Rahul Gandhi, center, president of India's main opposition Congress party, waves to the crowd before addressing a campaign rally ahead of the Karnataka state election in Bangalore on April 8. Photo: Reuters/Abhishek Chinnappa
Rahul Gandhi, center, president of India's main opposition Congress party, waves to the crowd before addressing a campaign rally ahead of the Karnataka state election in Bangalore on April 8. Photo: Reuters/Abhishek Chinnappa

An enduring contribution of Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, to the political system must be that he made a fine art of walking the thin line dividing the legal and the permissible from the unlawful and the abominable.

India’s electoral laws stipulate that election campaigning must stop 36 hours before polling so that the voter gets some respite to reflect before casting his vote. The idea is to rescue him from the demagogue. But in the crucial provincial elections in Modi’s home state of Gujarat some months ago, where his Bharatiya Janata Party was facing the prospect of defeat, Modi did a smart thing.

He went on a high-profile nationally-televised “pilgrimage” to a prominent temple in Gujarat the day after the BJP campaign officially ended but before the polling took place. Critics accused him of stoking the fires of Hindu nationalism, BJP’s electoral plank in Gujarat where the party had lost ground due to its inept rule. Despite this, BJP went on to win the Gujarat election.

Therefore, Modi’s “pilgrimage” to Nepal last weekend immediately after campaigning for the state election in Karnataka in the south ended on Friday, raised eyebrows. Indeed, Modi was determined to defeat the ruling Congress in Karnataka in what was widely regarded as a dry run for the national poll due in April-May next year.

An outbreak of Hindu pride

Modi’s visit to three ancient Hindu temples in Nepal was nationally televised in India. An outbreak of pride in the Hindu way of life was evident on Saturday as voters in Karnataka were brooding. However, when the votes were counted on Tuesday, it became apparent that Nepal’s gods were ambivalent. They had recently handed down a magnificent electoral victory to the communists in Kathmandu and seemed to remind Indians too of their country’s civilizational traits, to separate religion from politics.

Simply put, they ordained that Modi’s party won, and yet lost – but all is not lost, either. Modi looked distracted when he delivered the “victory speech” at the BJP headquarters last night. He seemed unsure how far to celebrate.

The point is, opposition parties are forming a post-election alliance to form the next government in Karnataka. Indeed, BJP’s 104 seats in the 2018 election is a big jump from the 40 seats it secured in the last election in 2013. But it still falls short of the magical number of 113 that was needed to secure a majority in the 224-member state assembly.

Yet, all is not lost. For, the BJP can still engineer defections from the two main opposition parties – Congress and the Janata Dal (S) – who have a total strength of 125 seats. India’s lawmakers are notoriously open to horse-trading and the BJP war chest is overflowing after four years in power in Delhi.

Bidding about to begin

BJP president Amit Shah, whose reputation for political skullduggery is legion, is heading to Karnataka’s capital Bangalore. The bidding in the market is about to begin. Anything can happen. The BJP has a brilliant record of snatching power through manipulation after losing state elections. The state governors, who are constitutional figureheads, have reserve powers and discretion to make the final call whenever there is a “hung verdict”, but they are mostly handpicked ex-BJP figures as in Karnataka.

Nonetheless, the unmistakable bottom line would still be that BJP could be in serious trouble in the 2019 poll. For, the salience of the Karnataka election result is that if only the Congress and the JD(S) had forged a pre-poll alliance, the BJP would have been decimated in Sunday’s poll.

Together, these two secular, social-democratic parties secured a whopping 56.4% of votes against the BJP’s 36.2%. On the other hand, the alacrity with which the Congress leadership has reached out to JD(S) seeking a post-election alliance to form a coalition government underscores their common interest to ensure that BJP is kept out of power.

This is despite Congress and the JD(S) having bitterly fought against each other in Sunday’s election. More importantly, Congress, which won 78 seats has offered that the coalition be led by the JD(S) bloc (which has 37 seats). Simply put, Congress is willing to trim its sails to rubbish the BJP’s shenanigans to capture power.

BJP versus the Rest

Thus, Sunday’s election becomes an important milestone in the national politics. Three things have emerged. One, the Karnataka results show that if only the Congress is capable of the pragmatism to forge alliances with regional parties on a broad-based secular, social-democratic platform, the 2019 poll can be turned into an electoral battle of  “BJP-versus-the-Rest”, which the BJP cannot possibly win, given the “first-past-the-post” system of election in India.

Two, if Congress gets off its high horse and accommodates smaller parties, it will galvanize the formation of opposition fronts against the BJP in most states. And India’s 2019 general election is largely expected to be less a national poll than an accretion of 29 state-wide polls.

Finally, stemming from the above, the BJP desperately needs to make alliances of its own to face the 2019 poll. But then, who would align with a party that espouses Hindu fundamentalist ideology, polarizes politics on “communal” lines and displays political arrogance and authoritarianism and intolerance towards dissent to such an extent that Indians increasingly see the spectre of fascism stalking their land?

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