Ballari, synonymous with the Reddy brothers – mining barons and the richest politicians in Karnataka – told a big story as results of by-elections in five seats were declared today. The Congress, which rules Karnataka in alliance with the Janata Dal Secular (JDS), swept the seat with a record margin of over two lakh votes.
The final tally of four out of five seats in favour of the ruling alliance brought Deepavali joy to the Congress party and had former Finance Minister P Chidambaram tweeting that "the win looks like a test series under Virat Kohli. The coalition had delivered".
Continuing with the cricket synonyms, the Man of the Match for the Congress was clearly the man for all seasons, DK Shivakumar, who worked overtime to ensure the Ballari win. From sequestering Gujarat Congress MLAs to prevent their poaching in a critical Rajya Sabha election, to ferrying busloads of legislators out of town to stymie the BJP's attempts to win them over – even facing the wrath of central investigative agencies – Shivakumar has always delivered for the Congress.
Ballari was Congress's assignment for its troubleshooter Shivakumar, who played a key role in the party's alliance with Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy's JD(S)
Sources say Congress president Rahul Gandhi plans a reward for Shivakumar after these results.
So what story did Ballari tell and what does it mean for the national narrative just weeks before crucial assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh?
First, a caution. Don't believe the media panna pramukhs spinning tirelessly around the evils of a coalition government and how Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reclaimed the national narrative. This statutory warning also extends to National Security Advisers holding forth on the virtues of a "strong government" that "should be in power for at least 10 years".
The BJP has won only one parliamentary seat, Shivamogga, vacated by former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa.
Clearly, the voter is not buying this. The big takeaway for the opposition, much like from the Kairana by-election in Uttar Pradesh, is that it needs to unite in local strategic alliances to take on an aggressive BJP. The voter keeps sending this message to the opposition and even in a bipolar polity like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Congress will ignore this voter nudge at its electoral peril.
The BJP dissing the "Mahagatbandhan" (grand alliance) as a return to "khichri" (messy) politics is not getting any traction among voters. Both Modi and Amit Shah have repeatedly touted the virtues of a strong government under a strong leader – read Modi – yet the voter is unconvinced.
The importance of strong regional leaders is key to any victory over the BJP. An alliance sans strong local leaders will simply not yield any results. Rahul Gandhi has to empower local leaders to woo the voters – much like he has done in Rajasthan (Sachin Pilot, Ashok Gehlot) and Madhya Pradesh (Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia) – and also ensure that leaders like Digvijaya Singh in Madhya Pradesh do not make trouble, by giving tickets to both his son and brother.
The Congress has surged ahead in Ballari, a BJP stronghold since 2004
The lack of a strong leader after Ajit Jogi has ensured trouble for the Congress party in Chhattisgarh and helped incumbent Chief Minister Raman Singh of the BJP despite huge anti-incumbency.
Local coalition plus mass-based regional leaders is the only recipe for success against Amit Shah.
The victory in the Karnataka bypolls will certainly give the Congress a mini-bounce in the upcoming state elections.
Interestingly, this is perhaps the first time that even the opposition is finally taking Gandhi seriously as a leader of the anti-BJP coalition. The sight of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu calling on Gandhi at his residence, complete with photo ops and fervent pleas of unity, shows that winning is all that matters in politics. Naidu, till recently, was a BJP ally and his party's ideology was mainly anti-Congressism.
For the first time, Gandhi, going hammer and tongs on the Rafale deal, is setting the political narrative and Modi and Shah are scrambling to play catch up. This is perhaps an outcome of the fact that the Congress president has been consistently plugging away at what he calls the Rafale scam and this has now found some resonance.
The success of the ruling alliance in the Karnataka by-elections has strengthened the case for a combined opposition to take on the BJP in the next year's national elections
Gandhi has also capitalised on the uncharacteristic missteps by Modi, such as the post-midnight coup targeting CBI director Alok Verma, who has gone to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is also examining the Rafale deal, which is also becoming a huge concern for the government, despite their spin.
Says a senior minister: "The last months of our government now resemble the last month of UPA-2 when the courts virtually ran the executive and new scams tumbled out daily."
Gandhi is losing no opportunity to wrest the advantage, especially in the Modi government's face-off with the Reserve Bank of India. While Modi has not said a word, conveying the image of being above it all, the bad news for his government all leads to the doorsteps of the PMO.
Gandhi's narrative of the BJP attacking independent institutions is certainly a story the voter seems to agree with.
And the BJP's headline management for the first time seems to be faltering. The grand Sardar Patel Statue of Unity was overshadowed by the Urjit Patel-RBI autonomy saga. Attempts to drown out negative headlines using the tried and tested Ram Mandir in Ayodhya don't quite seem to be working.
If the opposition can stay united in Uttar Pradesh, with regional giants Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party burying their historic enmity, then the already electorally encashed Ram Mandir may not get the BJP its 2014 tally of 73 out of 80 seats in the state.
Shah, dubbed the Chanakya of politics, has still to find his party place to expand in south and east India to make up for the UP shortfall. While the Congress has made its alliance with JDS work smoothly, the BJP has fractious allies in Punjab, Maharashtra and Bihar.
So, as the country slips into election season, the blockbuster being the 2019 national polls, a Congress leader had good reason to grin and borrow from a popular Hindi film: "Picture abhi baki hai (the movie is not over yet)"
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.