Karnataka: The Art of Stealing Mandates

By inviting Yeddyurappa, the governor has invited the BJP to suborn the loyalties of non-BJP legislators. 

Karnataka’s voters should be profusely thanked for having provided the nation with a much-needed opportunity to re-discover the notions of constitutional propriety, public morality and political fairness. In recent years, most of these abiding virtues were deemed malleable and expendable – to be defined as per the convenience of the ruling establishment in New Delhi.

From partisan anchors, columnists and NRI-economists to bloggers, professional social media bullies and some times even the black-robed members of the higher judiciary, almost everyone connived in manufacturing a new political morality – that the winner is always right. Indeed we were all invited to applaud as Bharatiya Janata Party mangers used every trick in their armoury, including money power and the presence of “their” governors, to wrest control of Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Goa.

The BJP “master strategists” were serenaded for their unsentimental ability to suborn MLAs, and for their willingness to use the state’s coercive instruments to bend leaders and players to suit the ruling party’s preferences. By contrast, the Congress leaders were derided for their slow-footedness and for their inability to line up independent legislators; they were mocked as jaded and tired managers, as “NGOs”, no match to the energetic and resourceful operatives in the BJP. Propriety, ethics and fairness were no concerns at all, as long as the Modi juggernaut continued on its political march.

And then there was the ultimate case of ultimate political expediency: Nitish Kumar being cheered as he walked over to the BJP, jettisoning his electoral ally, the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

We all hailed this opportunism and betrayal of the Bihar mandate as well-deserved comeuppance for the Lalu Yadav clan and its political partner, the Congress. The electorate had voted for a BJP-mukt Bihar but there were no qualms as the BJP came in through the back door as a coalition partner. A higher morality was attributed to the party and to the liberties it took with constitutional norms and political manners. All these departures from constitutional wholesomeness and political fairness have come to haunt the BJP bosses in Karnataka.

Earlier, we were made to watch helplessly, as Raj Bhavan after Raj Bhavan obliged the BJP high command and disobliged the electorate. Vajubhai Vala has now said he will swear B.S. Yeddyurappa in and give him 15 days to form the government. Had he asked  H.D. Kumaraswamy to form the government as head of the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress coalition he might have been accused of disobliging the electorate’s decision. But by inviting Yeddyurappa, he has thereby incited the BJP to once again suborn the loyalties of non-BJP legislators. 

We will never know the full extent of power, reach and efficacy of the money-bags let loose in the state; enterprising reporters are busy bringing news of ‘missing’ and ‘untraceable’ MLAs. Kumaraswamy himself has made serious allegations against the BJP for trying to bribe JD(S) MLAs.

The Karnataka mandate is not without its complications. The numbers are of limited help. The outcome has put everyone in a bind. There are no clear-cut winners, though there is an obvious loser – the Congress. The mandate can be easily construed as being decidedly against the Congress, even though the party’s popular vote share has gone up; yet, it would be a quite a stretch to suggest that the BJP has earned a clear-cut right to rule the state when it has polled 1.8% less than the Congress. 

On the other hand, both Congress and BJP leaders had attacked the Janata Dal(S) leadership during the campaign, though H.D. Deve Gowda has the advantage of claiming to have remained firmly positioned in the ‘secular’ camp.

It should be obvious to any reasonable analyst that the BJP can cobble together a majority only by resorting to underhand methods, putting to good use its vast war chest; and, the Congress and the JD(S) can come together only by repudiating their pre-election postures. A simple case of plague on both houses.

If the final numbers are not helpful, neither was the campaign that produced this convoluted outcome. It is difficult to argue that the BJP made a positive pitch for giving Karnataka a new deal. Instead, its leaders, particularly the prime minister, were content to engage in an abusive and negative campaign, devoted mostly to attacking the Congress, enticing Karnataka’s voters to take forward the “Congress-mukt” Bharat process (albeit with the freedom to practise all those repugnant tricks-of-the-trade which have made the Congress such an unattractive proposition.)

The Gowdas – father and son – put up an impressive show. Along with Siddaramaiah’s polished invocation of Kannadiga pride, the elder Gowda managed to tap into regional sensibilities; whereas the Modi caravan brought to town its own steamrolling ‘national sentiments’. This election was a clash of two identities and two temperaments. The outcome can be judged a minor victory for the national camp. Consequently, the only consolation the BJP can have is the satisfaction that the Modi charisma is not yet entirely depleted.

However, an election must produce a working government. The governor is obliged to be politically fair and constitutionally correct. The Congress-JD(S) pitch is seen by the BJP crowd, and those with short memory, as a cynical and dishonest attempt to grab power even after voters have expressed their disapproval of Siddaramaiah’s track-record. For the other side, however, the BJP’s arguments are simply a case of self-serving indignation. 

Had the governor invited Kumaraswamy to form the government, his decision would have been a bracing rebuff to the party and been bitterly resented by the BJP brass. However, the BJP bosses badly need to disabuse themselves of the idea that they are politically invincible. The JD(S)-Congress tie-up should remind the saffron crowd that it does not have a monopoly over political chicanery. The BJP leaders, who once boasted of a superior political morality, need to be reminded that their party will not win every single election, and that they will not remain in power for ever.

Karnataka’s voters have given every one an opportunity to rework the rules of our democracy and go back to first principles. An elaborate preoccupation with political dishonesty can only produce unsatisfactory dividends, harmful to the long-term cohesion and coherence of the Indian state.