A determined bid by the Bharatiya Janata Party to seize power in Karnataka was blocked by the opposition last week, aided by judicial intervention, putting paid to Hindutva’s plan to extend its foothold to the South, at least for the time being.
Although the BJP has outgrown its northern base and spread across the country, the South remains inhospitable to it. The party views Karnataka, where it came to power once before, as its gateway to the South.
The Congress was in power in the state during the last five years, and since every election in the state in the recent past has led to change of government, the BJP believed it could take the state.
BJP President Amit Shah, who is reputedly a master strategist, began working on plans to storm Karnataka six months ago. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the party’s campaign. It drafted also the services of a host of Central ministers and state chief ministers. Its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, deployed its cadres for booth-level activity.
With an eye on the powerful Lingayat community, the BJP projected BS Yeddyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate even though he had attracted corruption charges when he held the post last time.
The Congress party’s campaign was led by its president, Rahul Gandhi, who, as is his wont, incorporated temple visits in his tour. Hoping to wean away a section of the Lingayats from the BJP, the outgoing Congress government endorsed the demand for recognition of the community as a separate religious group. The tactic did not hurt Yeddyurappa, who had personally backed that demand at one time.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s strategy probably harmed the Congress further by precipitating consolidation of the Vokkaliga community, the Lingayats’ traditional rivals in caste politics, behind the Janata Dal (Secular), led by former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and his son and former Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy.
When counting of votes began last Tuesday, the BJP established an early lead and appeared well set to win a majority in the new Assembly. But it ended up with only 103 seats, nine short of an absolute majority.
However, the BJP was the only party to increase its strength. It now had 63 seats more than in the last Assembly. The Congress won 78 seats, 44 less than last time, and the JD(S) 37, three less than last time.
When it became clear that the BJP will fall short of a majority, the Congress offered unconditional support to a government headed by Kumaraswamy of the JD(S). The two parties conveyed to Governor Vaijubhai Vala their decision to work together. The BJP, as the largest single party, also staked a claim to form the government.
With a combined strength of 115, the JD(S)-Congress alliance had a clear majority. Yet Vala, an old RSS hand who was Modi’s Cabinet colleague in Gujarat, rejected their claim and appointed Yeddyurappa as the Chief Minister. He gave him a fortnight to prove majority in the house.
Since there were not enough small parties and independents with whose support the BJP could cobble up a majority, Vala’s action amounted to giving the party an opportunity to poach members from the Congress and the JD(S).
The two parties jointly approached the Supreme Court against Vala’s partisan decision. At an urgent hearing, the court sidestepped the legal and constitutional issues raised by the petitioners and ordered that the majority be tested on the floor of the house the very next day.
The Governor’s choice of a former BJP Speaker with an unsavoury record to conduct the assembly proceedings raised fears of possible mischief. However, the court’s directives to hold a secret ballot and telecast the proceedings live limited the scope for motivated manoeuvres.
Even as the MLAs gathered for the session, the Congress released five tapes of conversations in which BJP leaders offered inducements to its members.
Realising that the game was up, Yeddyurappa resigned without facing the floor test. The Governor later invited Kumaraswamy to form the government.
Making sense of a fractured electoral verdict is not easy. There is merit in the BJP’s argument that the electoral verdict was against the Congress. But its own claim of a mandate is questionable. The Election Commission’s figures show that the Congress (38.0%) got more votes than the BJP (36.2%).
With a combined vote share of 56.4% the Congress-JD(S) alliance can legitimately claim popular support. But these parties have a history of rivalry and it remains to be seen if they can pull together for long.
The most important lesson of the Karnataka experience is that secular parties can halt Hindutva advance if they combine forces. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 22, 2018