Karnataka’s fractured mandate and the subsequent resignation of B.S. Yeddyurappa on Saturday after a short two-day stint as Chief Minister, as he could not muster a majority for the Bharatiya Janata Party, will have a far-reaching impact on national politics and alliances that will be formed to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
According to a senior Congress leader and member of the core team that took decisions related to the Karnataka elections, “Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) had a tentative understanding before the elections that if we got 100 plus seats, but remained short of majority then the chief ministerial candidate would be from Congress and JDS would support him. But if Congress stayed below the 100-mark, as it happened, then (H.D.) Kumaraswamy would be Chief Minister and Congress would take the secondary position.”
CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury acted as the catalyst between the Congress and JDS, to persuade H.D. Deve Gowda to accept the tentative formula. However, no understanding could be reached for a pre-election alliance, but the “100-seats-plus-minus” agreement helped them to take quick decisions soon after the results. Before the official results were announced, Congress took the bold political decision to accept Kumaraswamy as Chief Minister. It was done keeping in mind four main political considerations, explained a senior Congress leader while talking to The Sunday Guardian.
First, Rahul Gandhi is open to any idea, in any form, which dents BJP’s powers even at a political cost to the Congress. Rahul was so desperate to stop the BJP in Karnataka that he was ready to disregard even his party’s long term prospects in the state. On 15 and 16 May, Mamata Banerjee, Sitaram Yechury and many other regional leaders got active to ensure that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi extended support to Kumaraswamy.
Two, Deve Gowda still nurses the ambition to become Prime Minister once more and has been deliberating on the matter of an Opposition alliance with regional leaders such as Mamata Banerjee. The West Bengal Chief Minister is keen on giving shape to a “federal front” as a non-BJP non-Congress platform to take on the BJP in 2019. But by accepting Kumaraswamy as Chief Minister, Congress has succeeded in making a slight dent in the idea of the “federal front”. Now Deve Gowda is partnering with the Congress and inside and outside Parliament he will be under pressure to collaborate with the Congress to keep the Karnataka government stable.
Three, Congress thinks that in the coming months, “if Dalits, Muslims and Vokkaligas are taken care of properly” then BJP can be damaged seriously in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Karnataka.
The fourth factor that influenced Congress was to ensure that the “gateway to South India” remained closed for BJP as much as possible.
Once Rahul Gandhi took the decision to support Kumaraswamy as Chief Minister, Congress’ core team ensured that the “Karnataka war” got fought with aggression. Rahul Gandhi, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ashok Gehlot, Ahmed Patel, Kapil Sibal. Abhishek Singhvi and P. Chidambaram gave shape to the strategy.
Congress leaders such as D.K. Sivakumar of Karnataka and Subbirami Reddy of Hyderabad put in money and logistics to ensure that their MLAs remained out of bounds for BJP leaders.
A 16 May meeting at 6.30 pm, at Congress’ war room on Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Road in New Delhi set the tone. It was attended by P. Chidambaram, Ahmed Patel, Kapil Sibal, Vivek Tankha and Randeep Surjewala. Rahul Gandhi was in Chhattisgarh, but stayed connected over phone.
The realisation was there in the top brass of the Congress that the chances of retaining Karnataka were slim and a legal fight should be taken up urgently. Kamal Nath’s plane was sent specially to Chandigarh to bring Abhishek Singhvi back to Delhi. He was asked to approach the Supreme Court late in the night. Senior leaders of the BJP and Congress agree on one point, that the Supreme Court’s decision to reduce the time given to the BJP to prove its majority, from 15 days to 24 hours, changed things dramatically.
Most senior Congress leaders say that they do not know Kumaraswamy quite well and confess that if the BJP had offered the Chief Minister’s chair to him, he would have gone with the BJP. “Secularism” is not a binding force for Kumaraswamy, as much as the post of Chief Minister. It’s believed that in this election, the larger chunk of Karnataka’s Muslim votes has gone to the Congress, but for his own future Kumaraswamy will have to rely on a Vokkaliga-Muslim vote bank, similar to the Muslim-Yadav vote bank of the Samajwadi Party to take on the BJP successfully. This will give JDS durability beyond the current phase. The Congress realises it will have to tread carefully in the fragile alliance to see that while taking on BJP its ally Kumaraswamy does not eat into its votes and credibility.
THE BJP STORY AND DEVE GOWDA’S PM DREAMS
A resurgent BJP, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah went to Karnataka with the belief that winning the state was crucial to its long term strategy. It wanted to show that as a truly national party, its influence extended to even below the Vindhyas. That wish has remained unfulfilled as of now, with the BJP falling just short of the majority and Congress and JDS cobbling up a hurried post-poll alliance.
Shah’s strategy to stake a claim to power in Bengaluru also backfired as his party faced allegations of horse-trading to muster the required strength. Notwithstanding such allegations, the BJP was quite confident that seven to ten MLAs from the Congress and JDS would switch sides, until the Supreme Court reduced the time to prove its majority in the Assembly to one day from two weeks.
When Modi and Shah stayed away from the swearing in ceremony of B.S. Yeddyurappa, it became clear that finding MLAs from rival parties was not proving to be as easy as it was believed by BJP leaders soon after the results.
So the BJP rushed in to cut its losses by asking its Chief Minister to resign, as Congress and JDS managed to hold on to their freshly elected MLAs. A senior BJP leader who has worked on the ground in Karnataka told this newspaper, “The incident has impacted the image that Amit Shah has of an ‘invincible strategist’, but has not dented his confidence at all. The party firmly believes that it has got the mandate of the people. There is no doubt about it.”
The leader added, “We haven’t got the majority but we continue to believe that we were entirely within our right to believe that BJP has the people’s mandate. That mandate is not with Congress or with JDS.”
BJP tried to woo the JDS both before and after the results, but Deve Gowda was firm that he would go with the Congress as the latter was offering his son the post of Chief Minister, said the BJP leader. Congress’ offer was taking care of the father and son both, but BJP’s offer was not promising enough for Deve Gowda.
Another senior BJP leader, who is part of the party’s core group, said, “Deve Gowda is a great believer in astrology. He thinks he has a serious chance of getting the offer to become Prime Minister, once more. In spite of our reasonably good offer he went with the Congress so that in the event of a compromise candidate for the post of Prime Minister, he can be the choice of the leaders of different anti-BJP groups, with the support of the Congress.”
Even a senior Congress leader admitted to The Sunday Guardian, “It was Deve Gowda who stopped BJP from coming to power in Karnataka more than us. He thinks there will be patli gully (narrow way out) for him post the 2019 elections when in a certain situation if Rahul Gandhi is not accepted by the regional leaders, then Congress will take over from Kumaraswamy in Bengaluru and Deve Gowda will reach Delhi. But we think that is far-fetched. Congress gave Deve Gowda an offer that he could not reject.”
Even when the Karnataka results were pouring in, most of the BJP top brass thought that they would cross the halfway mark in the final round as Chief Minister Siddaramaiah lost one of his seats early in the day.
A senior leader and a member of the core group told The Sunday Guardian, “Before the election, like Congress we never thought of offering the Chief Minister’s chair to Kumaraswamy. We were quite adamant and clear about it. But once the Congress and JDS made their alliance public, it was too late for us to rethink. We believe Kumaraswamy was flexible, but Deve Gowda has the dream of becoming PM again so he preferred to remain connected to non-BJP forces.”
Many BJP leaders think that it is because of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that the Congress and JDS MLAs stayed with their respective parties. Prakash Javadekar, Dharmendra Pradhan and Muralidhar Rao were sent to help Yeddyurappa attract rival MLAs, but in vain. Congress managed to convince its Lingayat MLAs that its alliance with JDS would last beyond 2019.
A senior leader close to Amit Shah said, “The people’s mandate is with us. An opportunistic alliance is in place in Karnataka right now but people’s mandate will prevail, eventually. Wait and see.”