In spite of pulling out all the stops in its bid to score a decisive victory over the Congress, last Tuesday turned out to be a day of hits and misses for the BJP. Just as the party was celebrating its surge in the Karnataka assembly election – when it seemed all lost for the Congress and JD(S) – its numbers fell below the half-way mark and didn’t recover in later part of the day. Though it emerged as the single largest party finally, a comprehensive victory eluded the BJP. Short of a majority, the BJP relied on a ‘helpful’ governor to form a government. Had it accepted defeat with grace by not staking its claim for government formation, the BJP would have scored a moral high. Instead, in a desperate pursuit of power, it made a spectacle of its defeat and wasted a ‘moral victory’.
The BJP was eight seats short of majority. It did not have the people’s mandate, nor the numbers to prove its majority, unless it tried to attempt a repeat of ‘Operation Lotus’ of 2008 when it had turned its minority into majority by ‘buying’ out opposition MLAs. In staking its claim to form a government, the BJP brazenly displayed its hunger for power once again after similar successful attempts last year in Goa and Manipur where post-poll coalitions organised by the BJP were sworn in by the respective governors, though the Congress was the single largest party in both the hung assemblies. The Congress’ decision to mount a legal challenge to the governor’s decision was the crucial turning point because it led to the Supreme Court (SC) giving just two days to the BJP to prove its majority. Once trust vote was ordered on Saturday, it became quite clear that the BJP was staring at defeat. Before going for the trust vote, chief minister Yeddyurappa resigned.
While the BJP’s ‘moral victory’ ended in an embarrassment for the party, the Congress turned its defeat into a ‘moral victory’. Though the Congress suffered a 44-seat loss in the bitterly fought election, it increased its vote share by more than a percentage point over 2013 when it had won the majority. That’s an achievement for the Congress, despite losing more than one third of its seats in a state where incumbents have not been re-elected to power over the last three decades. In comparison, though the BJP won 26 seats more than the Congress, its vote share at 36.2 per cent was nearly two percent points lower than 38 per cent of the Congress. However, as compared to 2013, BJP has managed to increase its vote share by 4.8 per cent, a decent gain for the party.
The increase in vote share of the Congress and BJP is largely because of the decrease in vote share of the JD(S) from 20.2 per cent to 18.4 per cent as well as that of the smaller parties and independents. Thus, the vote shares of the two parties tell a different story than the number of seats the two parties have won, though more than the vote share, seats won by major parties matter more in determining the political outcome of an election. The message from the fractured verdict in Karnataka is pretty simple: nobody won; the people of Karnataka did not give majority to any party to form government. Therefore, the vote was neither for a BJP government, nor a Congress government but a post-poll coalition government.
When a party is eight seats short of majority, by no stretch of imagination can it be called as ‘an unparalleled and unprecedented’ win for the BJP, as Prime Minister Modi claimed, because it had won 110 seats in 2008. Moreover, the Congress actually improved its vote share by 1.4 per cent, despite losing 44 seats. Individually, the Congress and JD(S) don’t have the numbers to stake claim for government formation, but collectively as a post-poll alliance they have 117 seats to stake claim for government formation. The governor ignored this simple arithmetic for political and ideological reasons. It did not stand the test of judicial scrutiny and BJP paid a price for its inability to do simple numerical calculation.
While the BJP has been compelled to accept its defeat, the fact remains that its seat tally is nowhere the kind of resounding victory that the party was looking for to reopen its account in southern India. Neither is it a comprehensive defeat for the Congress that will send the party into morass. So, what’s the wider implication of the Karnataka election? The split verdict implies that may be 2019 is a fairly open contest that will be as difficult for the BJP as it will be for the Congress and other opposition parties. The fact that the Congress was absolutely quick in forming a post-poll alliance with the JD(S) and even offering the CM’s post to the party with half its numbers shows that the Congress is ready to do business with ‘compatible’ parties to stop BJP’s juggernaut.
As the focus will now shift to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh Assembly elections where it will be one-on-one Congress versus BJP fight, the outcome of these elections will have a bearing on pre-poll alliances in the opposition camp for 2019 Lok Sabha poll. Whether the Congress will play a dominant role in the coalition or become a junior partner in it will depend on how the Congress versus BJP fight pans out in the run up to 2019. The larger message from Karnataka is: the opposition has no option but to unite.
The prime minister virtually put in all his might into Karnataka election with 21 rallies in about a week and campaigned with the same intensity as he did in Gujarat and UP earlier. But BJP ended with only 104 seats against 135 assembly leads in 2014 Lok Sabha poll. The decrease in vote share from 43 per cent to 36 per cent is an indication of Modi’s receding popularity. This will impact BJP’s vote share as well as its overall parliamentary seats. The broader takeaway from Karnataka is that the diminution of Congress may be more or less over and its vote share will increase in most of the western and northern states. It may even gain in the south as well. Therefore, Karnataka election may turn out to be a teaser of the political soap opera leading up to the 2019 election.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.