After 14 years, Karnataka voters have handed an absolute majority to the Congress to govern without the baggage of coalition partners. Congress last enjoyed unfettered power in 1999, while it shared the government with Janata Dal (Secular) between 2004 and 2006.
In the results declared on Wednesday, Congress swept with 121 seats in a House of 225, while the BJP and JD(S) were tied at second spot with 40 each.
The voters’ message to BJP was clear: Perform or perish. The BJP government had bumbled its way through shenanigans, corruption and bitter internal rivalry in the last five years. The electorate put a stop to the saffron party’s first dream run in the south.
The results provided some political cushion to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, beleaguered by a string of corruption scandals, particularly recent charges that its law minister interfered in a criminal probe into the alleged illegal awarding of coalfields and the railway minister’s nephew allegedly demanding bribes to fix a plum railway promotion.
The Congress hugely benefitted from a split in BJP votes and multi-cornered contests in almost every region, gaining more than 40 seats over its 2009 tally. The BJP lost 70 seats, struck by strong anti-incumbency and a division of votes.
Rebel leader and former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa snatched large vote chunks from BJP by fielding his own nominees to avenge his removal from the CM’s post, and refusal thereafter by BJP leaders led by Ananth Kumar to let him play any role in the party. His Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) got only seven seats but inflicted heavy damage on BJP.
Twelve ministers of the outgoing Jagadish Shettar cabinet, including his deputy KS Eshwarappa, bit the dust. Industries minister Murugesh R Nirani, in two minds till the last minute on joining Yeddyurappa, also lost.
Other ministers who lost included V Somanna, BN Bache Gowda, Revunaik Belamagi, A Narayanaswamy, Sogadu Shivanna, SA Ramadass. Among prominent Congress candidates who lost was former civil aviation minister CM Ibrahim.
The results were a big setback for Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi who campaigned for the BJP in an effort to see that even if it was not re-elected, it at least stopped the Congress from gaining a majority.
After a reluctant start, Modi targetted the Gandhi family and Congress during campaigns in Bangalore, Mangalore and Belagum but voters refused to be persuaded by him to overlook BJP's mistakes. His polarising speeches may also have pushed Muslims, who make up for more than 10%, solidly into the Congress fold, analysts said.
BJP leaders, however, dismissed this, saying he helped boost cadre morale. "We would be worse off," said a local leader.
HT Opinion Poll
"This fluke victory of the Congress is because of a split in BJP votes," BJP's Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
Former BJP CM Sadanand Gowda said, "We have not been able to rise to the occasion. We could not reach out to the voter with whatever development work we did." Jagdish Shettar, who replaced him as CM a few months ago, merely said he accepted the verdict.In contrast, Congress leaders were more than willing to credit Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi for attracting the youth as he had held nine rallies in the state.
Reacting to the Congress's victory, PM Manmohan Singh said, "I congratulate Congress for working hard. Certainly, the electorate sent a message against corruption by the BJP. Corruption is a big issue for the country."
He said the people vote for governance and "if you stop governance, people will vote you out".
The Congress is now faced with the task of selecting a CM from several aspirants. The tussle was expected to shift to Delhi on Thursday. Leading contenders included Siddaramaiah, leader of the opposition in the outgoing assembly, and Mallikharjun Kharge, Union labour and employment minister. State Congress chief G Parameshwara was a contender but lost the Koratagere seat in Tumkur district.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi said, "I am happy with the victory. It's a joint effort and legislators will decide the leader."
JD(S) leader HD Kumaraswamy, who had hoped to be the kingmaker, blamed the media for rooting for a Congress win and influencing voters. "We will be happy to be the main opposition in Karnataka. We will play our role well," he said.
An interesting highlight was the Samajwadi Party opening its account in Karnataka with its candidate CP Yogeshwara winning from Channapatna, about 60 km from here. He defeated Kumaraswamy's wife Anita.