India’s Karnataka Assembly Polls Generate Political Intrigue

The governor of India's Karnataka Province has invited Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to form a government in the wake of weekend elections, even though the potential Congress-Janata Dal Secular combine has more seats.

The BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa is expected to be sworn on May 17 and has been given 15 days to get together enough supporters to prove a majority in the state assembly – the election result gave the BJP 104 seats and the Congress-JDS combine 114.

The Congress-JDS is appealing to the supreme court against the governor’s decision, which goes against precedents set by the BJP in other states. This shows that the BJP changes its tune from case to case in Modi’s determination to build regional strength before the general election due within 12 months.

Congress-JDS leaders are alleging that massive bribes of the equivalent of US$15 million are being offered to members of their legislative assembly (MLAs) to move across to the BJP – as we forecast. The BJP has 15 days to continue the horse trading.

BJP celebrations began when results and forecasts from counting centers suggested it had a near-majority of 110 in the 222-seat assembly, but that figure fell away to 104 within a few hours. The Congress Party, which ruled with 122 seats in the outgoing government, rose from 70 to 78, while the state-level Janata Dal Secular (JDS), led by HD Deve Gowda, a prime minister in the mid-1990s, achieved 38.

The Congress and JDS unexpectedly then joined up to form a potential coalition, with Congress offering the chief minister’s post to Gowda’s son, H D Kumarasawamy.

This indicated a new willingness by the Congress to link up with other parties and, if necessary, let them take the lead. It also showed the way that regional parties are preparing to come together to fight the BJP in the general election that is due by this time next year

Together Congress and the JDS have a total of 114 seats, which is more than the BJP’s 104, and the two parties’ leaders rushed to lodge claims to form the government with the state’s governor, Vajubhai Vala, a BJP appointee who vacated his Gujarat parliamentary seat for Narendra Modi in 2001. The BJP sent a similar delegation headed by Yeddyurappa, a former chief minister, He later said that the governor had given the BJP about a week to prove a majority on the floor of the assembly, though this was not officially confirmed.

There will now almost certainly be a bidding war, which could lead to a holiday for MLAs who, as often happens in state polls, may be virtually locked up in comfortable holiday locations (see below) without mobile and internet connections to keep them away from rival parties.

A tweet from Kerala Tourism jokingly advertising the state as a location for MLA lock-ups!

The governor’s apparent decision to invite the BJP, as the largest single party, and not the Congress-JDS, to have the first stab at forming a coalition was highly controversial.

The Congress-JDS claimed they should be invited first, citing the precedent of what has happened when the BJP has run roughshod in the past 14 months over Congress majorities in the states of Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya to impose its rule with the help of subservient governors.

Modi wants to secure Karnataka to keep his momentum going in the run-up to the general election. If the BJP wins, it will be ruling in 23 states, leaving Congress with just three – Punjab, Mizoram and Puducherry

There was a high 72 percent voter turnout with Congress winning 37.9 percent, the BJP 36.2 percent and the JDS 18.4 percent. The Congress was widely expected to do badly because of considerable unhappiness about its record in power with extensive corruption and poor performance.

BJP mining corruption

The BJP fielded candidates linked to the corruption-hit mining industry that led to a scandal when the party was last in government, centred on the Reddy brothers, one of whom was a BJP minister. Modi, who frequently claims that he is stamping out corruption, even seemed to exonerate those involved in the scandal by criticising Congress for projecting the region “as inhabited by robbers and thieves”.

Both Modi – and Rahul Gandhi who is trying to establish himself as a vote winner for the party of which he is now the dynastic head – campaigned extensively. Figures calculated by television channels suggest that Modi had a better strike rate in terms of votes than Gandhi, and that Modi’s electioneering combined with that Amit Shah, the BJP president, and Yogi Adityanath, the controversial Hindu priest-turned politician who is chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, won widespread support, especially among young voters.

Yesterday Modi made what might be the last ministerial changes before the polls. Piyush Goyal, the minister for railways (and previously power), has been given temporary additional charge of the finance ministry while Arun Jaitley, the finance minister since 2014, recovers from a kidney transplant operation. In another move Smriti Irani, an accident-prone former model and film actress, lost her job as information and broadcasting minister after a series of gaffes – in 2016, she similarly lost the key human resources ministry.

The Karnataka vote shows that Modi still has pulling power with voters who want a change from their current governments. He has sometimes not done so well in other state polls where the BJP is currently in power – for example in Gujarat last December where the BJP won the assembly election but with fewer seats, and in Uttar Pradesh by-elections where it lost seats. But he still has the power to win, which will be tested nationally in a year’s time.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.