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The Politics of Karnataka Elections

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The pandemonium that followed the Karnataka election results is finally settling down. The BJP emerged as a winner, being the single largest party with 104 seats to Congress’s 78 and JD (S)’s 38, falling 8 seats short of majority. But by not forming the government in Karnataka, the BJP puts itself in a stronger position in both Karnataka and for the 2019 general elections. With the media and regional parties displaying the usual tendency to bat for the underdog, the post-poll alliance of sworn enemies, Congress and JD (S), is being hailed as a game-changer for ‘opposition unity’. Nothing could be farther from the truth, for these two parties have nothing in common except the need to keep the BJP out. How long the alliance will last is a matter of uncertainty, given Kumaraswamy’s untrustworthy record with both the Congress and the BJP, and Congress’s hero, DK Shivakumar’s personal hatred for the JD (S).

Popular mandate for the BJP

Despite a number of post-poll analyses attributing Congress’s failure to the devious First-Past-the-Post system, where the party with the majority wins, despite lower vote share and higher seat share, the fact remains that this does not apply in Karnataka. Here the Congress and BJP fought on completely different turfs. The BJP’s vote-share increase has been in concentrated areas and constituencies where the Hindu vote-bank could be consolidated, such as coastal Karnataka and among the Lingayats.

On the other hand, while the Congress’s vote-share is about 2 percent higher than that of the BJP, all the Congress’s turfs coincided with that of the JD (S) – the BJP made sure it ensured a direct contest between the Congress and the JD (S). So, a lot of times, in places where the Congress is the runner-up, the JD (S) has won and in places where JD (S) is the runner-up, Congress has won, suggesting cut-throat competition between the two parties. In 26 of the 37 seats the JD(S) won, the candidate who came second was from the Congress, while in 18 of the 78 seats that the Congress won, the defeated candidate was from the JD(S) (Shastri 2018).

The mandate for BJP was for BJP alone and it was clear-cut and out of the way of the overlaps between Congress and JD (S) – so, Congress’s lower vote-share and extremely low seats was exactly what the people gave it. There is no discrepancy in it, except if you irrationally compare Congress’s low vote-share with BJP’s high seat share – which would be completely misplaced in the Karnataka context. It is ironical that Karnataka’s new CM will be, HD Kumaraswamy, from JD (S), given that JD (S)’s vote share and seat share has not shown any improvement, and has, in fact, marginally gone down.

While there is nothing wrong with post-poll alliances per se, but when such an alliance happens between two sworn enemies locked in direct contest, it is the people who end up with egg on their face. The voters of JD (S) and Congress voted for each of these respective parties, on the basis of the venomous rhetoric they flung at each other during campaigning. This is particularly true of the Vokkaligas – JD (S)’s core voter base, since during the campaign, the Vokkaliga leaders of the JD (S) and the Congress were at each other’s throats.

The situation cannot be compared to other post-poll alliances, like those struck by BJP in the North-east or Goa, since, in such areas, BJP was never locked in a direct contest with these parties. The Karnataka story is more like BSP and SP allying together for the UP by-polls earlier this year, albeit in a pre-poll alliance – while the alliance won votes, it left the cadres of both the parties unenthused and fighting amongst themselves.

When the only reason for an alliance – that too, between sworn enemies – is to desperately grab power to keep a major national party out, it erodes the popular credibility of such an arrangement. It is very likely that BJP – which already has a strong position in Karnataka – will reap the benefits of Congress-JD (S) betrayal in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Since Kannadigas have a tendency to vote against the incumbent, the larger war seems to be in BJP’s favour. By the time of general elections, the alliance would have already been an incumbent with many missteps and infighting.

On the other hand, the BJP can be a formidable opposition, and can utilize this time, to mobilize public opinion by exposing the incumbent. Being in opposition, it can also freely talk about the Cauvery dispute with Tamil Nadu. It is obvious that Karnataka does not have water to release to Tamil Nadu, but if the BJP were in power in Karnataka, it would have been battered in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in 2019 general elections, since Cauvery is a very emotive issue for the people of both the states.

BJP’s mandate was meant to be much better

Even though BJP won 104 seats, its mandate could have been much better. We are currently commending a single largest party – just short of majority – on its performance in a state where BJP’s internal unit has been badly divided. The divide between Yeddyuruppa and KS Easwarappa has never been bridged. Even during these elections, a section of the state BJP hoped, all along, that the party would win no more than 90 seats, so that their rivals could be kept out of power. Deliberate politicking by internal rivals prevented the inevitable outcome – at least 120 seats, if not 130, which the Yeddyurappa camp was confident of winning on its own. The denial of ticket to Yeddyurappa’s son, from Varuna constituency, is also known to have deeply antagonized the cadres and the Lingayats, since the denial happened despite massive popular demand that Yeddyurappa’s son be allowed to contest.

The fact that a united BJP under Yeddyurappa is an undoubted election-winner does not take away from the reality that Karnataka BJP is also mired in intense corruption. Of course, the Reddy brothers could have got the BJP 120 seats, but the fact is that the national BJP leadership never allowed them that much leeway. Keeping Yeddyurappa and the corrupt Reddy brothers in check may have cost the BJP the government – but this outcome is infinitely better than having a BJP government tarnished with the image of corruption just one year short of the coming general elections. It might have been a tough call to make – but Modi chose rightly. It is like saying that the national BJP leadership got their cake and ate it too. They proved that they were the single largest party in Karnataka and have decimated the Congress and the JD (S), but having established their victory, they gave up the battle for the larger war.

The defeat of the incumbent Congress also becomes worse, because Siddaramiah tried every dirty trick in his bag to create communal divisions and somehow win. He promulgated the ‘anti-superstition bill’ to create a secular-communal divide, he passed a police order in January this year instructing the release of all ‘innocent Muslim’ prisoners from jails, he ensured that Gauri Lankesh’s death was politicized to highlight ‘Hindu fanaticism’, he played the soft Hindutva card by calling himself a good Hindu while his boss (Rahul Gandhi) mechanically did photo ops at a couple of temples, he attempted to divide the Lingayats on the basis of religion and left no stone unturned in mimicking the late Jayalalitha by passing a number of meaningless schemes and programmes for ‘social welfare’ hoping to become as electorally invincible as Jayalalitha.

To the list of these desperate measures, we must also recall and add the violent ‘Bharat bandh’ that was carefully orchestrated and funded to incite the Dalits and alienate BJP’s Dalit vote-bank. It happened a month before Karnataka elections, clearly indicating that opposition wanted to benefit from it. It failed, just like Siddaramiah’s AHINDA grouping of backward castes, Muslims and poor failed to work for him. Karnataka has a huge population of Dalits and STs, between 20-23%. They voted in large numbers for the BJP. BJP got 31 SC/ST seats to the Congress’s 34 and JD (S)’s dismal 8. The Congress ended up losing 15 Dalit seats, while BJP gained 22 Dalit seats from 2013! This shows the Congress’s Dalit politics has failed miserably, while JD (S), in contravention of all mandate, now rules the state.

In fact, it has been said of Siddaramiah that he went into the “election mode” right after winning in 2013 – he has been preparing for these polls for the last 5 years! Given these conditions, neither the Congress’s vote-share nor seat-share inspire any confidence. What exactly is the opposition celebrating? That the Congress and JD (S) somehow managed to hang onto their votes – without any improvement in tally – and got to power?

Giving up power will also work for the BJP in another sense – hoodwinking the opposition. The present state of our political opposition – especially the Congress – is such that they easily lapse back into complacency and a sense of self-gratification. Recall how many obituaries and epitaphs have been written about the BJP by the media, every single day, since 2014. Every big development, every protest and every sign of unrest, was declared as BJP’s time-up. The media left no stone unturned in villainizing Modi, as subtly as it could, but nothing worked. Every smallest constituency-level victory of the Congress was magnified to write Modi’s obituary. It didn’t work.

The same thing is happening now. Like every other by-poll before it where the BJP lost, as usual, Karnataka is also being viewed as the ultimate point of BJP’s defeat and of Rahul Gandhi’s having reached “maturity”, much to the relief of self-certified liberals. The way ahead, as the opposition and their intellectuals see it, is for all regional parties and Congress to come together against the BJP for 2019. Uncomfortable questions about the survival of such an alliance – how Mamata, the Left, Akhilesh and Mayawati and Rahul can stomach the prospect of declaring someone other than themselves as the PM candidate –  are being papered over for now. Imaginary talks about such an alliance – which also has zero organizational base and has cadres that hate each other in many places – has already given some of them a sense that they will win in 2019, even though there is no alliance in place and none will likely materialize.

But their sense of euphoria and complacency after every little defeat of the BJP ends up working in latter’s favour. One can sense the same thing happening now. With such a mindless and spineless opposition – which has no agenda except to stay in power and parrot unappealing and irrelevant bygone ideologies – it is no wonder that the Indian voter has yet to see an alternative to the BJP.

Bibliography

                Shastri, Sandeep. 2018. “The Economic Times.” May 21. Accessed May 22, 2018.

                https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/with-bjp-out-of-the-way-what-will-keep-frenemies-united/articleshow/64253247.cms? utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_
campaign=Polinationnewslette- r&ncode=936fdbd4c8bda4c6f8c9f1c2482a6fb1
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