Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad shakes hand with BS Yeddyurappa after he resigned as the chief minister of Karnataka during a special session at Vidhan Soudha in Bengaluru on May 19.(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)
Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad shakes hand with BS Yeddyurappa after he resigned as the chief minister of Karnataka during a special session at Vidhan Soudha in Bengaluru on May 19.(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

High drama in Karnataka sets stage for 2019 Lok Sabha elections

The Congress-JD(S) alliance stood firm to snatch an unlikely victory but, in defeat, the BJP could reap caste dividends.
Hindustan Times | By Venkatesha Babu
UPDATED ON MAY 19, 2018 11:31 PM IST

After 48 hours of intense drama which captivated the nation, the BS Yeddyurappa-led Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka fell on Saturday, with the chief minister choosing to resign rather than face a vote of confidence he was sure to lose. The Governor has invited the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress coalition to have a go at government formation.

There has been much analysis on how this is a template for alliances between a regional party and Congress in other states to take on the BJP in 2019 and beyond. In reality, the BJP may end up as a winner even in defeat, at least in Karnataka.

Of the 224 seats in the Karnataka assembly, elections were held for 222. The BJP won 104, the Congress, 78 and the JD(S), 38 , and independents, 2. Of the 38 seats that the JD (S) won, one was actually won by its partner, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and it will have to contest the other again because HD Kumaraswamy won from two seats.

The mandate of the people of Karnataka was clearly against the previous Congress government with the party being reduced from 122 to 78 seats. Democracy, however, is all about numbers and with the support of the JD(S) and the independents, the new coalition is well easily over the halfway mark of 113 required.

The BJP has already started talking about how the mandate of the people has been subverted. It has, but this is something the BJP itself has excelled at, as experiences in Goa and Manipur last year, and Meghalaya this year demonstrate. Still, the BJP does have a strong narrative, the sub-text of which is that Yeddyurappa, the Lingayat strongman, has been denied an opportunity to rule the state and that the Congress aided a Vokkaliga, HD Kumaraswamy ,to take over. Clearly, the Congress has its national compulsions to enter into this arrangement. Otherwise, why would a party with double the number of seats of its regional ally cede the top post? Whatever its compulsions, this could see it lose even more ground in the state.

Likely Lingayat backlash

The Congress has had a difficult relationship with the Lingayats in the recent past, ever since an ailing Veereandra Patil was humiliated by Rajiv Gandhi and forced to unceremoniously step down in 1990. All subsequent Congress CM -- S Bangarappa (of the Idiga, or toddy tapping community), M Veerappa Moily (Devadiga, traditional temple servants), S M Krishna (Vokkaliga, land owning agriculturists), Dharam Singh (Rajput) and Siddaramaiah (Kuruba or traditional shepherds) – have all been non-Lingayats.

Further Siddaramaiah’s move to divide the Veerashaiva-Lingayats, by announcing minority religion status to the latter did not pay any dividends and to the contrary may have resulted in anger against the party. This resulted in the defeat of the likes of the party’s Lingayat leaders Vinay Kulkarni and Shamanur Mallikarjuna. Even former speaker K B Koliwad and former minister R V Deshpande have made the same point, in post-poll interactions, on how the move to recognize Lingayats as a minority religion backfired.

With Yeddyurappa being seen as the tallest leader of the community, there might be an additional backlash against the Congress party for bringing him down. Lingayats, who are estimated to be around 15% of the state’s population, play a decisive role in deciding the outcome in about 90 assembly seats and 18 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka.

Southern Karnataka conundrum

To offset the Lingayat backlash, it is not as if Congress would benefit with extra Vokkaliga support. Its former enemy and current ally JD(S) has the maximum support of the community – witness how JD(S) swept Vokkaliga dominated districts such as like Mandya, Hassan, Mysuru, Chamrajnagara. In Mandya the Vokkaliga heartland, JD(S) won all the seven seats. In Hassan, it was no different – JD(S) won 6 of the 7 seats. Of the 38 seats won by JD(S), 32 are in the Southern Karnataka Vokkaliga belt.

The BJP and the Congress have a direct fight in most parts of the state such as Hyderabad - Karnataka, Mumbai-– Karnataka, Coastal Karnataka and Central Karnataka including the capital city of Bengaluru. However, the BJP is a negligible force in Southern Karnataka ,where the Congress and the JD(S) fight each other . The social base of the JD(S) is the land-owning Vokkaliga community.

The Congress gets its votes from the other backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, which see themselves as oppressed by the Vokkaligas in the rural hinterland. The social bases of the Congress and the JD(S) are inimical to each other. If the Congress and the JD(S) tie up with each other, they would be vacating the space for the BJP to gain a foothold in the region, which it has been unsuccessfully trying to do for decades. Ground level politics do not operate in a vacuum and aren’t hostage to a party’s national compulsions.

In fact , one reason why Siddaramaiah lost power despite vocal support by the AHINDA (a Kannada acronym for Dalits, backward classes and minorities) was that the powerful forward castes -- Lingayats and Vokkaligas -- felt that they did not get a sufficient slice of power under him. Vacating even the AHINDA base would enable a waiting BJP to swoop in.

On shaky ground

Also the new coalition government will have 117 seats including independentsm barely six above the magic mark of 111. Since one legislator will be a speaker, for all practical purposes the majority would be five seats. Even assuming once the elections to two pending seats sees an equal split between the BJP and the Congress-JD(S) combination (this is because of the 2 seats, while R R Nagar was held by Congress, Jayanagara, the other seat , was held by BJP), this doesn’t change the equation much.

JD(S) supremo H D Deve Gowda, even at 86, is a wily politician, who can run rings around the Congress, which is a divided house after defeat. Siddaramaiah, who has been elected Congress Legislature Party chief, will be smarting under the fact that G T Deve Gowda, the JD(S) candidate who handed him a humiliating defeat in Chamundeshwari, will most certainly be a minister in the new government based on his giant killing act alone. GT Deve Gowda will also likely, going by Kumaraswamy’s pre-poll promise, call the shots in the district.

The regional JD(S), which has been out of office since 2007, is desperate for the perks (and more ) of office. Any missteps it makes will not just affect it, but the Congress too. The JD(S) will have all the authority and the Congress none of the power even if it is given a bulk of the portfolios including a deputy chief ministership, as the father-son duo of Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy will ensure that their party has all the lucrative portfolios.

With no common minimum programme, a divided house within the Congress, and a regional party out to protect its interests first at all costs, the long-term survival of the government is a long shot.

The BJP, while licking its wounds, will be counting its long-term gains. Which is why Yeddyurappa declared on the floor of the house before resigning that the party would will win all 28 Lok Sabha seats in next year’s elections. The Congress would do well to keep a close eye on its rival, and also its ally.

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