On a day of dramatic political developments, the people of Karnataka watched the many twists and turns as the counting of votes progressed. At the end of the day, the last scene in the political drama has not yet unfolded. For a third time in Karnataka, the BJP has emerged as the single largest party. Political events that followed the earlier two instances were diametrically different. In 2004, the Congress and JD(S), who were in the second and third position, stitched an alliance and formed the government.
Later in 2008, the BJP fell three short of a majority and formed the government with the support of independents. This time around, the scenario of 2004 seems to be playing out once again, but with a major difference. The Congress-JD(S) combine will be led by the junior partner of the alliance, the JD(S), with its leader claiming the chief ministership.
On the other hand, the BJP too has claimed that as the single largest party, it has the right to form the government and should be given an opportunity to prove majority on the floor of the House. The ball is now in the governor’s court.What does the Karnataka verdict indicate? It clearly reflects a split verdict with the BJP falling well short of the majority mark, leaving an opportunity for the Congress and JD(S) to come together to stake a claim to form the government. Given the presence of only two independents, both of whom are believed to be Congress rebels/supporters, the swift moves of the Congress to support JD(S) leader H D Kumaraswamy to be the chief minister are clearly aimed at checkmating the BJP.
At one level, the Karnataka verdict is a continuation of a three-decade-old trend of the ruling party never being voted back to power in the state. Given the fact that the ruling Congress lost close to 50 seats with many of its ministers biting the dust, they saw an opportune moment in extending support to the JD(S) (which has not touched 40 seats, a figure that it had achieved the last time around) and thus ensuring that the BJP was not able to form a government.
The virtual collapse of the Congress is an indication of the failure of its social coalition to hold. It is clear that the party was neither able to secure support among the dominant castes nor was it able to hold on strongly to its non-Kuruba AHINDA coalition. It fared poorly across regions, especially in Mumbai-Karnataka, Coastal Karnataka, South Karnataka and Central Karnataka. In Bengaluru and the Hyderabad-Karnataka region they barely managed to retain their share of seats.
The fact that Chief Minister Siddaramaiah lost at Chamundeshwari and barely managed to scrape through in Badami symbolised the poor performance of the ruling party. Many of its key strategies had backfired. The focus on ‘the local’ did not pay political dividends nor did the move to secure a minority religion status for the Lingayats. While the chief minister was the face of the campaign, it clearly did not have the impact that was expected.
On the other hand, the BJP recorded a spectacular performance in Mumbai-Karnataka, Coastal Karnataka and Central Karnataka and made critical inroads in Southern Karnataka, but it fell short of the majority on account of its limited success in Bengaluru and Hyderabad-Karnataka. Clearly three factors helped the BJP reach triple figures.
The social coalition that the BJP has constructed was also instrumental in ensuring its success. Not only did it retain its support among the dominant caste, the Lingayats and the upper castes, it appears to have secured the support of the numerically important non-Kuruba backward castes and the Dalits.Secondly, the party’s biggest asset, the strong organisational strength of the BJP and the capacity of its leadership to effectively micro-manage the election strategy and campaign. Its opponents have been unable to match up to either the BJP’s capacity or strategy.
If one were to reflect on the Congress campaign in Karnataka, much of the responsibility rested with their chief minister. Most of the other state-level leaders of the Congress limited their campaign to their individual constituencies or at best to their home districts. The BJP, on the other hand, brought in a much wider range of campaigners who crisscrossed the state and campaigned with greater vigour and effectiveness.
Thirdly, the last week of the campaign made a world of difference. Till the start of May, the battle seemed to be evenly poised. The series of rallies addressed by the star campaigner of the BJP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appears to have titled the balance decisively in favour of the party. Many would argue that the Karnataka vote was very much a vote for the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. Surveys have consistently shown that Prime Minister Modi was clearly way ahead of Congress President Rahul Gandhi in terms of popularity. In the leadership sweepstakes, the Congress principal campaigner Siddaramaiah too did not appear to be able to match the capacity of the prime minister to sway the electorate.
With the numbers in the Assembly stacked up the way they are, the machinations to form the government would now shift to the confabulations among the leaders of political parties. While the Congress is hell bent on preventing the BJP from coming to power and thus extending support to the JD(S) chief ministerial candidate, the BJP does not wish to lose the momentum created by its party coming close to a majority. Both camps have staked their claim to form the government and one waits for the next round of events to unfold in the riveting political drama one witnesses in Karnataka.