The BJP May Outsmart It in Karnataka But Congress Can Still Gain Nationally

The lesson from the election and its aftermath is that the Congress must be prepared to build confederal coalitions with regional parties and not worry about who leads them.

The Karnataka results have unleashed the expected deluge of hyperbole in the media. Television channels have described these as a massive win for the Bharatiya Janata Party, and an indicator of the party’s inexorable march from the north and west of the country to the south. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hailed the results as “an unparalleled and unprecedented” win for the BJP. None of these grandiloquent claims comes anywhere near the truth.

The first pointer to this is that at 38%, the Congress’ share of the vote is 1.2% higher than that of the BJP. The second is that the victory is neither unparalleled nor unprecedented because the BJP had won 110 seats out of the 224 seats in the Karnataka assembly only 10 years ago. Finally, the 2018 assembly election did not produce an anti-incumbency vote against the Congress, as BJP spokespersons have been claiming, for the party’s vote share has actually risen by 1.4% over 2013.

So what explains the 64 seat gain by the BJP and the 44 seat loss by the Congress? Most analysts have concluded that the main cause of the Congress’s defeat this time has been the splitting of the secular vote between the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), the regional party that was founded by former prime minister H.D Deve Gowda in the late 1990s. The JD(S) contested all 222 assembly seats along with its partner, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and captured 37+1). This three-way split cost the Congress at least 40 seats and more than neutralised the effect of the rise in its share of the vote.

Voting patterns

However, an examination of the voting pattern in the three previous elections held in the past two decades shows that this explanation is facile. The three-way split has existed ever since the 2004 elections. The JD(S) contested all, or nearly all, of the seats in 2004, 2008, and 2013 as well, and polled close to, or above, 20% of the vote each time. The Congress’s vote, too, has not only been stable, but has crept up from 35.3% in 2004 to 38% in 2018. So how does one explain the wild gyration in the number of seats it has been winning, from 65 in 2004 to 80 in 2008, to 122 in 2013 and back to 78 in 2018?

B. S Yeddyurappa and Amit Shah

The answer is that these gyrations are a mirror image of the instability within the BJP. The sharp increase in the BJP’s seats now is almost entirely a correction of the precipitate drop in it from 110 in 2008 to 40 in 2013 that occurred after two of its leaders, B.S Yeddyurappa and B. Sriramulu, broke away from it to form parties of their own. In 2013, these two parties garnered 12.5% of the vote. Had the split not occurred, the BJP’s share of the vote in 2013 would have been around 32.4% and it would have probably won close to a 100 seats once more as it had done in 2008. This was the calculation that made Modi and Amit Shah go to virtually any lengths to heal the rift within before the 2018 elections.

The 2018 elections have shown beyond doubt, therefore, that the Congress lost its status as the dominant party in Karnataka not in 2018, but as far back as in 2004, when the BJP emerged as the largest single party in the Vidhan Soudha with 79 seats (gained from 28.4% of the vote) against the Congress’s 65 and the JD(S)’s 58. Since then, the fate of the Congress has not depended upon what happens within it, and between it and the JD(S), but what happens within the BJP.

It is against this background that one needs to assess the Congress’s immediate offer of unconditional support to the JD(S) on the afternoon of May 15.

A lesson in alliance building

The media have treated this as the party’s’ attempt to pay back the BJP for the way in which it hijacked the government in Goa in March 2017 after failing to emerge as the largest party in the state. But in reality, it is a tribute to the wisdom of the Congress leadership. Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi have perhaps finally realised that if India’s precipitate descent into the dark ages  is  to be stopped, the Congress needs not only to be prepared to enter into seat adjustments with other national and state parties, but to forego the leadership of the resulting coalitions, if the need arises.

If there is any single consideration that will make the JD(S) stick to its alliance with the Congress in the stormy fortnight that lies ahead, it is the spontaneity with which Rahul and Sonia have offered leadership of the coalition to H.D. Kumaraswamy. As the full impact of this offer sinks into the JD (S), it will go a very long way towards healing the rift between it and the Congress that occurred in 2004, when the Congress did not offer Deve Gowda the chief ministership, despite his being a former prime minister, and insisted that the post should go to the Congress, even though it had won only seven more seats than the JD (S). Deve Gowda reluctantly agreed to this tough bargain but paid the Congress back by allowing his son to ‘revolt’ against him and take the entire party into a coalition with the BJP. Congress’s forthright concession of the chief ministership to the JD (S) this time will help erase that memory.

It is too soon to tell whether the BJP’s pressures and blandishments will lure enough MLAs from the Congress or JD(S) in the coming fortnight. But irrespective of what happens on the floor of the Vidhan Soudha when B.S. Yeddyurappa of the BJP moves a vote of confidence, Rahul Gandhi’s strategy in Karnataka is the right one to follow. Not only there, but in every other state where the BJP is attempting to replace the Congress as the national opposition to a local party.

But there is a risk this strategy entails that is bound to make many Congress leaders deeply uneasy. This is the prospect of their own party organisation atrophying as the fruits of power are appropriated by the cadres of its allies. This has happened in Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh, and would have happened in West Bengal if Mamata Bannerjee had not split it and ‘localised’ her part of the Congress first.

A similar fate could befall the Congress in Odisha, where the BJP has been making inroads similar to the ones they made in Karnataka in the early 2000s. How far it has succeeded was highlighted by the panchayat elections last February in which it won close to two-fifths of the seats and reduced the Congress to insignificance. West Bengal is the BJP’s next target.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi can forestall this problem by entering into pre-poll alliances in these and other similarly threatened states. While this may look like a tame surrender of the Congress’s pre-eminence, it will in fact go a long way towards reviving the confederal spirit of the original, pre-independence Congress, albeit in a different form.

Before 1947, the unifying agenda of the then highly decentralised Congress had been the attainment of Independence. Today, it needs to be the revival of India’s economy and the cleansing and democratisation of its political system. The need for this has never been greater – for India has been changing, and it has not for the better.

In rural areas, the bonds of the joint family system, and the security it offered, have weakened. Employment in agriculture is virtually at a standstill. More and more  rural job-seekers, therefore, have no option but to become migrant workers and live perilously precarious lives, earning rock-bottom wages.

But in the towns life is deeply, and increasingly, insecure, because the only jobs available are in the unorganised sector where there is no social insurance worth the name, whether against accidents, sickness, maternity, old age or death.

India needs real, not fictitious economic growth. It also needs a decriminalisation of its political system and a reform of laws to allow citizens to hold the bureaucracy accountable for its lapses. These are reforms that the country is crying out for. These are also the issues that are not on the agenda of any political party today. The first party that puts them there will re-establish the dominance that the Congress had enjoyed half a century ago.

Join The Discussion