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Game of Thrones in Karnataka elections

It was an eventful day for residents of the Indian State ofr Karnataka. They sat on the edge of their seats as the political drama unfolded. All eyes are now focused to see if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can wrangle the last few seats away from the eleventh hour coalition between the Indian National Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) to hit the majority mark of 112 seats to form the government.

It was never going to be easy for the Congress to retain its leadership in the state for several reasons. It was fighting historical precedent since no party has been voted back into power in Karnataka since 1985.

The main challenger, the BJP was united. In 2018, former BJP Chief Minister had left the party and fielded a new party, the Karnataka Janata Party (KJP). This fractured the BJP vote, especially among the Lingayat community, a reliable vote-bank for the party.

And Congress was up against the national-level BJP juggernaut which has looked unstoppable over the past few years propelling the party to rule (independently or in coalition) in 21 states. However, to its credit, the Congress was buoyed by several factors including Chief Minister Siddaramiah finishing out a five-year term demonstrating a sense of stability and running a scam-free government, and hence was able to reduce anti-incumbency sentiments.

These were especially important since the previous BJP government from 2008-2013 was marred by allegations of corruption and instability. There were three chief ministers during the five-year term.

 

 

Bahujan Samaj Party 1 1
Bharatiya Janata Party 104 104
Indian National Congress 78 78
Janata Dal (Secular) 37 37
Karnataka Pragnyavantha Janatha Party 1 1
Independent 1 1
Total 222 222*

Table 1: Number of seats won by each party
Source: Election Commission of India – http://eciresults.nic.in/
*The elections in two more constituencies will be held later

 

Indian National Congress 38.0 %
Bharatiya Janata Party 36.2%
Janata Dal (Secular) 18.3%
Independent 3.9%
Bahujan Samaj Party 0.3%

Table 2: Party-wise vote share of leading parties

Source: Election Commission of India – http://eciresults.nic.in/

Winning only 78 seats (Table 1), the Congress is down 44 seats from its 2013 performance where it won an absolute majority and formed the government. While the Congress won the highest percentage of vote share (Table 2), it was not able to convert that success into number of seats. It has been suggested that Siddaramiah’s AHINDA strategy (Kannada acronym for Backward Classes, minorities and Dalits) backfired and his efforts at luring the Lingayat vote had little traction. More significantly, the Congress took the fight to the BJP making this elections about identity politics rather than focusing on other significant issues impacting the people such as farmer’s crises, and development across the state, especially in Bangalore.

Recognizing the regional and national significance of these elections in Karnataka, the Congress put aside Siddaramaiah’s bad blood with the Gowdas (of the JDS) and offered to be junior partners in a coalition that would see HD Kumaraswamy of the JDS becoming Chief Minister despite his party securing only 18.3% of the vote. This political adroitness is commendable and would have benefited the Congress in the Goa and Manipur elections, where despite being the largest political party had to sit in the opposition as the BJP stitched together coalitions to form the government.

Even though they may not be able to form the government, the big winner of these elections which saw the highest voter turnout in Karnataka since 1952 is the BJP and more specifically potential chief minister BS Yeddyurappa.

At the age of 75, past the unofficial retirement age in BJP politics, he was made the face of these elections in Karnataka following the performance he delivered in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. As a leader from the Lingayat community, he was able to neutralize any potential impact of the Congress’s decision to grant minority status to them. It was his insistence that saw the Reddy brothers (alleged of significant corruption during the BJPs previous term) return to the fray and deliver a cash infusion and votes in the Bellary area. After this performance, rumours of Yeddyurappa being sidelined by the BJP high command have been silenced.

The BJP also benefited from Amit Shah’s political astuteness in developing the BJP’s political organization in the form of cadre-based politics in the state. While the end result of 105 seats is well below the original Mission 150 target set by Shah, this strengthening of the party’s organization sturcture, along with the access to the army of RSS volunteers has solidified the party’s presence in the state, a feat which will be hard to replicate in other southern states, but that will not stop the BJP.

The next few days will bring answers to many questions. Who will form the government? Who will sit in the opposition? Will coalition politics work better for Karnataka this time around? What impact will these results have on the 2019 general elections? We anxiously await.

Image Credit: CC by Indian Elections/ FLickr.  A version of this article was also published here.