In a massive setback for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the interim government abandoned its three-day effort to raise a majority in India’s southern state of Karnataka. The Karnataka polls were seen by many as a key barometer for success in the 2019 general elections when Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be seeking a re-election.
Not only did the BJP fail to get a majority on its own, despite winning more seats than the ruling Congress, it also failed to attract allies to its cause. The latter will be a bigger worry for the BJP as it gears up for 2019. Most political observers agree that in the 2014 general elections, the BJP had peaked due to the “Modi wave.” That wave has dissipated and the party appears increasingly isolated. So in 2019, it may gain the most votes and yet still not have enough to form a government.
As the results emerged on May 15, the BJP could get only 104 seats, well short of the 112 it needed for a simple majority. The Congress, with 78 seats, and the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD-S), with 38 had the numbers. They quickly forged an alliance and formally asked the state’s governor to invite the coalition to form a government.
The BJP’s BS Yeddyurappa, who took oath as chief minister on Thursday despite lacking a majority, announced his failure to garner the numbers it needed for a majority. He immediately announced his resignation. “People showed their anger when they voted,” he said. “I tried to help the farmers and laborers. I tried to do my job sincerely,” he said.
The state’s Governor, Vajubhai Vala, a close confidant of Modi from his days as the chief minister of Gujarat, invited Yeddyurappa to form the government even though he had letters from the Congress-JD(S). His apparent logic was that the BJP was the single-largest party. But this created an awkward situation for the federal government and the BJP.
In earlier elections held in the states of Goa, Meghalaya and Manipur, the BJP managed to form governments with the help of friendly governors despite not having enough votes. In these states, the BJP quickly forged post-poll alliances to trump Congress, which had the largest numbers. The Constitution provides decision-making powers to state governors, which led to BJP forming governments with as few as two seats. Clearly, the Congress had learned its lesson and was quick to form an alliance in Karnataka, offering to back the JD(S) leader, HD Kumaraswamy as chief minister.
As the BJP quit, a relieved Congress and JD(S) declared victory. “Now and in the future, we will all be together,” Congress leader DK Shivakumar — who played a key role in ensuring the outcome — told the media as he left the state assembly. “This is a win for the Constitution and Rule of Law,” announced Congress leader and former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah.
A combative Congress President Rahul Gandhi went on the offensive as soon as Yeddyurappa resigned. He mocked the BJP legislators by pointing out that they did not even wait for the national anthem to be played as per custom, before walking out of the state assembly. “It shows they can disrespect any institution if in power. Both BJP and RSS have disrespected institutions,” he said.
“JD(S), Congress, and Independent MLAs now have 117. I would like to thank and congratulate the Supreme Court (which) once again rose to the occasion and brought the date from 15 days to 2.5 days,” said Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, referring to the apex court’s order that led to the BJP’s defeat.
After the state’s governor invited the BJP’s Yeddyurappa to be chief minister and gave him 15 days to cobble together a majority, the Congress-JD(S) alliance went to the Supreme Court. In a dramatic post-midnight hearing, the court refused to stay the Governor’s decision but agreed to hear the case on May 18. As the hearing began yesterday morning, the Supreme Court reduced the BJP’s time to form a majority from 15 days to 2.5.
Aware that this could spark of intense “horse trading,” a euphemism for bribing MLAs for support, the court directed a floor test on May 19. It also barred the interim government from making any major decisions and insisted that the proceedings be telecast live to ensure transparency. It also turned down a plea by India’s attorney general to have a floor test through a secret ballot, which could have allowed some Congress and JD(S) MLAs to switch sides and support the BJP.
Earlier, Congress leader Azad had alleged that the state’s Governor was giving time to the BJP for horse trading. In a brilliant political move, the party released five tapes on Saturday allegedly implicating five BJP leaders of trying to bribe MLAs with money and ministerial berths in exchange for votes. A Congress leader even accused the saffron party of “confining” opposition leaders using the Income Tax department and other federal agencies.
Karnataka’s state elections saw a bitter contest between the BJP and Congress, with Prime Minister Modi leading the charge with numerous rallies in the state. He also tried to twist historical events to gain favor with the electorate, attracting charges of creating “fake news.”
Congress allowed its incumbent chief minister, Siddaramiah, to lead the charge, with active support from new party president Rahul Gandhi. It was quite clear that Gandhi was in a combative mood and the party upped its game after a string of embarrassing losses that created an existential crisis for the party. The Karnataka victory has given India’s oldest party a combative edge in advance of elections in three key BJP states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – before the 2019 general polls.