Assembly elections

BJP’s strike rate, Congress failure and what’s next: Takeaways from Karnataka results

The verdict was a hung assembly, and now it is up to the governor to decide what happens next.

As results from Karnataka began pouring in on Tuesday morning, it seemed as if the script would be the same as that of most state elections in the last four years: The Bharatiya Janata Party’s fearsome electoral machine notching up another victory. Celebrations began, ladoos were doled out and congratulations began to pour in from all quarters, yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah did not issue any statements. That could have been just protocol, but ultimately it ended up seeming prescient because what was first looking like a simple BJP victory actually turned into a hung assembly. Now, as frantic negotiations and, presumably, attempts to horse trade begin, it is unclear who will be in charge of Karnataka.

But here is what we do know:

1) There is no clear winner

The Bharatiya Janata Party won the most seats, but has fallen 9 seats short of the 113 needed to have a simple majority in the 224-strong assembly. There are only two independents, so it cannot simply add up other Members of Legislative Assembly to take charge. Meanwhile, the Congress dropped 44 seats from its 2013 tally, but still managed 78 seats in total. And the Janata Dal (Secular), along with its ally the Bahujan Samaj Party, picked up 38 seats.

Put together the Congress and the JDS+BSP have 116 seats – which is more than the halfway mark. This is why the two have come together in a post-poll alliance, through which they hope to keep the BJP out of power. On Tuesday evening, the BJP, as the single-largest party, nevertheless staked claim to forming government, asking for the chance to prove its majority on the floor. Meanwhile, the Congress and JD(S) have also petitioned the Governor, saying they have the numbers. Now the question is how long the Governor takes to respond, and what he decides. While the politicians wait, the expectation is that the BJP will engage in frantic efforts to pry away MLAs from the other two parties in the interim.

2) The BJP’s performance is nevertheless impressive

Consider this, the Congress actually bettered its vote share when compared to the previous elections in 2013, and got a larger percentage of the vote than the BJP. Yet, it only managed to pick up 78 seats in comparison to the BJP’s 104 – a big gap, when you think about how they pulled in a similar number of votes. The BJP rebounded fully from its dismal performance in 2013, when it was hurt by former Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa’s decision to start his own party, and leveraged Modi’s popularity, despite Congress attempts to use sub-nationalism and the Lingayat recommendation to get more votes.

The disparity between vote share and seat share may seem unfair to some, since you could argue that the popular mandate did go to the Congress. Yet all parties are well aware of the First Past The Post system, and it is clear that the BJP has managed to allocate its resources and planning much better than the Congress, picking candidates in constituencies that have a much better chance of winning even if margins are close. Even if the BJP does not end up forming government, it has confirmed that it remains a formidable presence in Karnataka – the only southern state it has ever directly ruled.

3) The Congress has failed, despite creating a lot of buzz

The hung verdict has, surprisingly, created a situation where Congress might end up being part of the government. Few were expecting this, with most analysts expecting either an outright victory for the BJP or a situation where the BJP and the JD(S) would come together to form the government. In the event, the Congress’ 78 seats have put it in a position to play spoiler to the BJP. But that cannot obscure the fact that Siddaramaiah, billed as a strong regional satrap who had figured out how to put Modi and Shah on the backfoot, has ceded a large amount of ground to a much more efficient BJP.

The results have made it clear that polarisation has worked massively in the coastal portions of the state – that entire swathe of saffron in the image above – and the BJP’s numbers in North Karnataka also make it evident that the Congress’ Lingayat gambit did not lead to much politically. The Cognress might be busy figuring out how to not give way to the BJP, but once that gets decided either way, it will have to take stock of what went wrong in a campaign that sounded much brighter than it ended up being.

4) The JD(S) went from kingmaker to nothing to possible kings

As a regional party, the Janata Dal (Secular) was portrayed by both the Congress and the BJP as the “B-team” of the other side, an outfit that would simply pull votes away from the national parties. The “B-team” charge definitely applied more to the JD(S) relationship with the BJP, since its basic ethos is anti-Congressism, and the saffron party played its ticket selection in a manner such that many fights were primarily JD(S) versus Congress rather than three-cornered ones. Yet, over the last four elections, the JD(S) has managed to hold on to its vote share and also draw in a respectable number of seats in every assembly election.

The day could have gone many different ways for the party. Most expected, at the start of Tuesday, that JD(S) were likely to be kingmakers, with the likelihood that they would tie up with the BJP to form the government. As results started coming in, it became clear that they would do well, drawing in about 40 seats, but the numbers also showed the BJP getting a majority by itself. This would have meant, far from kingmaker, the JD(S) would have performed well but been kept out of power. Instead, there is now a chance the JD(S) might actually run the government, with the Congress offering unconditional support to HD Kumaraswamy for the chief ministerial post. There is still a chance that it will be out of power, with the expectation that the BJP will try and grab some of its MLAs, but it remains a player.

What comes next?

Both the BJP and the Congress-JD(S) combine have staked a claim to forming the government before the governor of Karnataka, Vajubhai Vala. Here are the potential scenarios:

  • Governor takes time to consult: The situation is not simple and might require legal consultations, and so the governor might take some time to decide on whom to invite to form government. Time, of course, is very valuable in circumstances like this, and it will favour the BJP, which will attempt to get MLAs from Congress and/or JD(S) to resign or abstain.
  • Governor invites the Congress-JD(S) combine to form government: This scenario would seem the most appropriate and in keeping with the precedent established by governors in the last few years, when in Goa and Manipur, the largest coalition (including the BJP in both of those cases) was invited to form the government, rather than the single largest party (which happened to be Congress in those two states). But the governor, a political appointee and a person who has deep BJP roots, is expected to try whatever is possible to avoid having to do this.
  • Governor invites the BJP to form government: The BJP is the single-largest party, and so there might be cause for the governor to invite it to prove its majority on the floor. This would be breaking with the precedent of the last few years, when the BJP actively argued in court that the governor can call a coalition if it has the numbers and will be stable. The BJP, when it staked claim on Tuesday, asked for a week to get its MLAs together before a floor test. It is likely that, if the governor goes down this route, he will also give the BJP that much time, during which it can attempt to persuade 15 MLAs from other parties to abstain or resign (BJP’s tally of 104 will allow it to prove majority only in a house of 207, and the effective strength of the house right now is 222).
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