Even BJP leaders possibly never expected Karnataka’s saffron sweep. An emphatic win of 25 out of the state’s 28 Lok Sabha seats which trampled several veteran politicians—H.D. Deve Gowda, Mallikarjuna Kharge, K.H. Muniyappa--to push open the ‘gateway to the South’ even wider. The irony of the BJP victory couldn’t have been more stark—May 23 also marked Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy’s first anniversary in office.
The big question is—can Kumaraswamy’s Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress coalition government hold together? Already, old faultlines within the coalition—ones papered over until elections—have shown up in the last couple of weeks as Congress and JD(S) leaders squabbled openly. “It is up to the Congress-JD(S) to spell out what they will do next,” former CM and BJP strongman B.S. Yeddiurappa told reporters. “We will wait and watch,” he said.
For Yeddiurappa, revenge is sweet. He had hastily—and unsuccessfully—tried to form the government when the 2018 Karnataka assembly elections threw up a hung assembly even though the BJP didn’t have a majority. Besides, the scenario a year ago was framed in a very different context: at Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in, political leaders from across the spectrum—Mayawati, Mamata, Chandrababu Naidu, Akhilesh Yadav, Sitaram Yechury—descended on Bangalore to back the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress coalition, and by extension, the idea of a mahaghatbandan.
However, going into the Lok Sabha polls, most observers were sceptical of the Congress-JD(S) alliance’s chances, given that they are fierce rivals in southern Karnataka. Finally, the BJP has not only retained its grip over northern Karnataka but also pocketed new seats in the south thanks to the straight fight—Chikkaballapura, for instance, where Congress veteran M. Veerappa Moily lost, and in Kolar, where it unseated K.H. Muniyappa. The BJP’s highest tally till now had come a decade ago, in 2009, when it won 19 Lok Sabha seats (it had won 17 in 2014).
The Congress and JD(S) had won nine and two seats respectively in 2014, but their individual tallies now stand at a dismal one apiece. “In this election, the Modi factor worked for the first time in a decisive way in Karnataka,” says political analyst A. Narayana. “Second, the coalition partners damaged each other’s cause,” he adds.
Indeed, the JD(S) won only in its pocketborough Hassan, which Deve Gowda had vacated for his grandson Prajwal Revanna, while the Congress’s lone victory came in Bangalore Rural. The JD(S) party patriarch lost the election in Tumkur—again, a seat where a victory depended on the alliance. Meanwhile, in Mandya, a district where the JD(S) has a formidable presence, Kumaraswamy’s son Nikhil lost to Sumalatha, the widow of Congressman-filmstar M.H. Ambareesh, who stood as an Independent candidate. “They (Congress-JDS) may have done better without an alliance,” reckons political commentator Narendar Pani. Some leaders admitted as much.
Initial reactions from senior leaders in both parties were that the results were unexpected. But there were weeks-old indications that things hadn’t gone as planned—for instance, minister G.T. Deve Gowda’s apprehension that JD(S) voters may have voted for the BJP in Mysore where the alliance had fielded a Congress candidate. Just last week, as the exit polls were aired, Congress legislator Roshan Baig turned on his own party leaders, blaming them for a poor showing. Of course, there have been rebellious leaders all along—chiefly, Umesh Jadhav, who had resigned in March as MLA to fight Congress leader Mallikarjuna Kharge in the Lok Sabha election at Gulbarga. Kharge, who had been undefeated in an election since 1972, lost the seat.
“Leaders of both parties will hold a discussion about the loss of JDS-Congress coalition candidates,” said Kumaraswamy in a statement. Over the past year, his government has weathered several threats—with a slim majority in the Karnataka assembly, the JD(S)-Congress coalition has had to watch over its flock of MLAs, especially with the BJP snapping at its heels. The BJP is still short of numbers. Karnataka’s politics looks headed for an uncertain phase.
By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore