Winning the trust vote naturally involved dodgy moves. Yet, as Indira Gandhi often demonstrated, the electorate always nurtures a grudging respect for those who can beat the odds, ethics being no bar in war. If the battle, for the BJP, was all about defeating the Congress — and, by implication, the Old Establishment that is putting up a spirited resistance to Modi’s dominance of Indian politics — the challenge was always worth accepting.
Last Saturday, in a terrible anti-climax, the BJP leader B S Yeddyurappa opted out of the floor test and in effect handed over the mantle of chief ministership to the leader of the third party in the Karnataka Assembly. Yeddyurappa may well live to fight another day but, for the moment, H D Kumaraswamy is the new Chief Minister of Karnataka, courtesy the Congress. In normal circumstances, this post-election battle of numbers would have been viewed as yet another disagreeable muddle, the likes of which India has experienced on innumerable occasions. It would have been interesting but hardly worth the carpet bombing coverage the country has witnessed on the news channels.
The difference was on two counts. First, the Karnataka battle was transformed into a facet of national politics. There was a positioning game underway for the 2019 general election. The BJP was intent on demonstrating that its march through the whole of India is unstoppable. Having established a firm foothold in Assam and the rest of North-east India, an area where the saffron flag was a novelty in the past, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah army was now intent on establishing its hold in southern India, Karnataka being the gateway.
The Opposition, on the other hand, was anxious on two counts. First, the post-election combination of the third party and the second party is a possible template for what they hope will happen after 2019 — a grand combination of all anti-BJP forces, united by a common concern for secularism. Secondly, for the beleaguered Congress, the loss of Karnataka was too major a blow to countenance. Rather than risk being reduced to what Modi mocked as Punjab-Puducherry-Parivar and being resource-starved for 2019, the Congress would rather get a toehold at any cost, even if it involved participating in — what may turn out to be — an ATM government.
Now that the BJP failed to muster the numbers, there are bound to be questions raised. Should the party have staked a claim to form the government, knowing fully well that the other side had more MLAs? Should it not have taken the high moral ground and opted to sit in opposition, knowing fully well that the inverted pyramid model of government formation tends to be woefully short-lived? On the other hand, why concede the battle to the enemy without at least a fight?
These questions are not unique. In 1996, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as leader of the single largest party, was invited by the President to form a government. He accepted, despite knowing that he lacked the numbers. For a few days the BJP tried — rather amateurishly, I may add — to persuade other non-Congress parties to support Vajpayee. When it was clear it was a hopeless project, the party extracted full mileage through a dramatic resignation speech of Vajpayee, a speech that elevated his stature and was a factor in the BJP coming to power in 1998.
It is doubtful that Yeddyurappa’s speech had the same effect as Vajpayee’s oratory. He will no doubt be seen as a martyr by his core Lingayat controversy. But overall, the projection will be that Modi and Shah were thwarted by a determined ‘secular’ opposition. The BJP’s defeat will become an occasion for ‘secular’ triumphalism, just as his victory would have generated the same elation among the Modi supporters.
How last Saturday’s outcome of the confidence vote will influence political thinking in Karnataka in the next year will depend on two factors. First, how the new government will be able to cope with a fragile majority will set the tone. Secondly, much will depend on whether the BJP’s argument that it sought to abide by the spirit of the Assembly election mandate is more persuasive than the claim that the BJP has to be stopped from winning another state at all cost.
From the BJP’s perspective which option — being in government or opposition —was preferable? There are no clear cut answers. Winning the trust vote naturally involved dodgy moves. Yet, as Indira Gandhi often demonstrated, the electorate always nurtures a grudging respect for those who can beat the odds, ethics being no bar in war. If the battle, for the BJP, was all about defeating the Congress — and, by implication, the Old Establishment that is putting up a spirited resistance to Modi’s dominance of Indian politics — the challenge was always worth accepting. The real issue is how the BJP can put the Congress in the doghouse. That is where political communication becomes all-important. In the event the JD(S)-led government is established clumsily, the BJP will have to go to town with the message that the Congress is brazen, shameless and insatiably power hungry; that it has learnt absolutely nothing from the electoral drubbing it received; and that it is shameless enough to re-appoint former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah as Legislature Party leader. Just as much as the BJP needs to show how the spirit of the mandate for change was violated, it will have to direct its artillery fire against the Congress. The importance of the Congress lies not merely in its brand name but the fact that the party is still the rallying point for a very powerful section of the Old Establishment that wants Modi out as soon as possible. Weaken the Congress and the rest is a relative pushover.
There is little opprobrium likely to be attached to Kumaraswamy for settling for the best bargain. The JD(S) set about to win the day despite coming third and it has done so. There is little point targeting him, just as there was little point assaulting Madhu Koda, the one-man brigade who ended up as Chief Minister. The guilty party, as always, was the Congress. The Karnataka experience shows that nothing has changed. Power is the glue that keeps the Congress alive. Take it away and, hopefully, the Ganga and Cauvery will be cleaned.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.