The Congress on Saturday made a stunning comeback in Karnataka ousting the Bharatiya Janata Party from its lone southern citadel with a comfortable majority in a morale booster win that will be key for reviving its electoral fortunes ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
The Congress' decisive victory in the assembly elections after an aggressive pro-poor campaign spearheaded by mass leader and former chief minister Siddaramaiah and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president D K Shivakumar also saw Karnataka continuing with a 38-year-old anti-incumbency trend.
The state has never voted an incumbent party to power since 1985.
Siddaramaiah, 75, and Shivakumar, the party's trouble shooter who won from Kanakapura by over one lakh votes and who turns 61 on Sunday, are both front runners for the chief minister's post.
The Congress has returned to power on its own in Karnataka after 10 years.
Siddaramaiah was the chief minister from 2013 to 2018.
The first meeting of the Congress Legislature Party(CLP) will be held at 5.30 pm on Sunday, according to All India Congress Committee in-charge of Karnataka Randeep Surjewala.
The meeting is likely to decide the name of the new chief minister.
Helped by a nearly five per cent vote swing in its favour, the Congress with a vote share of 42.88 per cent bagged 135 out of the 224 seats at stake, according to Election Commission data.
The magic mark is 113.
It was also the Congress' best-ever performance in Karnataka since 1999 when the party won 132 seats.
The party bagged 80 seats in the 2018 elections with a vote share of 38 per cent.
Of the six regions in the state, the Congress swept the Old Mysuru, Mumbai Karnataka, Hyderabad Karnataka and Central Karnataka regions.
The BJP managed to retain its hold only in Coastal Karnataka while it was a mixed bag in Bengaluru.
Though its vote share decreased only marginally from 36.2 per cent to 36 per cent, the BJP's seat tally slumped to 66 from 104 in 2018.
It was the second loss for the BJP after Himachal Pradesh in December last year.
As BJP leaders were contemplative in defeat, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai said the party 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'.
"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," said Bommai who won from Shiggaon.
As many as 14 ministers tasted defeat at the hustings.
They are Govinda Karjol, J C Madhuswamy, B C Patil, Shankar Patil Munena Koppa, Halappa Achar, B Sriramul, Dr K Sudhakar, B C Nagesh, Murugesha Nirani, B C Patil and M T B Nagaraj. V Somanna lost from Varuna and Chamarajanagar, the two segments where he contested.
R Ashoka who too contested from two constituencies was re-elected from Padmanabhanagar but lost in Kanakapura.
The Janata Dal-Secular, which had hoped to be kingmaker, won 19 seats, down from 37 last time with its vote share decreasing to 13.32 per cent from 18 per cent in the previous elections.
The Congress made huge inroads into the JD-S' Vokkaliga stronghold in Old Mysuru region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated the Congress for its win and wished the party best in its endeavour to fulfilling people's aspirations.
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.
The Congress also hailed the Bharat Jodo Yatra for the party's success in the home state of party president Mallikarjun Kharge having won 15 of the 20 assembly constituencies in the state the Rahul Gandhi-led foot march passed through.
"The Bharat Jodo Yatra was the Sanjeevini for the party," Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh told PTI.
A campaign against corruption, guarantees of dole and consolidation of Muslim votes appear to have underpinned the Congress victory that was also aided by anti-incumbency against the BJP government.
Congress party's hyper-localised campaign, a bold gambit of a proposed Bajrang Dal ban, a promise of five guarantees, prominence to state leadership and deft caste and class combinations in Karnataka could, going forward, serve as a template to counter the hitherto successful blend of BJP's 'welfare outreach' and Hindutva politics.
Assembly elections are due in the next one year in Telangana and Madhya Pradesh as also in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where it is in power.
"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 Lok Sabha MP after he was sentenced by a Gujarat court to two years in prison in a defamation case.
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.
"This is the victory of 'janata janardhan'," Kharge said, adding, "All our leaders have worked unitedly and people have voted for our guarantees."
People want politics of issues concerning the masses and tactics of deviating from major issues would not work is the message from Karnataka, said All India Congress Committee general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
The result, said senior state leader Siddaramaiah, will be a stepping stone for a Congress victory in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
He will be entering the Karnataka Assembly for the ninth time.
Shivakumar 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 he had told the Gandhi family and Kharge that he would deliver Karnataka to them.
Congress' empathic win came as a much needed psychological booster for the party ahead of next year's Lok Sabha elections, firming up its position as the ruling BJP's principal challenger, and ending the recent cycle of electoral losses.
A victory in the first major state since 2018 not only puts the Congress back in the game for the General Elections, it also re-establishes the party's primacy in the opposition space which is currently vastly fragmented.
Having tasted victory after a long gap, the party's strategy to give precedence to local leadership has also helped as it worked both in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, though not in Gujarat, and the party has credited the people of Karnataka for this win.
The Congress' contention that BJP's central leadership slighted Lingayat leaders also seemed to have found traction.
The BJP suffered massive losses in its bastion of northern Karnataka, a stronghold of the Lingayat 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.
The high-profile defections of leaders such as Jagadish Shettar and Laxman Savadi also helped the Congress breach the Lingayat stronghold of the BJP.
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.
Prime Minister Modi made this a big campaign issue and had come down heavily on the Congress over its poll promise, saying the opposition party in its manifesto, 'decided to lock up Lord Hanuman'.
Attacking the Bommai government over corruption, the Congress in its campaign had alleged it was a '40 per cent commission' government.