The Bharatiya Janata Party's comprehensive defeat to the Congress in Karnataka where the two parties ran a campaign of contrasts has left the ruling party with much to ponder as the two rivals prepare for a direct contest in three more state polls this year in the run-up to the all-important 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
This is the first time since the 2019 Lok Sabha polls that the Congress, amid its shrinking footprint, has got the better of the ruling party in a big state, a feat which will energise its battered ranks and possibly give it a template for taking on the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan in the coming months.
With Karnataka results underlining the importance of strong local leaders, BJP sources said the party may have to factor this in and consider giving a bigger say to regional leaders.
A party leader pointed to its significant win in the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls in 2022 and noted that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's appeal had then added to the party's draw.
Incidentally, the BJP swept the mayoral elections in the largest state on the day it lost power in the only southern state it ever ruled.
A popular state leadership is helpful in taking on rivals, more so if they too have strong regional leaders, he said, acknowledging that this was clearly missing in Karnataka.
The difference in the BJP's vote shares in Lok Sabha and assembly polls is a clear indication that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's wide approval does not work similarly in national and state elections, party sources said.
Though the win is sure to give wings to the Congress' ambition for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and will add heft to its political weight as opposition parties work to join hands, its success in forming the government in Karnataka in 2018 in an alliance with the JD-S and subsequent win over the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan was unable to prevent a saffron sweep in these states in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
In Karnataka, the BJP had made a big deal about fielding 72 fresh faces in the elections to the 224-member state assembly as it projected the dropping of several seasoned leaders, former chief minister Jagadish Shettar being the most notable, as a way to groom a new crop of leaders in the state -- a pitch which clearly did not work.
While Shettar badly lost as the Congress candidate but the opposition party's contention that the BJP's central leadership slighted Lingayat leaders seemed to have found traction.
The ruling party has suffered massive losses in its bastion of northern Karnataka, a stronghold of the community which had traditionally supported it.
Quite a few BJP rebels have won, while a large number of Lingayat candidates of the Congress have also scored victories.
With the likes of Shettar taking aim at BJP general secretary (organisation) B L Santhosh, who hails from Karnataka and has been accused by rivals of partisanship in ticket selection, the party's big loss will only boost such voices and may prompt the central leadership to take corrective measures, especially in the state organisation.
The BJP ran a high-pitch campaign around planks which were more national than local.
Its top central leaders sought a fresh mandate in the name of a double-engine government, strengthening the Centre's development push, the Congress' alleged corruption in the past with a dash of Hindutva as they invoked 'Bajrang Bali' to counter the opposition's promise of tough action, including a ban on Bajrang Dal.
The Bajrang Bali issue stole the limelight and roused the party's base but has apparently failed to bring new votes.
While Congress' regional satraps led by former chief minister Siddaramaiah and its Karnataka president D K Shivakumar went after the state government with eyeball-grabbing '40 per cent sarkara' campaign, the BJP's state leadership, including Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, appeared limp, unable to fill the void left behind by the electoral retirement of their tallest leader B S Yediyurappa.
The opposition party projected the state government as 'corrupt' on the one hand and struck a chord with a large section of voters with its five guarantees, a mix of welfare measures and sops targeted at different sections of society.
The BJP's hopes that the popular appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who like every state election campaigned intensively this time as well, and its grander themes of nationalism, Hindutva and the country's development will be more than a match to the Congress' promises and charges against its state government turned out to be futile.
The Congress took a turn to social justice plank by supporting caste census, a first for the party, and promising to raise the reservation bar to 75 per cent from existing 50 per cent.
Having tested success, the party is bound to raise the pitch and force the BJP to look for a countermeasure to protect its support among the other Backward Classes.
While many BJP leaders drew consolation from the party's almost steady vote share of around 36 per cent like last time, the rise in the Congress' support to over 43 per cent from 38 per cent underscores that it succeeded in wooing most of the floating voters and those who broke from the Janata Dal-Secular.
The Opposition's success in building a strong caste coalition combined with Muslim votes to get the better of the BJP is another significant takeaway from the polls, experts said.
It had so far been largely the BJP that succeeded in building on its social coalition in big states as it defeated the Congress time and gain.
Since 2019, the BJP towered over its main national rival in elections in Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Assam, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand among others.
The only state the Congress won was Himachal Pradesh last year.