The Karnataka election results on Tuesday have naturally led to the question of why the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) did not form a pre-poll alliance, and West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerji was quick to point this out.

It took the Congress only hours, post-poll, to sink its differences with the Janata Dal (Secular) and offer its leader HD Kumaraswamy the chief ministership, despite the regional party’s lower numbers (37 seats compared to its 78). The alliance is an attempt to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party, the single largest party with 104 seats but short of the majority mark of 113, from forming the government.

In fact, Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ashok Gehlot, two of the party’s most experienced hands, were ready with this strategy even before counting had started, having swung into action soon after the exit polls. They had already decided to offer Kumaraswamy the chief ministership if the Congress did not cross 90 seats.

Unlike in Goa and Manipur last year, when it had emerged the single largest party but allowed a quick-footed BJP to seize power, the Congress was quick on the uptake this time and lost no time in reaching out to HD Deve Gowda, the Janata Dal (Secular) patriarch and Kumaraswamy’s father.

This took the BJP by surprise. Given the initial upsurge for it, the BJP was confident of making it past the halfway mark. If it did not, it was almost certain it would get the support of the Janata Dal (Secular), with which it had forged a tacit understanding in several constituencies. This understanding was visible on the ground in the Old Mysuru region, where the battle has traditionally been between the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Congress, with the BJP having little stake. On Tuesday, the Congress lost several seats to the Janata Dal (Secular) here – Chamundeshwari, where its outgoing Chief Minister Siddaramaiah lost, being one of them.

Stopping the BJP in its tracks

Going with the Janata Dal (Secular) entailed an about turn in the Congress’ stance. In March, Congress President Rahul Gandhi had publicly called the Janata Dal (Secular) the BJP’s B team, and declared that the S in the abbreviated JD(S) stood for Sangh. (Kumaraswamy blamed the party’s defeat in its backyard Hassan on the minorities deserting it).

The Azad-Gehlot team also managed to bring Siddarmaiah on board and it was he who publicly announced the Congress’ support to the Janata Dal (Secular). This despite his bitter feud with his one-time mentor Deve Gowda. But for this divide, the two parties – who run the Bengaluru corporation together – would have been natural allies in Karnataka.

The possibility of a post-poll tie-up was explored and the question of who would be the chief ministerial candidate arose. This time, the Congress chose to stoop to conquer. For, an alliance would prevent the BJP from walking through the “Gateway to the South” and getting pan-India status. It would also stop the BJP from adding a 22nd state to its belt. And it would prevent the BJP from creating the atmospherics for a Congress-mukt Bharat – with the party left in power only in Punjab, Puducherry and Mizoram.

The Congress would have also calculated that the move might keep the Janata Dal (Secular) on its side (and not the BJP’s) in the 2019 general elections. And it would widen its vote base in Karnataka with the entry of the Vokkaligas, who had deserted the party during Siddarmaiah’s rule.

But despite the numbers being on the side of the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) combine, the Karnataka story is far from over, as the governor’s decision to invite the BJP legislative party leader BS Yeddyurappa to form the government has taken the matter to court.

Alliances the key

However, if there is a clear message in the Karnataka polls, it is that Opposition parties will have to join hands in carefully crafted alliances state by state, rein in the egos of their leaders, be mindful of the larger goal and accommodate each others’ concerns if they are to have a fighting chance against the BJP duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah in 2019.

There are four states where such unity could dent the BJP’s Lok Sabha numbers – Uttar Pradesh, with a coming together of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Congress and Rashtriya Lok Dal; Bihar, with an alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Congress and smaller parties; Maharashtra, with the Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena joining hands, possibly with a tacit understanding with the Shiv Sena; and Jharkhand, with a Congress-Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-smaller outfits combine.

The refusal of the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party to join hands before the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections gave the BJP a three-fourths majority in the Assembly and an unprecedented fillip nationally. It was only when the two regional parties faced an existentialist crisis that they decided to make common cause in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bye-elections in March and managed to knock out the BJP.

The Kairana bye-polls due on May 28 is also a bold experiment, to test whether Jats and Muslims – who have turned antagonistic in western Uttar Pradesh in the wake of the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 – can be brought on the same platform by the Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate, who is supported by the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.

The Opposition may stand a chance against the BJP's Modi-Shah duo by carefully crafting small alliances state by state. (Credit: Raj K Raj / HT)

In the long run, Opposition parties will have to think hard, given the continuing goodwill for Modi, which the Karnataka elections underlined, and with Shah’s poll machinery becoming more formidable by the day. Siddaramaiah, for instance, peaked too early, relying on his welfare measures and the AHINDA (the Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) alliance to do their job – which they did, but only to a point. Shah’s team, on the other hand, crafted the BJP’s strategy in such a way that there was no let-up in the momentum, with the prime minister going for the kill in the final stages. Modi managed to give an “anti-Hindu” spin to the Congress’ decision to accord minority status to the Lingayats. This created a reaction among Lingayats and non-Lingayat Hindus, which benefitted the BJP.

With economic uncertainties growing, the BJP can be expected to rely more and more on cultural matters to sway voters in the run-up to 2019.

As for the Opposition, it will have to consider bringing together the offshoots of the erstwhile Janata Party (such as the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal, Janata Dal (Secular) and Rashtriya Janata Dal) and the parties that have splintered from the Congress over the years (Nationalist Congress Party, Trinamool Congress, YSR Congress) on a common platform to take on the BJP, around a mutually acceptable political narrative.