Editor's note: a version of this piece was published earlier, while tracking the exit polls of the Karnataka election.
If early trends are to go buy, the Congress is in for a big win in Karnataka and the BJP is struggling to emerge as a second place winner. The newly formed Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) of BS Yeddyurappa will, likely win over a dozen seats, almost all of it wrested from the BJP. In other words, Yeddyurappa, who had to resign as the BJP's Chief Minister following corruption charges, will do sufficient damage to ensure that the BJP loses, and the Congress wins, without doing himself any good.
This will give the BJP much cause for angst - and reason to reflect on how it scored so spectacular a self-goal as to lose the foothold it had secured south of the Vindhyas. As in soccer, so in politics: possession of the ball/incumbency counts for a lot, and the BJP has inflicted grave damage to itself, particularly in its effort to project itself as a "party with a difference". Although the party points with pride to its record in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Goa, the significance of a drubbing in Karnataka will cast a long shadow.
But the irony is that the BJP will, when it does reflect on the outcome in Karnataka, likely draw the wrong inferences from its handling of the Yeddyurappa affair. Or rather, more accurately, realpolitik considerations will likely signal to it that when it comes to politics, principles count for very little, because it's all about winning.
When the corruption charges against Yeddyurappa surfaced, the BJP grappled long and hard with the matter of how to deal with him. The tug-of-war at the State level was an echo of the power tussles and differences among central leaders of the party. And the high-minded political principle that a showcase Chief Minister who faces corruption charges should step down was subsumed by the consideration that he was a 'strongman' who could deliver the politically influential Lingayat/Veerashaiva vote - and more generally fashion a winning social coalition formula.
The inclination to look the other way when it comes to corruption isn't, of course, a peculiar trait of the BJP. Virtually every party - from the national to the regional levels - condones corruption within its fold, even as it resorts to full-throated and entirely hypocritical condemnation of others on the same count.
In any case, the party's central leadership was divided on the issue of shielding Yeddyurappa, and beyond a point his position became untenable. Senior central leaders of the party, including LK Advani, took the stand that it damaged the party's image if it was seen to be protecting a corrupt Chief Minister on the grounds that he was a political 'strongman'. Political analysts who have an intimate understanding of BJP goings-on contest the claim that Advani's stand was motivated by high-minded "principles" and rather more by factional politicking.
Nevertheless, for those who don't have "skin in the game" - that is to say, for those who aren't ideologically committed to one party or another and who yearn for good governance - any action taken against a corrupt Chief Minister is sound in principle.
But if the election results in Karnataka bear out the survey results, the BJP will likely infer that it perhaps erred in forcing Yeddyurappa to resign as Chief Minister, and effectively driving him away from the party. Even today, many central leaders of the party continue to remain in active touch with him, and the possibility of his being readmitted to the party remains high. The case advanced by those who have all along argued that the BJP has more to gain politically by having him within its fold (despite the taint of corruption that adheres to him) will be strengthened within the party.
This goes against the grain of popular opinion, as gleaned from the pre-election survey. Indicatively, as this table shows, 59 per cent of those surveyed said that the BJP did the right thing in forcing Yeddyurappa to resign as Chief Minister. Even BJP supporters among those surveyed agreed with that statement in equal measure. As many as 42 per cent of those surveyed (and 41 per cent of BJP supporters) said they believed that Yeddyurappa had "betrayed" the party.
In other words, even though public opinion in general backs the BJP's decision to force Yeddyurappa to resign, it is entirely possible that the party leadership will calculate - after toting up the gains and losses - that it would have been better off sticking with him. In the end, it's all about winning and losing. In politics, principles and propriety don't amount to anything more than a hill of beans.