With a Janata Dal(S)-Congress government to be sworn in this week and also likely to prove its majority, the rough and tumble of the last few days in Karnataka politics is likely to settle down, albeit momentarily! Ever since the election results came trickling in and it became clear that no single party is likely to gain a majority, it has been a political roller coaster. The Karnataka verdict and more importantly political machinations that followed are likely to have a significant impact on national politics and the coming Lok Sabha elections.
During the Karnataka election campaign it was clearly evident that the BJP was sparing no effort to make a re-entry into South India, through its southern gateway. The BJP realised that success in Karnataka was critical to its goal of developing a pan-India identity. Further, defeating the Congress in its last big citadel would place it at a decisive advantage in its preparation for a national election. The voters in Karnataka clearly had a mind of their own. While they brought down the strength of the Congress in the Assembly, they did not give a clear mandate to the BJP to form a government. This moment of uncertainty led to the formation of what could be termed an ‘unprincipled alliance’ of the Congress and the JD(S).
This was met by stiff opposition from the BJP, which attempted to create a ‘manufactured majority’. With the active support of the governor, the BJP had one foot ahead, but was clearly outsmarted in the bat t le for numbers. What are the wider implications for national politics? The strongly emotional speech by the outgoing Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa on the floor of the Assembly prior to submitting his resignation (a la Vajpayee in 1996, though for Vajpayee it was the first resort and here it was the last!) was virtually the first salvo of the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign. Yeddyurappa promised Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he would win for the party all the 28 seats in Karnataka. The BJP has realised that it needs to keep up the momentum and play the “martyr” to be able to drum up support in preparation for the national polls.
Given the political convulsions that one saw in government formation (in which the BJP was a principal play-er) it would be interesting to see how much the sympathy factor would work across the state, a year from now. It was clear from the Karnataka results that the momentum shifted in favour of the saffron party in the last week before the election thanks to the campaign of the prime minister and the solid ground work by the party organisation at the polling booth level. This is something that the party would capitalise on in next year’s Lok Sabha polls. Many would see the formation of the JD(S)-Congress coalition government as the foundation for a national consolidation of anti-BJP forces.
Two days from now when H D Kumaraswamy and his council of ministers are sworn in, it is going to be in the presence of a galaxy of leaders who are at the forefront of a proposed national coalition against the BJP. In the past, coalitions against a ruling party at the Centre have had the unique distinction of remaining united for a brief moment and staying divided for the longest possible stretch of time. In this context, two issues merit attention. In the emergence of an anti- BJP coalition, would the Congress be willing to settle for a role that takes into account the primacy of state-based parties? In Karnataka, they were quick to concede the leadership to the JD(S), essentially to keep the BJP out of power. Will the Congress concede the need for a strong anti- BJP coalition prior to the election which would require them to play second fiddle in many states? They did not concede this in 2004 and thus UPA emerged as a post-election coalition.
Fifteen years later, to challenge the BJP-dominated NDA, a pre-election alliance would be critical. Yet another critical dimension would be the need to accommodate a range of senior leaders who see a leadership role for themselves in a non- BJP coalition. As such a coalition emerges there would be many prime ministerial aspirants and each would be shrewdly positioning themselves and their party to be in a decisively advantageous position. This power politics and leadership race could by itself stunt the growth, influence and potential of such an alliance. Further, would the emerging alliance work on a consensus on policies and programmes as a way to shift the spotlight from “leadership” to “policy alternatives” in the electoral battle with the NDA? The BJP would want a continued focus on the “leadership” as that would place them at a clear advantage.
Crucial to the success of a non-BJP national coalition is the way the JD(S)-Congress government functions in Karnataka. Would one see the all too familiar internal bickering, rumbling and open expression of dissent on not being provided political accommodation? Can the coalition hold together, work together and deliver tangible policy and programme outcomes before the Lok Sabha elections? The saffron party would be clearly waiting in the wings to swoop in and take the maximum political mileage of any acrimonious internal power battles and lacklustre performance of the government. Thus how the coalition government in Karnataka performs is not merely important for emerging trends in the politics of the state but would have important ramifications for the strength, structure and very survival of the emerging anti-BJP coalition.
Pro-Vice Chancellor, Jain University and a political commentator