Lok Sabha elections 2019: Congress-JD(S) alliance bets on vote arithmetic
When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the Karnataka assembly elections in 2008, it was a landmark moment for the saffron party. Known for long as a north Indian party with little presence in the southern states, the poll win helped establish the BJP’s claim as a national entity. A decade on, Karnataka remains the only southern state in which the BJP has a significant presence and where the party is considered a serious contender for power.
But this is also a state where the BJP was outmanoeuvred after assembly elections last year.
The BJP emerged the single largest party after the assembly elections in May, winning 104 seats in a 224-member assembly, but fell nine seats short of an outright majority. Even as the election results were coming in, the Congress pulled off a surprise. The grand old party, with 80 seats, swallowed its pride and offered unconditional support to the Janata Dal (Secular), which won only 37 seats, offering the chief minister’s post to HD Kumaraswamy.
A bruising fight to prove its majority and a tense floor-test later, the Congress-JD(S) coalition came out on top. The partners used the swearing-in of Kumaraswamy and deputy chief minister G Parameshwara on May 23 as a platform to showcase a larger coalition across the country, inviting six chief ministers and many other senior United Progressive Alliance (UPA) leaders to the event in the state capital.
In the 10 months that followed, numerous reports of infighting and differences within the coalition surfaced. Kumaraswamy went on record and said he was willing to resign, and the dramatic resignation of four rebel Congress MLAs in January brought the administration to the brink of collapse.
But the government survived, and on the way, Kumaraswamy announced an ambitious ~45,000 crore farm loan waiver, among the largest in the country. The partners also did well electorally in by-elections to three assembly and two Lok Sabha seats, with the Congress snatching the BJP citadel of Ballari.
On the Congress side, former chief minister Siddaramaiah, who disappeared from the political stage for a few months after losing one of his two seats in the assembly elections, has emerged as the party’s most prominent leader in the state and a force to be reckoned with in the coalition. From allotting ministerial berths to naming chairpersons of boards and corporations, not just Congress leaders but also JD(S) ones acknowledge his increasing grip over the party.
In the BJP, after a failed attempt to grab power, former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa’s image has taken a beating especially after the Congress released a series of tapes in which he is allegedly trying to poach lawmakers, though he has denied the charges and called the tapes fake. Apart from that, he now holds the record for the shortest tenure for a Karnataka chief minister: three days.
While the BJP and the Congress have traditionally swapped power in the state elections, the saffron party has always done well in the Lok Sabha polls – in 2009, it won 19 of the 28 Lok Sabha seats despite doing poorly nationally, and it won 17 in 2014. This time, with the party likely to face losses in northern India, it is more important for the BJP to maximize its tally from Karnataka.
“The combined onslaught of the Congress-JD(S) combine is expected to make it tough for the BJP, but the coalition strategy does not appear very robust. Their seat-sharing talks repeatedly ran into trouble. Being traditional rivals, their rank and file may not work for each other on the ground,” said Narayana A, a professor at Azim Premji University.
STRATEGY WILL BE KEY
The Congress-JD(S) alliance is banking on simple arithmetic to ensure it garners a majority of the seats. The thinking behind this is that the combined share of the votes that the Congress, the JD(S) and the Bahujan Samaj Party received during the assembly polls (around 57%) would ensure that the alliance sails past the BJP, which got 36% votes.
However, significant constraints remain for such a strategy to work. First, the JD(S)’s influence is limited to a few districts in southern Karnataka, and in these regions its direct rival is the Congress and not the BJP. The Congress and the JD(S) also have different vote banks, who might not be too keen to support a traditionally rival community.
The relatively low turnout of 54% in the Lok Sabha bypoll in Mandya in November indicated that the alliance between the two rivals remains tentative and that the rank and file of both parties are uneasy over the arrangement.
“The Congress can count on the JD(S) strength only in parts of Vokkaliga-dominated southern Karnataka. Elsewhere, the Congress will have to fight a lonely battle with the BJP,” said Narayana.
The coastal regions of the state, where communal tension had risen in the run-up to the assembly elections, were swept by the BJP in the polls.
In the Mumbai-Karnataka region ( the northwestern part of the state that neighbours Maharashtra), where the Congress and BJP will go head-to-head, the Congress has avoided any mention of the previous Siddaramaiah-led government’s move to grant separate religion status to the dominant Lingayat sect.
The farm loan waiver was a significant highlight in the coalition’s campaign in the state during the bypoll. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticising the state over the alleged tardy implementation of the scheme, it is likely to be a central issue in the polls. The state is also facing a drought with 156 of the 176 taluks declared drought-hit. The BJP has claimed that political instability has forced the coalition to neglect farm issues.
For the BJP, the strategy is clear: to bank on the popularity of Modi - which was its strategy even during the assembly polls in May. Party president Amit Shah has said that the campaign will be centred on Modi and the party symbol and not on local leaders.
COMMUNITIES AND DISSIDENCE
Politics in Karnataka usually revolves around the Lingayats, who form 12% of the population, Vokkaligas, who form 8%, Dalits, who comprise 18% and other backward classes (OBC) who make up around 40%. The BJP has traditionally used a network of mutts and religious leaders to attract the Lingayat vote – Yeddyurappa is the tallest Lingayat leader in the state – while the Vokkaligas are a strong base of the JD(S). The Congress, which is the only party that enjoys support across the state, usually attempts to form a rainbow coalition of Dalits, Muslims and some OBC castes.
“In this three-way split, an alliance between any two can leave the third party in a weak spot… the continuation of the alliance between the JD(S) and the Congress could severely dent the number of seats the BJP can win in the parliamentary polls,” said Narendar Pani, faculty at National Institute of Advanced Studies.
But the coalition has its own problems. The Ballari seat, for example, has seen dissidence among MLAs in the district, and two of the four rebel MLAs who resigned from the party are from this region. In Belagavi, again, the former minister Ramesh Jarkiholi, a long-time Congressman, appears unhappy and has spoken out against the party.
Add to this is the fact that there may be significant backlash from the two dominant castes — Vokkaligas and Lingayats — to the Congress, which under Siddaramaiah sought to project the AHINDA (Kannada acronym for minority communities, backward classes and dalits) coalition. Whether the lack of chemistry between the alliance partners will undo the arithmetic advantage of the coalition will be clear only on counting day.