OPINION: The ‘nataka’ in Karnataka

Rajat Sethi
New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi felicitated by BJP top leaders after the Karnataka Assembly elections result 2018, in New Delhi, May 15, 2018. PTI

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi felicitated by BJP top leaders after the Karnataka Assembly elections result 2018, in New Delhi, May 15, 2018.
PTI

What appeared to be a monotonous election day with the BJP cruising towards a simple majority in Karnataka, suddenly turned out to be a cliffhanger. BJP’s juggernaut went well past all other parties in contention – the Congress and JD(S) – but fell agonisingly short of the simple majority mark. As the Karnataka voters were still glued to their television sets with one half their screens showing BJP leaders distributing sweets and the other half showing ‘breaking news’ that Congress has done the unthinkable – it has extended an unconditional support to its hitherto archrival, the JD(S), in an attempt to stop the BJP’s unilateral march to power.

The ball is now in Governor’s court. As a custodian of the constitution, the Governor must uphold it in its letter and spirit. The choices before the Governor – either invite the single largest party, BJP, or the majority coalition of Congress and JD(S) – opens up interesting questions on two dimensions – one is the pure legal/constitutional dimension and the other is the moral question. Legally speaking, the Governor has a vast discretionary realm to determine which option would provide a stable government in Karnataka. The exercise of the discretionary power of the Governor to satisfy himself of the stability of the options cannot be directly challenged in any court of law. In a recent case post Goa elections, Congress approached the Supreme Court to force the Governor to invite the single largest party. SC clearly steered away from intervening in the discretionary domain of the Governor and instead set the date for Manohar Parrikar to prove majority on the floor of the house.

Bengaluru: Outgoing Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and JD(S) President HD Kumaraswamy address the media after a meeting with Governor Rudabhai Vala in relation with  in Bengaluru, May 15, 2018. PTI

Bengaluru: Outgoing Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and JD(S) President HD Kumaraswamy address the media after a meeting with Governor Rudabhai Vala in relation with in Bengaluru, May 15, 2018.
PTI

On the other hand, the morality of Congress-JD(S) combine forming a government in a representative democracy is in serious doubt. Siddaramaiah led Congress and JD(S) are not just bitter rivals but their entire campaign has been viciously against each other. Congress accused the JD(S) of being BJP’s B-team in an attempt to consolidate minority votes. JD(S) too accused Siddaramaiah of ignoring the interests of Vokkaligas systemically. Moreover, several workers of the JD(S) and the BJP worked together on ground even without a diktat of party leaders just to defeat Congress. Moreover, JD(S) who might be leading the next government, is not even a pan-Karnataka party but a micro regional party – representing a major segment of of only one community, the Vokkaligas, in Old Mysore belt. What moral authority would it claim if it gets to rule the state? While ‘representation’ is essence of any democratic office, Congress-JD(S) combine will really lack the moral force during their time in office.

While the Governor’s office weighs in the moral-legal dimensions of the Karnataka verdict, it is important for us to effectively analyse and parse BJP’s thumping and a big bang entry into Southern India especially because it will inform party’s future strategies in the neighboring Southern states. The sharp ascendancy of BJP’s graph in Karnataka should be attributed to BJP’s indefatigable election machine with Modi-Shah duo at the helm and lakhs of energised party workers on the ground. Another less talked about but an equally important aspect is RSS’ contribution in mobilising its cadre in support of the BJP. RSS for long has had a long organisational network in Karnataka which was nurtured over decades. It was deployed to the hilt during the elections to get the voters to the booths on the day of polling.

In its steep rise, BJP has gained vote share and seats in every single region of Karnataka. On the other hand the Congress lost seats in each regional pockets of the state. Among all regions, Hyderabad Karnataka was most critical for the Congress to retain power. This region borders Telangana and Andhra Pradesh has a substantial Telugu speaking population. A Congress bastion having given national leaders like Mallikarjun Kharge, this region was the hotbed of Congress backward-minority social engineering. Inspite of the odds, BJP gave a fisty fight to Congress and won 12 seats leaving 15 for the Congress down from 25. Andhra CM Chandrababu Naidu and TDP tried hard to woo the Telugu voters away from the BJP but largely failed. This carries significance given that TDP had just broken an alliance with the BJP nationally and wanted to prove its monopoly influence over Telugu speaking voters of Karnataka. The failure of Naidu’s attempts to rout BJP in this region will cast a long shadow right up to Amravati.

Bengaluru: BJP party workers offer milk 'abhishek' to cut-outs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP state unit President BS Yediyurappa as they celebrate BJP's lead  in Karnataka Assembly Election 2018 outside the party office in Bengaluru, May 15, 2018. PTI

Bengaluru: BJP party workers offer milk ‘abhishek’ to cut-outs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP state unit President BS Yediyurappa as they celebrate BJP’s lead in Karnataka Assembly Election 2018 outside the party office in Bengaluru, May 15, 2018.
PTI

Another crucial region especially from BJP’s viewpoint was Bombay Karnataka. While the BJP might not accept, it’s supporters were jittery about the divisions in its Lingayat vote bank after the minority card shrewdly played by Siddaramaiah. However the entire Lingayat gamble fell flat for the Congress and BJP reversed its fortunes winning 30 seats, while Congress got reduced to 17 seats. Coastal Karnataka was perhaps the only region where there was a palpable wave of consolidation behind the BJP. As a result the party won 16 seats leaving only 3 for the Congress. Surprisingly, the urban voters proved to be major let down for the BJP and might as well be the reason for the party falling just short of the majority mark. Lower voting percentages in Bengaluru city constituencies negatively impacted BJP which could only bag 11 seats. Congress, on the other hand, retained its 13 seats tally of 2013 and JD(S) had to settle for 4 seats. Two seats in the city could not go for polls – voting in Rajarajeshwari Nagar was postponed after a voter ID scam came to light. Also elections in Jayanagar were suspended due to the death of BJP MLA B N Vijaykumar.

The day was especially bad for Siddaramaiah who lost his first choice seat of Chamundeshwari by a whopping 36,000 votes and could barely win his second seat Badami by a slender margin of 1696 votes. His AHINDA – backward, dalits and minorities – based social engineering was touted as a major vote bank innovation strategy. It did not just fail in several parts of Central Karnataka, it backfired in his own Chamundeshwari constituency. In hindsight, the Lingayat minority issue was a gross miscalculation of Siddaramaiah. His move united all Lingayats together against the Congress.

Identifying the failure of caste politics of Congress, its senior leader Verappa Moily was quoted as saying: “Somewhere we have not managed the caste equations very well. We have really put our hand in the Lingayat fire when it was not needed. As a party, we never used Lingayats as the trump card. Some leaders used it but they should have been advised properly,” (Link: http://indianexpress.com/elections/bombay-karnataka-election-results-2018-siddaramaiahs-lingayat-move-comes-a-cropper-community-stays-behind-bjp-5177475/)

Siddaramaiah’s desperate and vicious attempt to assert Kannadiga pride as against nationalistic pride was his yet another grave mistake. He left no stone unturned to flare up the North-South divide to rally Kannadigas behind him. Clearly even that didn’t work. It was not just Siddaramaiah but also Rahul Gandhi who miserably failed in gauging the pulse of the state. Congress President campaigned only in relatively safe Congress constituencies and yet all seats were lost. All in all, while the election campaign should have been about the five-year rule of Congress; Siddaramaiah made it about everything but that.

While the Karnataka question might take a few days to finally settle down, it will be seen how the BJP uses this positive momentum created by the election results to build an effective narrative in the run up to the 2019 general elections. Prime Minister Modi highlighted in his speech at party headquarters, that BJP has been wrongly projected as a cow-belt Hindi speaking party. He claimed that party’s appeal is now pan-India and stretches from West to North to Northeast and now to the South. Would a confident Modi use party’s historic pan-India footprints to call for a snap general election?

(Rajat Sethi is a political analyst and Advisor to Chief Minister of Manipur. He is a public policy graduate from Harvard University)