings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu supremacist parent of body of the BJP. Muslims and Christians, who have long suffered from Bajrang Dal’s violence, have accepted it as a fait accompli that they have to live with this violence regardless of the political party in power.
The new Congress government in the state has announced that it will reverse the previous BJP administration’s fiat to ban the hijab in educational institutions – a move that reassures Muslims that their cultural rights will be protected and respected. Priyank Kharge, a minister in the new government, also said a controversial ban on cow slaughter would be reviewed: The ousted BJP government used it to harass and persecute Muslims but also harmed in the rural economy.
The return to the rule of law is certainly welcome. But it will be a big challenge for the new government to cleanse the state of the major poison injected by the previous government in the society of Karnataka. And how it succeeds or fails will provide important clues to the struggle the rest of India faces to recover from the loss of 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 many fraternal organizations and informal networks – that are working day and night to turn the Hindu communities into an anti-minority bloc. However, even the pursuit of legislation as per the Constitution of India by the state government will facilitate the daily life of religious minorities.
It is not only the defeat of the BJP but the decisive victory of the Congress that is important as many analysts have begun to write off India’s Grand Old Party. This will boost party morale in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan where legislative elections are due later this year.
The Karnataka election also put a stamp 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 said he was just a puppet of the Nehru-Gandhi family that dominated the Congress Party – and indeed Indian politics – for most of the last 75 years.
Kharge, a Dalit, played a leading role in the state government formation process and emerged as a group leader. He was a fearless orator who appeared to bring a sense of purpose to the organization of a party that had previously been apathetic in many ways.
The implications are huge.
The Congress remains the only political party with a pan-India presence that can counter the BJP. Its marginalization and decimation will make it very difficult for a coalition of opposition parties to look credible before the voters, when they choose their next national government in the 2024 parliamentary elections.
This victory underscores to regional parties why the Congress must remain the fulcrum of any opposition national front if it is to provide a credible alternative to the BJP.
However, the obstacles for a national opposition are many and formidable. First is the collapse of 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 once hallowed institutions are now cracked shells, highly partisan, often openly, towards the BJP.
The mainstream media campaigns against the opposition and produces propaganda for the ruling party. The corporate honchos – who also control the media – have not abandoned the BJP and major election funds are going to Modi’s party, while the opposition is starved of funds.
Over the next year, India will see anti-Muslim and anti-minority rhetoric escalate. 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 listen to the example of the South and join it in restoring India as a nation for all with equal rights.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.