By getting BS Yedyurappa to resign as the Karnataka chief minister without facing the trust vote, the Bharatiya Janata Party tried to make a virtue of a necessity, having failed to cobble together the numbers required to prove majority.
The Congress displayed the killer instinct it used to be known for once, reaching out to the Janata Dal (Secular) even before counting of votes had begun on May 15 and stitching up an alliance by offering chief ministership to HD Kumaraswamy within hours of the result being declared, catching the BJP by surprise. The party then prevented its flock from straying, constantly staying a step ahead of the BJP in the 48 hours before the trust vote.
If the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance survives until next year’s general election, it could widen its social base, bringing the Vokkaligas into the Congress’s combination of Dalits, Muslim and Other Backward Classes, even though the BJP seems to have breached this axis to some extent. The alliance currently has 57% of the popular vote, enough to yield 23 of the state’s 28 Lok Sabha seats.
Kumaraswamy, meanwhile, has reemerged as a star on Karnataka’s political horizon. Just months earlier, he was battling poor health and even legislators close to him were deserting the party. With his swearing-in slated for Monday, he is now king and not just kingmaker. His chief ministership will give hope to regional parties across the country that they can “lead” an alternative government in 2019 if the numbers favour them.
Mamata Banerjee has already smelled the possibility. She not only tweeted a congratulatory message to Kumaraswamy, his father HD Deve Gowda and the Congress, but described the BJP’s defeat as a victory for the “regional front”. Other state leaders – Telugu Desam Party’s Chandrababu Naidu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Kanimozhi, Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav and his son Tejaswi Yadav – followed.
The regional satraps have also noted that the Congress stooped to conquer by offering the chief ministership to Kumaraswamy even though his party has fewer than half as many seats as the Congress. This may persuade them to enter a pre-poll alliance. For they cannot discount the possibility that the President might do in 2019 what Governor Vajubhai Vala did in Karnataka: give the first shot at government formation to the single largest party even when the post-poll alliance had the requisite numbers. As of now, it appears that in a hung house in 2019, the BJP would likely be the single largest party.
The “regional front” that Banerjee referred to is, as the name suggests, unlikely to include the Congress. However, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi on Saturday talked about approaching all opposition parties with a view to taking on the BJP together. That may be the main takeaway from Karnataka: the party’s willingness to play second fiddle to regional parties, if need be, to oust the BJP.
Unable to mobilise the requisite numbers and losing sympathy by the hour – especially after the Congress produced tapes purportedly featuring senior BJP leaders trying to bribe rival MLAs – the saffron party changed tack and initiated damage control.
The BJP calculates that within weeks – and even during the period of government formation when loaves and fishes of office will be distributed and those excluded begin to feel dissatisfied – the contradictions between the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) will start to come to the fore. It will require skilful management and statesmanship from the leaders of the two parties to manage the conflict when it arises. But given the baggage both parties carry, this is not going to be easy. There is, for instance, the Siddaramaiah group whose antipathy towards Deve Gowda is well known.
The BJP will naturally seek to sharpen such contradictions in the hope of felling the government, before the Lok Sabha election if possible. After all, the party is only a few seats from achieving the majority and will undoubtedly breathe down the new government’s neck at every turn.
The BJP leadership believes that as the Kumaraswamy government makes mistakes, it will generate sympathy for the BJP. That is why Yedyurappa played the victim by resigning without facing the trust vote. But this might have worked better had he walked away four days ago.
The Centre is also not likely to make the going easy for the new government. Whether it will be a Centre versus Aam Aadmi Party kind of an impasse remains to be seen.
That the Congress managed to pip the BJP to the post after losing the election – even at the cost of relinquishing the lead role in the government to the Janata Dal (Secular) – is bound to encourage its rank and file in the Hindi heartland states going to polls later this year.
Karnataka, sharply divided between the BJP and non-BJP forces, underscores that Indian politics is in a state of flux today. Karnataka also delineates the lines for the 2019 battle, with an alignment of the Congress and regional parties taking on the BJP, which can be expected to pull out all stops.