To Take Down BJP in Karnataka, Time for Congress to Embrace the Coalition Identity

While the Congress and JD(S) can afford to go independently and form a post-poll alliance in a ULB election, they need their united strength in parliamentary polls.

The dynamic in local body elections, which are fought on micro-local issues, is far removed from those that dictate trends in parliamentary or assembly elections. However, local bodies are often a reflection of grassroots politics and in the case of Karnataka, like the 2018 assembly elections, they reiterate that the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) need to have a cohesive alliance to convincingly defeat the BJP. They can’t do it alone.

No party has emerged as a clear winner in the elections to 105 urban local bodies (ULBs) in the state. Out of the 105 ULBs, Congress has won 32, Bharatiya Janata Party has won 26, JD(S) 13 and the rest have thrown up a hung verdict dominated by independent candidates. In most of the hung ULBs, a Congress-JD(S) post-poll alliance could take charge.

The biggest city corporation to go to polls was Mysuru where the BJP emerged the single-largest party, but a Congress-JD(S) post-poll alliance would have a majority.

The Congress and JD(S), who run a coalition government in the state, fought the ULB elections independently on “friendly” terms and not as a coalition. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, friction at the grassroots level between the two parties is intense and there was a fear of large-scale rebellion if seats were shared.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is some reluctance at the leadership level of the Congress to let its independent identity be overshadowed by a coalition identity.

Given that these differences are deep, the question they raise in the run-up to the 2019 parliamentary election is if the two sides can form a cohesive pre-poll alliance. Such an alliance is imperative as the results of the 2018 assembly elections indicated. Though the Congress polled the largest vote share of 38%, it could not win enough seats because it could not defeat the BJP in coastal and north Karnataka, where the saffron party has a powerful presence.

In effect, while the Congress and JD(S) can afford to go independently and form a post-poll alliance in a ULB election, they need their united strength in a parliamentary election to wrest a majority of the state’s 28 seats. But in this effort, former chief minister Siddaramaiah doesn’t seem to be helping and is creating more friction between the partners.

For instance, in the run-up to the local body polls, Siddaramaiah said, “I wish to become chief minister again”. He further added that “politics was not stagnant, but like flowing water”. The comment only created more friction between the coalition partners.

Siddaramaiah’s animosity towards the JD(S) and personal rivalry with former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda is well documented. In fact, it was interesting that the Congress chose Siddaramaiah, despite his loss to a JD(S) candidate in the Chamundeshwari seat in the Old Mysore region, to be the leader of the Congress Legislature Party (He had won in Badami in north Karnataka, the second seat he contested in the 2018 assembly polls).

Given the delicate number balance in the assembly, the Congress wanted to ensure Siddaramaiah stayed firmly with the flock. It also reiterated that the Congress did not want to concede defeat in the assembly polls and confining the former chief minister to the sidelines would have sent out that impression.

In this backdrop, H.D. Kumaraswamy has often indicated that he is a chief minister tied down by coalition compulsions. This has only led to an image of a coalition of convenience and desperation between the JD(S) and Congress and not one that is firmly built on a secular plank, as they would have to argue in the run-up to 2019.

In effect, the Congress will soon have to make a choice between reigning in powerful regional leaders, like Siddaramaiah, and the need for a cohesive coalition in Karnataka ahead of 2019.

T.M. Veeraraghav is an independent journalist.