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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 22 New Delhi May 19, 2018

Karnataka Elections: A Split Verdict has Opened Up a World of Opportunities

Sunday 20 May 2018

by Sandeep Shastri

May 15 will go down as an important day in the politics of Karnataka. In a day of dramatic political developments, the people of Karnataka watched the many twists and turns with the progress in the counting of votes. At the end of the day, the last scene in the political drama has not yet unfolded. For a third time in Karnataka, the BJP has emerged as the single largest party. Political events that followed the earlier two events were diametrically different. In 2004, the Congress and JD(S), which were in second and third positions, stitched an alliance and formed the government. Later in 2008, the BJP fell three short of a majority and formed the government with the support of the independents. This time around the scenario of both 2004 and 2008 seem to be playing out once again with major differences. The Congress was first off the block once it became clear that the BJP will fall short of the half-way mark. It offered to support the JD(S) in its claim to be invited to head the government. On the other hand, the BJP too claimed that as the single largest party they have the right to form the government and be given an opportunity to prove their majority on the floor of the House. In a very controversial move, the Governor has accepted the BJP proposal and invited its leader, B.S. Yeddyurappa, to form the government and prove his majority in 15 days. In an early morning hearing, the Supreme Court refused to stay the swearing-in ceremony but has asked for the material proof on the basis of which the invitation was extended. Clearly, the political drama is still unfolding and the next act would be awaited with bated breath.

Now to the election result. What does the Karnataka verdict indicate? It clearly reflects a split verdict with the BJP falling well short of the majority mark. At one level, the Karnataka verdict continues a three-decade-old trend in the State of the ruling party never being voted back to power.

Given the fact that the ruling Congress lost close to fifty seats with many of its Ministers biting the dust and the Chief Minister himself losing one seat and scraping through in another, the defeat of the ruling party was decisive and conclusive. While its leaders are taking solace in the fact that the vote-share of the party increased and remains higher than that of the BJP, at the end of the day, in a first-past-the-post system, the number of seats won is the final reflection of defeat or victory. The virtual collapse of the Congress is an indication of the failure of its social coalition to hold. It is clear that the party was neither able to secure support among the dominant castes nor was it able to hold on strongly to its non-Kuruba AHINDA coalition. It fared poorly across regions, especially in Mumbai-Karnataka, Coastal Karnataka, South Karnataka and Central Karnataka. In the Bengaluru and Hyderabad Karnataka region it barely managed to retain it share of seats. Many of its key strategies backfired. The focus on the local did not pay political dividends nor did the move to secure a minority religion status for the Lingayats. While the Chief Minister was the face of the campaign, it clearly did not have the impact that was expected.

On the other hand, the BJP emerging as the single largest party, which recorded a spectacular performance in Mumbai-Karnataka, Coastal Karnataka and Central Karnataka and making critical inroads in Southern Karnataka, fell short of the majority on account of its limited success in Bengaluru and Hyderabad Karnataka. Further, there are as many as eight seats that the BJP lost by margins of less than 2000 votes. Three factors helped the BJP reach the triple figure.

The social coalition that the BJP has constructed was also instrumental in ensuring its success. Not only did it retain its support among the dominant caste, the Lingayats, and the Upper Castes, it appears to have secured the support of the numerically important non-Kuruba Backward castes and the ‘Left’ among the Dalits. The non-Kuruba OBCs could have been upset by the fact that the Siddaramaiah Government was seen as being focussed more on the Kurubas alone leaving the other OBCs alienated. The ‘Left’ among the Dalits may have been upset by the inaction of the government on the recommendations for internal reservations.

Secondly, the strong organisational strength of the BJP and the capacity of its leadership to effectively micro-manage the election strategy and campaign was its biggest strength. Its opponents have been unable to match up to either the BJP’s capacity or strategy. If one were to reflect on the Congress campaign in Karnataka, much of the responsibility rested with their Chief Minister. Most of the other State level leaders of the Congress limited their campaign to their individual constituencies or at best to their home districts. The BJP, on the other hand, brought in a much wider range of campaigners who criss-crossed the State and campaigned with much greater vigour and effectiveness.

Thirdly, the last week of the campaign made a ‘world of difference’. Till the start of May, the battle seemed to be evenly poised. The series of the rallies addressed by the star campaigner of the BJP, Prime Minister Modi, appears to have titled the balance decisively in favour of the BJP. Many would argue that the Karnataka vote was very much a vote for the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. Surveys have consistently shown that Prime Minister Modi was clearly way ahead of Congress President Rahul Gandhi in terms of popularity. In the leadership sweep-stakes, the Congress’ principal campaigner, Siddaramaiah, too did not appear to be able to match the capacity of the Prime Minister to sway the electorate.

With the numbers in the Assembly stacked up in the way they are, the machinations to form the government have now shifted to the confabulations among the leaders of political parties. It will be interesting to see how the BJP will prove its majority in the floor test. Would it resort to the tactics of 2004, a la, ‘Operation Kamala, Version 2’, and secure abstentions/resignations from select Congress and JD(S) MLAs? This would be keenly watched. Assemblies with no clear majorities have always provided an opportunity for parties to practice politics bereft of principles and compromises that sidestep core ethical values. Irrespective of who forms the government and continues in power in the State, politics of short-term gain and long-term sacrifice of principles will undoubtedly be the order of the day.

Dr Shastri has been a keen student of Karnataka politics for three decades and is currently the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Jain, a Deemed to be University, and the National Coordinator of the Lokniti Network.

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