Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi with former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah. No government in the past 33 years has managed to beat anti-incumbency.(PTI)
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi with former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah. No government in the past 33 years has managed to beat anti-incumbency.(PTI)

Karnataka Election Results 2018: It is plain old anti-incumbency at work

From a mere 40 seats in the outgoing 224-member assembly, to striking distance of attaining a simple majority is no mean achievement
By Venkatesha Babu
UPDATED ON MAY 15, 2018 08:14 PM IST

Karnataka has thrown up a hung assembly with the BJP emerging as the single largest party but still short of a majority. At the time of going to press, it is unclear whether the party will be able to form a government. The Congress has extended support to the regional Janata Dal (Secular) to form and head a government. Things are very fluid with developments moving ahead at a rapid pace. The BJP is insisting that as the single largest party in the new assembly, it should get the first shot at forming the government, but Congress and JD(S) say that together they have numbers which go past the halfway mark.

Whichever way one looks at it, the BJP’s performance has been very commendable. From a mere 40 seats in the outgoing 224-member assembly, to striking distance of attaining a simple majority is no mean achievement. Naturally the BJP has credited this to the magic of the Modi-Shah duo. For the BJP, the win in Karnataka was crucial for several reasons. For quite some time now, the BJP has looked at Karnataka as its beachhead into south India. After the recent fallout with the TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu, it did not have a single southern state in which it was in power either by itself or in alliance with a partner.

While becoming the single largest party is an achievement, on closer examination it looks more like the Congress lost the state more than the BJP won it. Party spokespersons have been attributing the BJP’s performance to the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the organisational skills of BJP President Amit Shah. Again while these might be true, on closer examination the real reason for its performance maybe more mundane and predictable.

Karnataka has had a history of changing governments every five years. The last time a government was re-elected was the Janata Party one headed by Ramakrishna Hegde in 1985. Since then, no government in the past 33 years has managed to beat anti-incumbency. So this weighs heavily on any ruling party in the state. Siddaramaiah was battling history when he was aiming for re-election.

If the Modi-Shah effect were the only key reason, then this would have played out across the state. In the Old Mysuru region, where the party has been historically weak, its performance has not dramatically improved. In fact, some of its imported Vokkaliga leaders such as CP Yogeshwar have lost. The BJP has done really well in its traditional strongholds such as coastal Karnataka, northern Karnataka and urban areas such as Bengaluru.

Second, the vote share of the Congress is marginally better than that of the BJP. This is in spite of the Congress getting a significantly fewer number of seats. This is because the Congress’s support base is more broad-based and diffused across the state. The BJP’s vote base is more concentrated, allowing it to have a greater strike rate. So while the Congress might have lost the election, the BJP has not decisively won the mandate.

Third, for the BJP, this is a replay of its 2008 scenario when it was close to a majority but did not reach the magic number of 113 in the 224-member assembly. In 2013, the BJP had split three ways. The original loyalists had stayed back in the parent party. B S Yeddyurappa, who was upset with the treatment meted out to him, walked out with his supporters to form the Karnataka Janata Party, and the Reddy brothers with their acolyte, BS Srirramalu, formed the BSR Congress. All the three splinter parties coming together has meant that the votes divided in the previous election have aggregated to give the party its current numbers.

Though no analyst predicted this, there was a huge anti-establishment anger also reflected in the fact that 21 of the 32 ministers in the state cabinet who contested, have lost elections. The chief minister himself lost from one of the seats, Chamundeshwari, he was contesting and barely scraped through in Badami. Several Congress stalwarts such as TB Jayachandra, Ramnath Rai, Umashree, Santosh Lad and Basvraj Rayareddi have been defeated. Even the chief minister’s close cabinet associates such as HC Mahdevappa, a veteran of several elections and H Anjenaya, who formed the backbone of the Congress’s AHINDA (a Kannada acronoym for backward classes, minorities and Dalits) coalition also lost.

The fact that anti-incumbency was at work was clear from the performance of the JD(S). The regional party has held on to its numbers in spite of eight of its MLAs defecting to the Congress. Six of those eight MLAs of the JD(S) who defected to Congress have been defeated in the elections. In the districts of Southern Karnataka, the JD(S) did significantly better than the Congress where it was in direct contest with the party, as the BJP is a peripheral force here. This was also an indication that this was more an anti-incumbency wave rather than a pro-BJP one. If it was in favour of any one party, it would have got a full majority.

The irony is that now to stave off the BJP’s quest to seize another state from it, the Congress has been forced to extend unconditional support to the JD(S) to form a government. Both the JD(S) and the Congress have overlapping areas of support where they fiercely contest against each other. The JD(S) is hardly a player in other parts of the state outside of its southern Karnataka stronghold.

Even an independent sitting MLA that the Congress had poached, Ashok Kheny from Bidar South, has come in third place, again indicating that it was classic anti-incumbency at play. While the BJP deservedly can claim credit that the intense campaign it unleashed in Karnataka, especially with the Prime Minister himself doing 21 rallies in 10 days, equal credit or more should be given to the anti-incumbency factor which plagues most governments in Karnataka.

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