The Assembly election outcome in Karnataka gave the Congress two logical options. One was to sit in the Opposition and bide its time, as the party did not have the numbers to govern on its own, and the second, by virtue of emerging as the second largest party in a verdict that did not favour any one, was to negotiate a deal with the third-placed JD(S) and form the government with its support. It went for a third option.
The Congress’ surprisingly quick — some would say hasty — decision to prop up a government led by the JD(S), which proved to be the luckiest of three parties in the fray despite finishing a distant third and was handed a political lifeline in the process, has long-term implications for the party in particular and Indian politics in general. For one, it did increase the possibility of a larger Congress-included coalition to take on the BJP in the 2019 general elections. But, at the local level, there are already enough reasons to question its benefits for the party in the long run.
While the way in which the Congress is giving in to the demands of the JD(S)—be it ministry formation or preparation of a common agenda for governance or any other issue—is raising eyebrows. The easy and direct access that Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy has to the Congress high command and the manner in which he gets his way on matters that need to be collectively decided are making Congress leaders in the state extremely uncomfortable.
A month on since the coalition government was put in place, the JD(S) seems content in its newfound position of prominence, calling the shots occasionally and emphasizing its importance at every given opportunity.
The situation is markedly different in the Congress, where compulsions and demands of running a coalition government, especially with an ally such as the JD(S), are yet to fully sink in and rumblings over power-sharing, which once erupted into many full-blown rebellions, continue.
While both the partners seem to realise the need to keep the alliance going, the Congress is surely under greater pressure to ensure its stability, after having spent much effort and made many compromises to put it together. It’s this compulsion of the Congress that the JD(S) looks so eager to cash in on.
When Kumaraswamy says he is sure of the government’s longevity for at least a year, he is alluding to the fact that the Congress can’t afford to let it crumble till the Lok Sabha elections are over, whatever the circumstances may be, and will make more compromises, if necessary, to keep it intact.
That explains how the JD(S) managed to get all the ministries it wanted, leaving the rest for the Congress, and will be able to push most of its election promises into the coalition’s common minimum programme. Former chief minister Siddaramaiah heads the coalition’s coordination committee, but the panel itself seems to have a limited say in the running of the government. Deputy Chief Minister Parameshwara seems to be the only state Congress leader who doesn’t have complaints.
While the reality of the Congress playing subordinate to a rival, smaller party is unlikely to go down well with the party’s rank and file, what complicates the risk for the party is the fact that it and partner JD(S) fight for the same vote bank—backward, minority and SC/ST—in many of the regions, especially in southern Karnataka. And what it means is that continuation of the Congress-JD(S) alliance could help the BJP grow, as an alternative to two parties, in regions where it otherwise had a negligible presence, and possibly at the expense of the Congress.
From a national perspective, the Congress, given its current weakened position, needs the help of an alliance to fight the BJP and the Karnataka experiment could be the start it wanted. However, it remains to be seen how the Congress can propel itself to the centre of what essentially will be a coalition of regional parties.
By yielding the centre stage to a smaller regional party in a coalition already, the party has shown willingness to sacrifice its numerical advantage for the sake of keeping BJP away from power. This strategy may help it win more friends but could prompt other members of the coalition to expect it to do the same in other states and even at the Centre.
It’s said BJP’s crusade for a Congress-mukt Bharat may have forced the desperate party to go for a potentially disadvantageous alliance in Karnataka, just to deny the Modi-Shah duo an opportunity to claim they have rid another state of the Congress. But the question does arise if the Congress, through such alliances, is undermining its own position and indirectly helping the BJP achieve its objective.
In the current political scenario dominated by the BJP, the key to Congress party’s longevity logically lies in the party remaining politically relevant and positioning itself as the true alternative to the BJP. In Karnataka, the party had only two options. The third one, which it took, is too messy to have clear benefits for the party.
Resident Editor, Karnataka