The Karnataka Assembly election has thrown up a winner and two losers but the voters stopped short of giving simple majority to the winner, leading the losing parties to join hands and express intent to form a government. That in a nutshell is the story of Karnataka elections (as of now). The BJP has won 82 seats and is leading in 22 more (104). The Congress tally has reduced to 53 and it leads in 25 (78) while the JD(S) has 29 in its kitty and it leads in 8 more seats.
This fractured mandate in a 222-seat House has opened up a round of possibilities. The BJP has emerged as the single largest party but at this stage, it clearly lacks the numbers to form a government on its own. The Congress, beaten often in the recent past in the numbers game, appears to have seized the initiative. It had rushed some senior leaders to Karnataka on Monday, perhaps anticipating such an eventuality. On Tuesday, no sooner did it became clear that BJP will fall just short of the halfway mark, the Congress rushed to extend support to JD(S) and offered it the chief minister’s chair.
Even though results are yet to come in from many constituencies, the Congress was in a desperate hurry to reach out to the JD(S) because it feared an overture from the BJP and clearly, the Congress high command had no intent in letting even a slither of opportunity go. Congress’s anxiety springs from an existential crisis. If Karnataka goes out of hand, the party will lose the final big state – leaving only Puducherry, Meghalaya and Punjab in its kitty and an eventual lack of resources in the run-up to 2019.
Staking a claim to form government in Karnataka, therefore, is much more than just retaining power for Congress. It could be the difference between staying alive to fight another day or face near-oblivion. In its quest to wrest power through the backdoor, the Congress was aware of two crucial bargaining chips in its possession even though it has ceded the post of single-largest party to the BJP. One, it knew that in order to get support from the JD(S) it must pander to the ambitions of Kumaraswamy who would settle for nothing less than the chief minister’s chair even though it is the junior partner in the post-poll ‘alliance’.
Two, the Congress is aware that this is also the reason why JD(S) will not join hands with the BJP because regardless of the fact that it is the ascendant force in national politics and the party in power at the Centre, by virtue of being the single-largest party in Karnataka, the BJP won’t be in a position to offer the chief minister’s post to JD(S).
Related to this is the fact that if JD(S) aligns with the Congress, it would be in a position to arm-twist the Congress for its gains (which would be difficult in a BJP-led alliance) and it may play a crucial role in the formation of a third front against the BJP in 2019. Thus it is easy to see why Congress wasted no time in extending a carte blanche to the JD(S) and why HD Deve Gowda’s outfit was equally enthusiastic in taking up the offer.
Now, here’s where we run into complications. The combined strength of Congress and JD(S) is 116 right now with the BJP stuck at 104. While the alliance has the numbers, it is important to understand that this is a "post-poll alliance", and not a "pre-poll alliance".
This little detail is important because if there had been a "pre-poll alliance", Governor Vajubhai Vala would have had no option but to call the alliance partners to prove their majority. However, since there was no such alliance when all parties went to the polls, the Governor is duty-bound to call the single-largest party (SLP) for staking claim to form a government, and this case it is the BJP.
Therefore, going by the rule book, BJP will have the right to be called first (provided it is the SLP), and from that point onward, it will be a game of numbers because just as BJP will try to factionalise the Congress and JD(S) MLAs and increase its tally, the alliance partners will try to keep their flock together. There could be ample opportunities of horse-trading and ‘resort politics’.
The Congress and JD(S) are well aware of this constitutional provision, and have moved to implement a two-pronged strategy. The first part of this strategy is to put pressure on Governor Vala by being physically present in his residence and badgering him with requests for appointments. It is instructive to note that top Congress leaders, including outgoing chief minister Siddaramaiah, have all made a beeline for the Governor’s House where they have been joined by Deve Gowda’s son HD Kumaraswamy, the chief minister-aspirant.
The second part of the strategy is to bring public pressure on the governor by airing a number of reasons in media why the governor should call the Congress-JD(S) first. According to Ghulam Nabi Azad, senior Congress minister, the governor should call them first even though the BJP is the single-largest party because they staked claim first and in any case a precedent has already been set in Goa and Manipur where the party with lesser numbers eventually stitched a coalition to form a government. The Congress will hold multiple news conferences, if necessary, to build up pressure.
The governor’s role, in such a situation, becomes crucial. Should he play by the rule book and call BJP, the Congress and JD(S) are sure to cry foul and maybe even approach the Supreme Court. Conversely, if the BJP is ignored despite being the SLP, it will reserve the right to seek legal aid. It would seem that we are now looking at a situation where the government formation (if these numbers hold) will be incumbent on an order from the Supreme Court.
There is more to this game than meets the eye at this stage. The governor, an old BJP hand, had vacated his seat for Narendra Modi in Gujarat in 2002. He was also the state BJP chief and has now been appointed as the governor in Karnataka. It remains to be seen if he chooses to call the alliance partners to prove their majority and breaks the rule in doing so, or whether he calls BJP state chief BS Yeddeyurappa who has sought seven days to prove majority. In the latter scenario, the Congress-JD(S) might cry foul, but nowhere does it say that the governor must consider ‘stability’ as a factor in making a decision.
Notably, he has already refused appointment to a Congress delegation.
It could also be a mistake to rule out the Amit Shah factor. There is no reason to think that when the BJP is just 9 short of the magic figure, the BJP president will rest at home and allow the Congress to run away with the state even after being beaten fair and square. If the BJP gets the first call, expect Shah to put all his sang-froid and experience into achieving a favourable outcome. It could be factionalising the Congress and JD(S) and luring away some of their MLAs. It could be triggering some resignations in rival camps and lowering the strength of the House such that 104 seats is enough to form a government. Remember, the BJP is reportedly strong in two seats where elections have been deferred. The game isn’t over yet.
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Updated Date: May 15, 2018 20:02:21 IST