After the May 2018 assembly election in Karnataka produced a result in which no single party got a clear majority, Karnataka has been stumbling from one political crisis to another. The present political turbulence has its beginning in the aftermath of the 2019 general election. While since 1996 the BJP has always eyed the state as its ‘gateway’ to the South, Karnataka has also resuscitated the Congress from time to time. But in 2019, despite the ruling coalition fighting the election as an alliance, the BJP reduced both the Congress and JD(S) to just one seat each. Such severe defeat for the alliance was startling. BJP was expected to get seats in double digits, maybe a seat or two more than the 17 it won in 2014, but the Congress-JD(S) alliance was not expected to do so badly. Hence, since the general election result, there has been speculation that the coalition government was on its last leg and would not survive for long.
Over the last one year, the Karnataka alliance has seen only friction and little camaraderie. A hung verdict and the inability of the short-lived BJP government to prove its majority on the floor of the House paved the way for the Congress-JD(S) alliance to come to power. From the day the coalition government was sworn-in, it has faced multiple challenges, thanks to a range of differences between the alliance partners as also personal differences between leaders of the Congress and JD(S). Inability to accommodate ambitions and expectations of MLAs for a ministerial berth has been another major challenge the H D Kumaraswamy government has been confronted with for quite some time. While this could be one of the reasons behind the current political crisis, it could be only a symptom of a deeper political disquiet in Karnataka, which has swung between stable and unstable governments in the last two decades.
The history of fractured mandates in Karnataka suggests that whenever voters have given split verdict – in 1983, 2004 and 2018 – the result has been messier. In 1983, the Janata Party, which was the single largest party with 95 seats, cobbled up a government under the leadership of Ramakrishna Hegde with outside support from the BJP, the Left and the independents. The government didn’t last long: Hegde dissolved the assembly on the ground that he has lost the mandate of the people when his party fared poorly in the 1984 general election. In 2004, the BJP was the single largest party with 79 seats, against 65 of Congress and 58 for the JD(S). The Congress formed the government under N Dharam Singh, in alliance with the JD(S); Siddaramaiah, who was then with the JD(S), became the deputy chief minister.
However, in early 2006, the JD(S) broke away from the coalition with the Congress and formed a government with support from the BJP. Kumaraswamy became the chief minister and B S Yeddyurappa, the deputy chief minister. But the BJP-JD(S) alliance also broke up in 2007 and Karnataka came under the President’s rule. The 2004 syndrome repeated itself in 2018 with the Congress and the JD(S) choosing to come together to form the government. But the outcome has been as messy as in the past with dissidence and rebellion in both Congress and JD(S) rendering governance ineffective. Whether in 2004 or 2018, the Congress-JD(S) combine formed the government to keep the BJP out of power. But the result has been the same: political instability and a non-functional government.
Between 1999 and 2019, Karnataka has had political stability and functional governments only twice. On both occasions, the Congress was the governing party with a clear and comfortable majority to rule the state for five years: between 1999 and 2004 when S M Krishna was the chief minister and 2013 to 2018 when Siddaramaiah ran a fairly successful government. Between 2004 and 2013, there was either patchy political stability or none at all. The unstable Congress-JD(S) coalition government led by Dharam Singh lasted 20 months and Kumaraswamy-led coalition government with BJP also lasted as many months. In 2008 election, the BJP bagged 110 seats and formed a government with support from independents under the leadership of Yeddyurappa. Bur massive dissidence and corruption charges forced Yeddyurappa to step down after 38 months.
He was succeeded by Sadananda Gowada, but dissent and political instability forced him to step down in less than a year. Jagdish Shettar succeeded Goawda; he ruled for 10 months till assembly election was held in May 2013. Ironically, though the BJP government completed its term, it had three chief ministers and 60 months of bad governance. The 2013 election brought Congress back to power with a clear majority of 122 seats; the BJP did badly with 40 seats, partly because Yeddyurappa had left the BJP to form his own party.
While political instability returned to Karnataka in 2018, Kumaraswamy’s government would have breathed easy had the 2019 general election result not gone one-way in BJP’s favour. Many would argue that since the coalition came to power on a negative glue with Congress sacrificing the chief minister’s post in favour of its junior partner, it was unlikely that the two parties would bury their differences and work together to provide a stable government, given the history of bitterness between Siddaramaiah and the Deve Gowda family. But what made matters worse was the emergence of leadership tussle and open factionalism in the state unit of Congress after the party faced defeat in the assembly election. The crushing defeat of the coalition in the general election, which led to a mutual blame game between coalition partners for the route, and the leadership crisis at the national level in Congress added more problems to the coalition’s stability.
The spate of resignations of legislators which has pushed the coalition to the brink of disaster is being seen as a logical step forward to these developments. The fall of the Kumaraswamy government seems imminent, though valiant attempts are being made to find a way out. The Supreme Court has directed the Karnataka assembly speaker to maintain status quo with regard to disqualification and resignation of 10 rebel MLAs till Tuesday. The chief minister has said that he is ready for the trust vote. But what’s likely to happen if the alliance government is defeated and is forced to resign? A few possibilities remain open: a BJP government with the current composition of legislators, a short spell of President’s rule, which will be followed by fresh election. For the moment, there is little clarity on how the current political turbulence will end.
The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.