Hotels, buses, party meetings, even a brawl and a blackeye—all in a noisy January week in Karnataka politics! And then came a pinprick to test the JD(S)-Congress coalition government. There are enough subplots to keep the pot boiling as the stakes only get higher with the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.
The Congress can’t afford to let the coalition slip away, but it has a problem managing its legislators—there’s either a threat of MLAs switching sides or complaints about the coalition partner. The BJP isn’t hiding its desperation to see the H.D. Kumaraswamy government toppled, but won’t admit to ‘Operation Kamal’—local sobriquet for getting rival MLAs to defect. Both parties corralled their legislators in plush hotels mid-January to keep their headcount intact. But the fallout, much to the Congress’s embarrassment, was the unsavoury episode of two of its partymen coming to blows at the holiday resort they were staying in, on the outskirts of Bangalore.
Political observers say the BJP’s haste to form the government isn’t surprising—the party has been sore since the assembly polls last May, when it emerged as the single largest group in the 224-member assembly with 104 seats, but eight short of the halfway mark. The JD(S)-Congress government has survived periodic tantrums from its ranks and even scripted joint wins in the October bypolls, which forced the BJP on the backfoot. For the saffron party, Karnataka is the only state in the south where it can rustle up numbers in the Lok Sabha—it holds 16 of the state’s 28 seats. But signs are it’s worried about losing that grip. “The BJP has to show it is still capable of bulldozing the Congress,” says political analyst Harish Ramaswamy. A BJP leader says, “Getting 20-25 MPs from Karnataka is important. If you want to press them (the coalition), you can’t keep them in power.”
The catch, says commentator Sandeep Shastri, is that the party is relying on the Modi card and would be wary of being held responsible for a fall of government so close to elections. “They also face a stiff challenge in terms of the political arithmetic of the alliance,” he says. The BJP still commands a chunk of the Lingayat vote, but a JD(S)-Congress alliance could, on paper, consolidate the OBC, minority and Dalit votes. “The question is whether this social coalition translates into transfer of votes or not,” says Shastri. Alliance arithmetic won’t automatically fetch votes, he points out.
“It won’t be 2014 redux for the BJP in Karnataka, but not a steep decline either. Much depends on the seat-sharing deals,” says political scientist Narayana A.
Meanwhile, the Congress’s woes stem from its internal bickering. Last month, four of its 80 MLAs—Ramesh Jarkiholi, Mahesh Kumathalli, Umesh Jadhav and B. Nagendra—stayed away from a legislative party meeting, raising concern over a defection. “They are luring our legislators by offering money and promising ministerial posts,” Congress leader and former CM Siddaramaiah claimed at the meeting. The confusion in the Congress ranks, however, is nothing new. Jarkiholi, a party leader from Belgaum district, has struck a rebellious stance for several months. Jarkiholi, who has been at loggerheads with fellow party leader D.K. Shivakumar, lost his ministership last December, and was replaced by his brother Satish Jarkiholi.
BJP insiders say the party was counting on some Congress MLAs to take matters to the brink. “Even Siddaramaiah cannot tolerate this government,” says BJP spokesman Vaman Acharya. “This government will collapse because of internal squabbles. We would have nothing to do with it, but once they collapse, what to do next would be our call.”
Pointing to how various BJP leaders were speaking about an imminent change of government, Congress MP V.S. Ugrappa says, “When they don’t have the strength, how can they make that claim, unless they go for ‘Operation Kamal’. That’s the indication, rather an admission, that they have been trying to do exactly that. B.S. Yeddyurappa is in a hurry to become CM once more, and the BJP’s national leadership has its own reasons for trying to win more seats in Karnataka. But that won’t happen.”
With the May 2018 assembly polls, Karnataka’s political contours emerged more clearly. The BJP’s strength in northern Karnataka was still intact, while the Hindutva push had won over the coastal and central region. In the south, the JD(S) consolidated the Vokkaliga votes. In the eight months since, the coalition has had to deal with new pressures, not least of all a perception that the state’s northern region was being neglected. Among the other challenges ahead, there is the delicate matter of a seat-sharing agreement between the alliance partners for the Lok Sabha polls—the Congress is wary of JD(S) consolidating itself in the southern parts, where the two parties are fierce rivals. Already, there are signs of a tussle for the Mandya seat, a Vokkaliga bastion. By most accounts, the JD(S), which holds only two Lok Sabha seats, will push for at least 10 candidates this time.
Some reckon a Lok Sabha election is unlikely to stress their grassroots party networks as much as local elections do. “Cleverly, they did not fight the local elections as coalition partners, but went their separate ways,” says Narayana A., who teaches political science at Bangalore’s Azim Premji University. “So, the larger picture emerging is that it is in the interest of both parties to go together. The BJP might not repeat its 2014 performance, but it may be too much to expect a steep decline. Much depends on how well the seat-sharing arrangement goes.” he says.
Besides, the Karnataka voter has always presented a mixed picture—in 2013, for instance, the Congress won decisively in the assembly polls, but the BJP won 17 seats against the Congress’s nine in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “And yet, of the five southern states, Karnataka is the only one where they have a chance of bagging substantial numbers,” says Shastri. “The BJP would be hoping for a windfall again, but it won’t be easy. A crucial question is how well the Modi factor works this time.”
By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore