Why Karnataka election has resulted in a political cliffhanger (and what it reveals about Modi and Rahul Gandhi)
By agreeing to play second fiddle to the JD(S), the Congress has displayed its frailty.
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By offering unconditional support to the JD(S) and agreeing to back HD Kumaraswamy as chief minister, has the Congress given the BJP a taste of its own medicine in the Karnataka Assembly elections? In a topsy-turvy poll, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, but fell short of an absolute majority.
As per convention, the Karnataka governor must first call the single largest party or largest pre-poll (not post-poll) alliance to form a stable government. Only if that fails can the JD(S)-Congress post-poll alliance be given an opportunity to form the government. Events are moving at frenetic pace as all three contending parties race to the finishing line. The JD(S)-Congress seems well ahead.
Even if it fails to form the government, the BJP’s performance in Karnataka has re-established Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to take an election by the scruff of its neck and turn it on its head. After the Gujarat setback last December, it was important for Modi to put his stamp on Karnataka. He addressed a flurry of 21 rallies over two weeks. Several months ago, the Congress seemed in pole position under a confident chief minister Siddaramaiah to win Karnataka in a canter. Modi’s blitzkrieg turned the tide, though the effort may prove fruitless.
Turning the tide, but short of an absolute majority.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi made Karnataka a Modi versus Rahul binary battle, pitching himself directly as a future prime minister. With three key state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh due in December 2018, the Congress president needed the momentum of a clear victory for the Congress in Karnataka. He didn’t get it.
Funding for the Lok Sabha election in 2019 is a priority for the Congress. Punjab has no money to spare. The only other states and union territories the Congress holds are Mizoram (which will go to polls in November 2018) and Puducherry. That explains the Congress’ desperation to accept Kumaraswamy as CM in a coalition government. It will keep the money tap open.
The Congress would have preferred to give the JD(S) outside support. The JD(S) though wants it to join the government. It hasn’t forgotten the Congress’ past record of pulling down HD Deve Gowda’s United Front government at the Centre in 1997.
What hurt the Congress in Karnataka is a triangular contest, with the JD(S) ironically cannibalising its seats. In Gujarat, where the contest was binary, the Congress stitched together a Dalit-OBC-Patidar coalition to give the BJP a scare. In triangular contests, the BJP tends to win. That must be the Congress’ key learning from Karnataka.
The BJP has its own worries. It is still a two-man party (Modi-Shah) as far as campaigning is concerned. That’s an unhealthy dependence. Between Modi-Shah at the top and a dedicated cadre of workers at the ground level, there is a wide gulf. To win the Lok Sabha election in 2019, the BJP will have to make key changes in its strategy.
In Uttar Pradesh, where it won 71 out of 80 seats, it faces the prospect of fighting a united Opposition of the SP, the BSP and the Congress. While a Modi versus rest contest could be turned to the BJP’s tactical advantage if Modi accuses the Opposition of duplicity for bringing together arch enemies Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, the BJP must be prepared for a loss of a large number of Lok Sabha seats in UP.
Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, with little headroom left for the BJP to grow, will also bleed over a dozen seats between them.
The result in Karnataka thus assumes even larger significance. In the unlikely event of the BJP having managed to form the government ahead of the JD(S)-Congress alliance, it would have served as a beachhead for it in the South. Rajnikanth’s tilt towards the BJP is evident. If he enters the electoral fray in 2019, Tamil Nadu could be back in play for the BJP.
Non-UPA and non-NDA neutrals will be watching closely. The BJD, TRS and TMC are already discussing a federal front for 2019 separate from the Congress-led UPA. That will be music to Modi’s ears. It is the surest way to achieve triangular contests across key states, giving the BJP an edge, especially in Odisha.
Whoever eventually forms the government, the numbers in the 2018 Karnataka elections are an ominous portent for the Congress. In 2013, the Congress won 122 seats. It has lost around 45 of those seats. The BJP won 40 seats in 2013. It has gained 65 seats. Remarkably, the JD(S) has maintained its seat tally – losing just a handful of seats from the 40 it won in 2013.
Breaking the numbers down regionally, the BJP swept coastal Karnataka with over 53 per cent vote share. In the Mumbai Karnataka region, the BJP, against the odds, won 46 per cent vote share. Overall, the BJP and Congress clocked vote shares of 38 per cent apiece. But since BJP voters are concentrated in specific constituencies and Congress voters are evenly spread out across the state, the vote share-to-seat conversion favoured the BJP.
The worst outcome for the BJP now would be to take the Karnataka result, however government formation pans out, as an affirmation of its policies. It compromised with the corrupt Reddy brothers, sullying its anti-corruption credentials. It is fortunate that the Opposition, including the Congress, is seen as even more corrupt. But for the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP will have to broaden its talent pool. The recent cabinet reshuffle is a sign that Modi recognises the importance of making changes in portfolios where some ministers have been incompetent, invisible or an embarrassment to the government.
Rahul Gandhi had made Karnataka a prestige battle. The outcome, with the Congress’ seat tally falling sharply, will dampen his prime ministerial ambitions.
By agreeing to play second fiddle to the JD(S), the Congress has displayed its frailty. Potential allies will have noticed that. They will be wary of hitching their wagons to it as the 2019 Lok Sabha election nears.