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Twist in the tale: Karnataka election success increases BJP’s vulnerabilities

The Congress-JD(S) alliance post-election alliance in Karnataka, which could win as many as two-third of the total Lok Sabha seats in the state, could give parties a template for taking on the BJP in the 2019 general elections

india Updated: May 16, 2018 22:20 IST
Roshan Kishore
Roshan Kishore
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
BJP,Karnataka,Lok Sabha elections
BJP supporters celebrate outside the party office after Karnataka poll results on Tuesday.(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

By getting many more seats than the other two major parties in Karnataka, the BJP has once again underlined its growing dominance in India’s political landscape. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah are rightly seen as the chief architects of this success. Ironical as it may sound, it is this success which could prove to the party’s nemesis in a country like India which follows the first-past-the-post system in elections. Here’s why.

Let us assume that the Congress had achieved a majority in Karnataka elections this time. This would have ensured that it remained equidistant from both the BJP and the JD(S) in the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The biggest beneficiary of this would have been the BJP, which has had a much better record in converting vote share into seat share in the Lok Sabha elections in Karnataka. The BJP had a lead of only 2.2 percentage points over the Congress in terms of vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Karnataka. The gap in number of seats was completely disproportionate.

The BJP won 17 against the Congress’s 8. This is because the Congress’s vote share is spread evenly across the state, while the JD(S) and the BJP have (mostly) mutually exclusive spheres of influence.

When Congress & JD(S) contest seperately, the BJP’s seat share in Lok Sabha in Karnataka is disproportionately more than its vote share
Chart 1

Given the post-poll bonhomie between the Congress and the JD(S), it is reasonable to assume at the moment that the two parties may strike a pre-poll alliance for the 2019 elections in the state. The combined vote share of the Congress and JD(S) in the 2018 assembly elections is 56.3%. To be sure, this number does not mean that a Congress-JD(S) alliance would win all seats in the state. An HT analysis shows that a Congress-JD(S) pre-poll alliance could have won 150 out of the 222 seats, results for which were declared on Tuesday..

This means that such an alliance could win as many as two-third of the total Lok Sabha seats in the state.

Unity of hitherto antagonistic parties to prevent the BJP’s hegemonic rise is not just a Karnataka phenomenon. More and more parties are realising the importance of burying the hatchet to prevent the BJP from extracting a disproportionate advantage in terms of seats from its largest vote share.

This strategy was first vindicated during the 2015 Bihar elections, when a grand alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal (United) and the Congress meted out a big defeat to the BJP.

When the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) refused to imbibe the lessons from Bihar, the BJP once again swept the 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Interestingly it were the UP results which brought an end to the grand alliance experiment in Bihar as well, with Nitish Kumar rejoining the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), terming the BJP as an invincible political force. A Mint piece this author had written, after the development, had argued that the BJP’s 31% vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections did not make it an invincible force as the Congress has failed to cross the halfway mark in Lok Sabha despite getting a much bigger vote share in the 1989 and 1991 Lok Sabha elections. It is worth reiterating that the BJP has not been able to improve on its 2014 vote share in subsequent assembly elections, in the states such as Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.

BJP got an absolute majority with just 31.3% vote share in 2014. Opposition unity can reduce the number of seats even if the BJP retains its vote share. Congress could not get a majority in Lok Sabha despite having a higher vote share (than what BJP had in 2014) in 1989 and 1991.
Chart 2

Both the SP and the BSP have realised the merits of joining hands in the post-2017 phase, and results of this strategy were seen in the defeat of the BJP in by-polls for Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha constituencies.

The reason why an ‘all in unity’ strategy can sink BJP’s hopes of recapturing power in 2019 goes beyond simple electoral arithmetic. It is more than clear that a rainbow Hindu coalition is the fulcrum of the BJP’s current electoral strategy. This strategy is adjusted to exclude dominant caste groups which form the core of support base of regional players opposed to the BJP such as the Yadavs and Jatavs in Uttar Pradesh.

It is also more than clear that blanket rhetoric against Hindutva actually aids the BJP because it helps in achieving a counter-polarisation against consolidation of Muslim voters.

One of the reasons why the Grand Alliance succeeded in Bihar was because it could consolidate non-upper caste Hindus on a pro-reservation plank by using RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statements. The fact that leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav have a legacy of fighting for social justice added a lot of credibility to this campaign. Even in Karnataka, it is clear that the JD(S) did a clever thing by having an alliance with the BSP.

Mayawati’s decision to campaign for the JD(S) must have added valuable Dalit votes to its Vokkaliga support base. The short point is the BJP is not very successful when it has to deal with a counter-strategy which tries to fracture its rainbow coalition of Hindus.

There is a broad agreement that anger among Dalits and farmers would play a big role in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress on its own does not have the organization, or faces, to exploit these fault lines.

If it is wise enough to strike deals with Dalit leaders such as Mayawati and perceived farmer parties such as the JD(S), it could add a lot of ballast to its anti-BJP push. At a time when the BJP is finding it difficult to retain its existing NDA allies, a rainbow opposition could well be the game changer in the battle for 2019.

First Published: May 16, 2018 21:37 IST