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Message From Karnataka

Message From Karnataka

Memories and images of the Karnataka election are not going to go away in a hurry. It held out a mirror to Indian voters of how electoral politics has gone horribly wrong. But analysts were excited as they could see numerous possibilities that have the potential of exploding in 2019.

The leader of the party that has attracted the least number of votes is today the chief minister. Two parties that bitterly fought the elections against each other are now running the government together. A national party that won the largest number of seats but did not even manage a simple majority thought it would muscle itself into power by horse-trading. The Governor forgets he is not supposed to act like a party man anymore as he holds a constitutional post. He ignores the political group that has the largest number of legislators and need to be invited to form the government. The Congress and the JD(S) herd their legislators into resorts so as to prevent them from crossing over to the enemy camp.  Ultimately, thanks to the judiciary, the coalition manages to be called to form a government and face a floor test. The BJP knowing they have no chance at the moment, walk out showing how it lacks in grace.  All kinds of compromises are being made to accommodate lawmakers into the power sharing business so that there are no cracks in the coalition. We all have reason to worry. There are haunting worries about the future of politics and democratic norms.

The Karnataka election has raised numerous uncomfortable questions: How is electoral democracy going to fan out in the elections of the future? Will a party in power be able to subvert the laid out principles of democracy? Will the Governor’s office be seen as an extension of the party in power or rise up to be free and fair as it is expected to? Why are such huge amounts of money being frittered away on elections?  As much as Rs. 87 crores in cash was seized by government sleuths according to the chief electoral officer in the state. Money that was set aside to buy votes? Why is the electorate ready to get polarised on caste and communal lines when it will end up dividing society and cause irreparable damage? Why is the electorate not asking tough questions on governance and demanding basic needs for a better quality of life? Why has the election narrative plunged to such depths when after seven decades, it should have matured into something worthwhile as an example for democratic countries all over the world?  If legislators have to be confined to resorts far away from the seat of power and watched on by the party satraps so that they are not weaned away with lollies of cash and ministerial berths, are we having the right lawmakers in the first place? If those who were rejected by the majority are in power, what will it say of democracy and the fallacies that go with it?

Too many questions. No answers.

The only thing that is certain now is that the opposition has figured out that the only way to take on Modi and his cash-rich well-oiled electoral party machine is to stay united. They saw it in by-elections in Uttar Pradesh and the assembly elections in Karnataka. Opposition unity will be the key factor if they have to win the 2019 battle. If they are sensible, they will bury their stark ideological and personality differences as that is the only way. Can they create upsets for the BJP in the coming state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh? In many constituencies in the past it was seen that the BJP candidates won by thin margins. A combined opposition can therefore be in a win-win situation. Seat-sharing, however, will be a sticking point.

After taking over as chief minister, Kumaraswamy’s talks with the Congress over seat sharing remained inconclusive. It held out ominous signs of how the coalition would execute governance. Apparently, the Congress wants finance, home, industry, IT, excise and irrigation which the JD(S) is not willing to part with. If they fail to govern, the electorate will throw them out in the next election.

For the first time since 2014, opposition leaders were together applauding the formation of the coalition government in Karnataka. It included arch rivals like Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh and K. Chandrasekhar Rao, chief minister of Telangana. Also, two former chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of Bahujan Samaj Party. Then there were other regional satraps like Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPM chief minister of Kerala, Mamta Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi, Tejashwi Yadav, former deputy chief minister of Bihar and Ajit Singh of the Rashtriya Lok Dal. 

Suddenly, the swearing-in function of Kumaraswamy in front of the iconic Vidhana Soudha became the epicentre of opposition politics.

Let us not forget in this tumultuous moment that opposition unity is fraught with many contradictions because of varied ideologies and personal whims of leaders, many of whom have king-sized egos. That the Congress was ready to give off the chief minister’s post to the JD(S) was a sign of how parties will have to be more pragmatic and accommodative if coalition politics have to survive. In the present circumstances, it is easier said than done. The cabinet could not be sworn in on the day of swearing in of the chief minister as there were negotiations going on between the two parties and differences had to be ironed out.

It is not going to be easy for an unnatural coalition like the JD (S)-Congress to deliver. The cabinet formation, for instance, has not been easy as hectic negotiations were held. Workers of both parties suspect each other. If they do not deliver, the road to 2019 is going to be difficult. But, if they bury the hatchet and just concentrate on good governance and not succumb to obvious temptations, they would be able to deliver a larger number of MP’s than they would have otherwise. At the moment, Karnataka has lit a new hope in the opposition ranks. They realise that it is the only way to dislodge Modi from Race Course Road.  The Bahujan Samaj Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the National Congress Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress and the Telugu Desam Party are seriously looking at this possibility. 

Karnataka showed how our democratic norms have been given a go-by. When the Congress-JD(S) combine staked a claim to form the government, the BJP should have chosen to sit in the opposition as they did not have the numbers. If they had done that, the party’s reputation would have shot up and attracted countrywide respect even from the opposition. But, instead, they thought they would employ horse trading with party elders thinking that Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary Amit Shah would pull it off as he had done in Goa and Manipur. Prime Minister Narendra Modi went as far as declaring, “Sarkar tho hamari hi banegi” even before the Governor had decided on which party to invite to form the government! The BJP can no more stand the moral high ground. The BJP now is as good or as bad as any political party in India. 

If the BJP swept into power in 2014, it was because they rode an anti-corruption plank saying they were out to clean the country and set a new value system. Really? Look at what the party did in Karnataka. The BJP’s chief ministerial candidate was Yeddyurappa who had spent time in a jail on corruption charges. What does it signal? It gave tickets to the tainted Reddy brothers only because they had the moneybags. Many of the party’s candidates had criminal backgrounds. But so did candidates of the Congress and the JD(S). None of these facts inspire voters. No wonder they are cynical.

Voters backed Modi in 2014 hoping he would sweep in economic reforms, revive the economy, create the promised number of jobs, stamp out inflation, carry everyone with him on the development path and acche din. Many who backed him were first time voters who got carried away. It may be difficult to do that again. This is one of the lessons that Modi needs to learn from the Karnataka results. You cannot have a landslide again and again just because you have a good speech writer.

What do the Karnataka elections signify and what does it mean for 2019 is a subject that will be widely debated. Despite Modi’s 21 rallies, a retinue of cabinet ministers campaigning and also riding an anti-incumbency factor, the BJP could not rustle up a simple majority. It got just 104 seats in an election where 224 seats were up for grabs. Amit Shah was aiming for 130 seats. It got the largest number of seats but it was the Congress which had got the largest vote share though it had to be content with 74 seats.

If the BJP put all its resources and energy into the Karnataka elections it was with a good reason. Karnataka is one of the biggest contributors to party funds and so it was crucial to be in power to attract funds easily from the real-estate and mining lobbies. It was also a precursor to elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh where it will have to fight the reality of anti-incumbency.

2019 is not going to be easy for the Congress as it is seriously strapped for funds and has to take on a cash-rich BJP. As the BJP won state after state in the last four years, it found it easier to mop up funds. BJP now rules in 20 of India’s 29 states. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, the BJP in 2016-17, mopped up 10.34 billion rupees. The Congress could manage just 2.25 billion rupees. According to records submitted to the Election Commission, the BJP collected 5.88 billion rupees during the 2014 polls while Congress managed just 3.50 billion rupees. Corporate funding is drying up for the Congress and increasing for the BJP as it is in power. The BJP managed to get 2,987 corporates to donate 7.05 billion rupees in four years up to March 2016. The Congress during the same time could manage to get only 167 business houses to donate 1.98 billion rupees. Many Congress candidates in 2019 will have to dip into their pockets for the polls. 

Despite being financially comfortable, the BJP needs to tread towards 2019 carefully. A lot of damage has been done: With divisive politics, the Hindu-Muslim divide is increasing. Dalits are being persecuted in areas where the BJP reigns. Last week, a rag picker was beaten to death in Gujarat. His wife was also beaten and is today battling for life. Cow vigilantism has ended up killing innocents. Many were targeted just because they had a Muslim identity. Make in India has not taken off. Nor, has the promised job creation. Unemployment is a growing worry all over India. Inflation has not been contained and rising fuel prices should worry Modi. There have been active attempts to saffronize education and educational institutions. Crucial posts have been populated by RSS-BJP activists. Farm distress is increasing. Crisis in business due to demonetisation and introduction of GST continues to be a worry.

The only certainty is that 2019 will see the kind of election we have not yet witnessed.

(Published on 04th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 23)