More than just the sheer brazenness of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in trying to justify the formation of the government in Karnataka after having used exactly the opposite argument in Goa and elsewhere, recent events in Bangalore have demonstrated the total failure of the party’s strategic thinking.
Despite the control of key institutional levers – a governor quite happy to jettison constitutional propriety, a pro tem speaker from within the ranks – and a cheerleading media and no dearth of money or muscle, the BJP failed to come up with the required numbers. Even the party’s ultimate Bhramastra, Amit Shah – who in the minds of his millions of supporters is the modern Chanakya and could easily star in his own superhero series – could not do the needful, despite what his party colleague Ram Madhav had so smugly said. It left the party’s supporters and media cheerleaders immensely depressed.
In the end, B.S. Yeddyurappa had to quit rather than prove his numbers, a humiliating climax to his dream of once again becoming the chief minister. His own party leaders, who had not shown him any special love over the past few weeks, had begun distancing themselves from him as it became painfully clear that getting eight more members would be impossible. Had there been even the slightest chance of success, we would have seen the grandees land in Bangalore and happily claiming credit. Yeddyurappa knows he was hung out to dry and will not forget it; we have not heard the last from him.
Though the tight deadline of two days given by the Supreme Court has been seen as the main reason why the BJP could not muster up the requisite numbers – there was not enough time to seduce or threaten MLAs to cross over from the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) camp – that does not give much credit to the political acumen of H.D. Deve Gowda, his son H.D. Kumaraswamy and of course the Congress strategists. They are no less wily than Shah, and with much less hubris. There is no way to ever know this for sure, but even with an extra week or so, it is fairly possible that the Congress and JD(S) would have managed to keep their flock together.
D.K. Shivakumar, who moved the Karnataka MLAs to his Eagleton Resort to protect them from grasping BJP blandishments, had last year brought over 44 MLAs from Gujarat, and while they were holidaying there, had faced an income tax raid which did not in any way break his resolve. This time too, all kinds of promises and threats may have been made, but the Gowdas had figured out that their interests lie in staying away from the BJP. The Congress moved fast and the deal was sealed. For the BJP, for whom conquering Karnataka was vital on many levels, this is a huge setback.
Now that the BJP has been bested and the Congress-JD(S) combine looks set to form the government, what next? No doubt it will boost the Congress’s morale and provide more impetus to the potential Federal Front, but how will things unfold in the coming months in Karnataka and on the national level? What implications do the events in Karnataka have for the general elections in 2019? And, to put it bluntly, is the Narendra Modi wave over?
It is not easy to answer these questions, especially the last one, with any conviction, but it is safe to say that the events in Karnataka have put both the BJP and the disparate opposition on alert. From now on, the BJP will do everything to ensure that the opposition ranks remain divided and any attempt to forge unity is somehow sabotaged. In Karnataka,the Congress-JD(S) will have to keep a close watch on their MLAs to see that they don’t go wandering off towards the BJP.
That is not as difficult as it may appear. Despite the afterglow of the Karnataka victory, the Congress and the JD(S) have little in common except for a desire to keep the BJP out of power. Having achieved that, they now have to find a way to get on with each other. The cooing noises of the moment can easily give way to the dormant bitterness between the various leaders – the Gowdas, father and son, have long nursed a grudge against Siddaramaiah for ditching them in 2013, while Shivkumar of the Congress, who corralled all the Congress-JD(S) MLAs in his resort, has been a strong opponent of the JD(S).
Even if the fear of the BJP will keep them united, the new government is bound to take missteps as it settles down and within months will face anger from the populace on some count or the other. The BJP, with its 104 members, is bound to do everything in its power to highlight this in and outside the legislature.
Equally fraught will be the creation and consolidation of the Federal Front. Telangana’s K. Chandrashekar Rao and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee are spearheading the movement for a united anti-BJP front, but will others, including Mayawati, Chandrababu Naidu and most important, the Congress, bite? Without the Congress, any such front will be a non-starter; with the Congress some regional leaders will be very uncomfortable. In Maharashtra, local Congress chieftains have swallowed their pride after the leadership told them to work with Sharad Pawar, but that does not mean they are happy about it.
Here again, the BJP will leave no stone unturned to ensure that the Front does not take off. Here the party is at a disadvantage, since in the last four years it has run roughshod over its allies and will find it difficult to earn their trust back, but it won’t stop trying. Coalitions will be critical in 2019, because even the BJP knows it can no longer rely on just Modi’s personal appeal to win votes. He can change things, but the law of diminishing marginal returns has set in.
The BJP, therefore, needs to show it is still an effective election-winning machine, and this is where the coming elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are important. It is facing severe anti-incumbency, especially in Rajasthan, but in the two crucial states it is a direct fight, without any third party, and this has, in recent times, worked to the BJP’s advantage. In all these states, the BJP is going to throw in everything at its disposal to score a win, because the elections will be too close to the 2019 elections for comfort and the results will set the tone.
Where does that leave the Congress? In Gujarat, the Congress came within a whisker of winning and in Karnataka, after being voted out, it showed nimbleness and agility in tying up with the JD(S) despite going all out to attack it during the campaign. Rahul Gandhi worked hard and has matured, but his mother can and does still make a difference. This combination, along with a new energy in the party which is showing an ability to tone down its own traditional arrogance, will be of great value in the state elections.
But the general elections will call for a more flexible approach. The Congress will be required to make all kinds of compromises to be part of any larger front, or at least to make seat adjustments with some of its rivals at the state level. Rahul will have his work cut out.
More importantly, he has to now go beyond just hitting out at the Modi government. That’s fine as far as headline-grabbing goes and it gets good traction on social media, but sooner or later there will be questions about what exactly the Congress, with or without the Federal Front, has to offer to the people. If the economy is in poor shape, how does the Congress plan to revive it? Where does it stand on pushing Aadhaar and making it compulsory for everything? What about jobs? In short, what is the Congress party’s vision, should it win? Rahul has to now start talking about it.
It is going to be a hot few months till early 2019. This time around, the BJP is facing anti-incumbency and will react in the way it knows best – by polarising. Modi’s development rhetoric was given a burial a long time ago and should he try and resurrect it, it will only provoke derisive laughter. But the BJP is still the strongest game in town. And it will want to make sure that does not change. The opposition parties need to outthink the BJP. The dust in Karnataka is settling down, but the real games are about to begin.