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Winners and Losers of the Battle for Karnataka

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There is no boring day in Indian politics but the last few days have been particularly exciting. The drama that ensued after the people of Karnataka delivered a hung verdict for the fifteenth assembly would be a worthy plot for a Hollywood political thriller. It involves: sworn enemies coming together to keep out a stronger enemy (the single largest party), midnight courtroom drama, elected representatives hoarded in resorts and transported to ‘safer’ havens overnight from fear of losing them to the stronger enemy and finally the leader of the single largest party resigning just before the trust vote in the assembly failing to cause any defection in the rival ranks.

For anyone who has just woken up from cryosleep and missed the events of the last week, the sworn enemies are Congress and JDS which got 78 and 38 seats respectively and the single largest party is the BJP with 104 seats in a 222-seat contest with the remaining 2 seats going to Others.  The magic number to obtain simple majority in the assembly is 112. With neither party getting a clear majority after the announcement of results, the Congress machinery set the wheels in motion to team with JDS- a party that their President pronounced to be the B-team of BJP during the campaigning. The campaigning for the elections was as vile as ever, with all the three major parties in fray confident of obtaining clear majority and ruling out post-poll coalition all together. But it wasn’t really a surprise to see the so-called secular parties coming together to keep the ‘communal’ forces out of power. It was very reminiscent of the time after the 1996 Lok Sabha. The resemblance with the landmark elections didn’t end there. After the Governor of Karnataka invited leader of the single largest party, BS Yeddyurappa, to form the government and prove the majority on the floor of the house, Congress uncharacteristic with its recent torpor swung into action. They fielded the legal luminaries in their ranks and eventually obtained a favorable verdict which reduced the time given to BS Yeddyurappa to prove his majority from 15 days to less than 48 hours. BS Yeddyurappa did a Atal Bihari Vajpayee by delivering a fiery speech followed by his resignation even before the trust vote could begin.

A clear victory for Congress you would think? After all they put their entire might against Amit Shah’s proven acumen of making something out of nothing. Whereas this time his party did have the most number of seats but still could not form the government. With HD Kumaraswamy of the JDS- the smaller party in an unnatural coalition, invited to form the government and given 15 days to prove his majority, the drama is hardly over. But let’s see who the winners and losers are of this roller-coaster so far.

BS Yeddyurappa at 75, got a rare exemption to lead the campaign for BJP as a chief ministerial candidate from his party which have retired people from active politics at his age, albeit unofficially. Balancing party’s corruption-free image and hype around the campaigning and tickets to Reddy brothers was no mean feat but the veteran politician did a decent job. Bringing the party to 104 seats from the tally of 40 in 2013 elections, when he had ceded from the party and fought the elections separately with his own new party would certainly qualify for abundant praise. However, being unable to obtain a clear majority, the popular Lingayat leader has lost his last chance of completing a full term as a chief minister of the state after being unceremoniously sacked during his previous term for being charged of corruption. The reasons for this failure would certainly be dissected by BJP, and one of the reasons may as well be that he was sold short by the party leadership at the center by not allowing him a free hand in critical decision making like ticket distribution.

However, that seems like an unlikely possibility. As much as the opposition and a section of media would like to see these results as sign of a receding Modi wave, there is no denying the fact that the BJP campaign came to life only during the last phase when Narendra Modi started his rallies in the state. The party even decided to increase his number of rallies hoping that it would be enough to tip the scales. It was not to be. While the jury is still out on the strength of the Modi wave, no one can deny that the Modi-Shah’s BJP is still a force to reckon with and will continue to be in the near future. BJP proved that by staking claim to form the government despite being short of the required numbers. Amit Shah may have lost this hand eventually but has once again proved that BJP can and will be cutthroat. This would certainly invigorate the party cadre who are now used to winning.

Sri Siddaramaiah, the incumbent chief minister who spearheaded Congress’s campaign for the assembly election seeking another term to govern the state. However, even before the election results were announced, he had to make statements withdrawing his claim for the chief minister’s post. These were clearly overtures made to JDS anticipating a hung verdict. This may have helped open channels of communication with JDS, headed by the veteran HD Dewe Gowda whose history with Siddaramaiah, his former protégé, was one of the many hinderances for an alliance. With Dewe Gowda’s son, Kumaraswamy slated to head the alliance government, Siddaramaiah, just like one of the two seats he contested, has lost the chief minister’s office. After leading Congress to a tally 36% lower than the 2013 results, Siddaramaiah has certainly emerged as one of the clear losers of Karnataka elections 2018.

Same cannot be said about his national president Rahul Gandhi. Even though he has led his party into another defeat (people who are keeping a count can fill in the number), his cronies in the party and cheerleaders in the mainstream media won’t fall short of crediting him even for formulating Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s arguments in the court. Any small victory – moral or otherwise, for the Congress will be seen and portrayed as a clear indicator of Rahul Gandhi’s growing prowess. So, unless it is an obvious defeat, with absolutely no chance to offer a spin, it is a win for Mr. Gandhi. Even when Congress will be playing second fiddle to a party which has less than half the seats than they do.

I think there is little doubt about who the clear winner of this election is. HD Kumaraswamy, with 17% of the seats in the assembly will be the next chief minister of Karnataka thanks to the post poll alliance with Congress. JDS won 2 less seats compared to their tally in 2013 and have still managed to emerge a clear winner. This triumph is going to give a new lease of life for his father, HD Dewe Gowda –  former Prime Minister of India, in the nation’s politics with the calls for a third front now intensifying. What remains to be seen is if the once mighty Congress would be willing to be treated as equals amongst half a dozen regional parties, some of which were formed and have been sustaining on anti-Congress agenda. Perhaps, Karnataka is a first sign of Congress accepting its diminished power in the national politics and willing to be a part of a coalition led by another party. Mamata Banerjee, who didn’t have a dog in this fight, might emerge as a surprise winner once the dust settles around the grounds of Vidhan Soudha in Bengaluru.

In the middle of this political cross-fire are the people of Karnataka who may have been thrust into a political uncertainty for the next few years. Even if the coalition of JDS and Congress can form a government, it is anybody’s guess as to how long these parties will be able to keep their differences at bay and run a good and stable government. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the real losers of the assembly elections of 2018 might end up being the people of Karnataka.

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