A Setback for India’s right wing ruling party in southern India

An analysis of the recent elections in the key state of Karnataka.


The recent elections in the Indian state of Karnataka saw the defeat of the hyper-nationalist and fascist BJP party of the Indian prime minister Modi, and the victory of the opposition Congress party. Karnataka is mostly known internationally for its capital city Bangalore, which is the so called “Silicon Valley” of India and home to most of the major IT and tech companies. While most foreign visitors to Bangalore see the IT companies and the glittering shopping malls, and are often perturbed by the horrific traffic jams, most people do not know that Karnataka has been ruled for the past four years by the extreme right-wing BJP. The ruling party in India since 2014, when it came to power under the leadership of Narendra Modi, established a regime based on religious majoritarianism, hyper-nationalism, crony capitalism, targeting of minority communities and large scale repression of dissenters, human rights activists, journalists and opposition political figures. While Modi is lauded and celebrated by Western governments, including Germany, India has slid down to some of lowest positions in international indices of press freedom, democracy and human well being.

The Karnataka elections are remarkable because the BJP legitimises its fascist rule by its election victories, which it consistently wins because of its control over money and media, and the extreme religious polarization it has engineered in India. By mainly targeting the Muslim minority in India as the “other”, it consolidates the majority Hindu votes into huge electoral victories. This is the formula which is the basis of Modi’s power. Karnataka, situated in the more progressive southern part of India, has been a laboratory for this politics of “Hindutva” – the right wing ideology of Hindu majoritarianism. The major thrust of this politics in Karnataka has been the terrorising of all opponents of this rightist ideology, including the killing by right-wing death squads connected to the BJP of M.M Kalburgi, a progressive scholar and critic of Hindutva in 2015, and Gauri Lankesh, a well known progressive woman journalist and editor, in 2017.

Over the last four years, this ideology saw some of its worst manifestations in Karnataka and the BJP ran its election campaign on the basis of this ideology. In media and popular discourse, the BJP’s election campaign was focused on “hijab, halal and hanuman” referring to three polarizing issues used to target the Muslim minority in the state. The BJP government in Karnataka had issued a ban in February 2022 on wearing hijab or headscarves by women Muslim students in educational institutions in the state. This direct attack on the personal choice of Muslim women in the state sought to delegitimise the community’s self-identity. Its effect was that thousands of young Muslim women were prevented from attending school or college for months and many even failed to take examinations.

The other move was to ban halal meat, the distinctive way following religious regulations in which Muslims prepare flesh for consumption. Additionally a total ban was imposed on the selling and consumption of beef, which has led to right-wing vigilante groups beating up and even killing Muslims, accusing them of selling and killing cows. The third issue of hanuman was a recent addition to BJP’s electoral campaign, as the opposition Congress had proposed a ban on a fascist group named after the Hindu god in its election manifesto. This group has indulged in numerous attacks on Muslims and Christians in Karnataka, including beating up and killing Muslims accusing them of selling and transporting cows, attacking and vandalising churches and attacking Muslim men for relationships with Hindu women. The BJP, especially Modi, represented this opposition proposal to ban this fascist group as an attack on the Hindu god, and took this up in every election meeting he addressed.

These issues just represent the politics of the BJP, and Modi, which it pursues all over India. In Karnataka over the last four years this has been accompanied by campaigns to economically boycott Muslims, passing laws similar to “racial purity” laws to prevent marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men, destruction of places of worship of minority communities, removal of Muslim voters from electoral rolls and a concerted campaign to push out Muslims from social and political life. This might sound chillingly similar to what happened in Germany in the 1930s, but something which most of the international public is not aware of.

At the same time as pursuing these fascist policies, the BJP government in Karnataka was mired in corruption, coming to be known as the “40% government”, as government officials and ministers regularly asked for 40% of the cost of government-funded projects as bribes from contractors. Rampant and illegal constructions in Bangalore, to satisfy the demands of an affluent minority connected to the IT and other multinational corporations, resulted in major infrastructural problems and environmental destruction. Destruction of green belts, natural habitats and lakes in Bangalore and all over Karnataka led to environmental disasters such as regular flooding and economic hardship for farmers.

The opposition Congress party, whose former leader Rahul Gandhi was recently disqualified from the federal Parliament, is generally considered to be so weak and disunited that it is not considered to be a match for the BJP in elections. However, in Karnataka it put up a spirited fight against the BJP, based on its local leadership. It based its campaign on social-democratic issues and promised to help out in the economic hardships of people by giving welfare guarantees. For once it criticised the majoritarian politics of the BJP, which it often does not for fear of losing Hindu votes. The Congress won the elections with a huge margin, winning 135 out of 224 seats and the BJP getting only 66 seats. A government of the Congress party took over power on 20th May, 2023.

While the defeat of the BJP in the elections in Karnataka gives hope, the situation in the rest of India is not so hopeful. Modi and the BJP continue to pursue the politics of polarisation and have complete control over the media, money and muscle power. Moreover, the legitimacy Modi gets from Western governments, which completely ignore the destruction of democracy that has happened in India under his rule, gives him extra popularity in the country. Based on this, the BJP hopes to win the elections for the federal parliament in 2024 allowing Modi to get another term in power. The only thing which can stop this is the mobilizing of the common people of India against the politics of hate and “othering” which the BJP follows, and international solidarity of all progressive forces with the struggling people of India. If this fails, India is unfortunately looking forward to a dark future of fascism.