|The BJP’s victory in the Assembly elections in Karnataka is a result of the disunity within the secular camp.|
B. S. Yeddyurappa flanked by senior BJP leader L. K. Advani and party president Rajnath Singh after taking oath as Chief Minister in Bangalore on May 30.
THE results of the recent Assembly elections in Karnataka are likely to bring about far-reaching changes in the politics and administration of the State. It is for the first time that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which emerged as the single largest party with 110 of the 224 seats, has come to power in the State on its own (the party had a seven-day term of office in September 2006 under a coalition agreement with the Janata Dal (Secular)). The Congress came second with 80 seats, and the JD(S) third with 28. The elections returned six independents, whose support has been crucial in giving the BJP the slender majority to form the government.
As in the 2004 elections, this time too the results threw up a fractured mandate, but with the advantage of numbers with the BJP. The BJP won 31 more seats than in 2004 and the Congress 15 more, and the JD(S) lost 30. The combined strength of the JD(S) and the Congress in 2004 was 123, with 22 seats going to the smaller parties and Independents. Today, the combined opposition to the BJP’s 110 is 108, making the support of the six independents critical.
In terms of vote share, the Congress retains the edge with 34.6 per cent this time as against 35.3 in 2004. The BJP has 33.9 per cent (28.49 in 2004) and the JD(S) 19.1 (20.59 in 2004). Thus, there has been a 0.7-percentage-point swing away from the Congress, a 5.37-percentage-point swing towards the BJP, and a 1.48-percentage-point swing away from the JD(S). In a triangular contest in the first-past-the-post system, this edge gave the BJP a disproportionate number of seats – 31 more than last time. Although the BJP has gained ground in Karnataka in absolute terms since the last elections, establishing its presence in all parts of the State in terms of both seats and vote share, the results by no means suggest a wave in favour of the saffron party.
The BJP may have achieved its long-dreamt-of goal of forming the government in a southern State, a launch pad, the party believes, for its expansion in the south and a target it set itself after the 1991 Lok Sabha elections when it won 28 per cent of the vote. The reality, however, is that the combined opposition to the BJP is still formidable.
The opposition has 108 seats in the new Assembly, the largest opposition group since 1983, and it has a combined vote share of well over 50 per cent. Therefore, the claims by BJP national president Rajnath Singh that the Assembly polls have made the party the “front runner” in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls are wide of the mark.
But election arithmetic being what it is, the BJP formed the government with a slender though firm majority of three. Even after it appoints a Speaker, it can nominate an Anglo-Indian member to keep its strength. Within the year, its majority in the Legislative Council is also likely to be established.
The elections also showed that the Congress and the JD(S) together and separately were still a large political force in the State. The Congress improved its seat share by 15 since the last elections and has a well-dispersed presence in the State. It registered a notable presence in southern Karnataka, where it grew at the expense of the JD(S) and, but for the Bangalore region, kept the BJP more or less out of the picture.
The JD(S) suffered a loss of 30 seats since 2004 but, interestingly, lost only 1.5 percentage points in its vote share. With its sizable electoral and political base, particularly in southern Karnataka, it can hardly be written off as a political force.
The BJP’s victory is a result of the disunity within the secular camp. This is reflected in the electoral arithmetic as well.
The elections also saw a certain consolidation in voter preference, and in most constituencies the real fight was between two of the three main contenders. This was reflected in the collapse of the smaller parties. No candidates from the Janata Dal (United), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party and the two communist parties won this time, although they came second in some constituencies. In 2004, there were 22 candidates who were independents or representatives of small parties. The JD(U) won five seats then with a 2.08–per cent vote share but this time it had a vote share of only 0.32 per cent and got no seat. The BSP increased its vote share to 2.74 per cent from the 0.93 per cent last time.
The slender margins in both seats and vote shares between the BJP and the parties opposed to it in these elections strongly suggest that it was the disunity within the so-called secular opposition, rather than an overwhelming mandate for the BJP’s policies and politics, that eased the saffron party’s path to power.
The election verdict is the result of a complex web of factors, national and regional. In 2004,, it was the BJP that was able to capture the anti-Congress vote by channelling in its favour the popular anger against the policies of the then Congress government, which had launched its own version of the National Democratic Alliance’s ‘India Shining’ programme.
The BJP would have remained isolated as an opposition party had it not been for the decision by a section of the JD(S), led by H.D. Kumaraswamy, to break the coalition arrangement with the Congress and join hands with it. The breach in the ranks of the secular opposition was the first victory for the BJP.
In the present elections, the BJP started its campaign by casting itself as the injured party and a victim of political betrayal by the JD(S). This attempt to buy public sympathy fell flat as the BJP was itself fully complicit in the opportunistic power games and manoeuvres when the JD(S)-BJP coalition was on the verge of collapse in September-October 2007.
Once the elections were announced in April, the party lost no time to get its election machinery off the ground. It was the first to announce a list of candidates and release a manifesto, long before the Congress and the JD(S). Its decision to project a chief ministerial candidate not only gave its campaign a face and a focus but also won it the sizable support of the dominant Lingayat community, to which Yeddyurappa, the new Chief Minister, belongs.
The party changed its campaign focus to suit each region. In regions where the Lingayats were numerically strong, it appealed to caste loyalties. It fielded 71 Lingayats, the highest by any political party, and this helped it reap rich dividends in northern Karnataka.
In Bangalore, it appealed to the middle class on the issues of poor infrastructure and governance. It played the communal card successfully by highlighting the fear that Karnataka was becoming a hub of terrorist activity thanks to a policy of appeasement of minorities. The Jaipur blasts and a blast in the Hubli court just before the final phase of voting were tragedies that it turned to its advantage.
Finally, the party had no dearth of money for its campaign. It fielded several mining magnates from Bellary, such as B. Sreeramalu (Bellary Rural), G. Janardhana Reddy, a Member of the Legislative Council belonging to the party, and G. Karunakara Reddy (Harpanahalli), who ensured that it was flush with funds.
In hindsight, the single most important factor that helped the BJP campaign was the issue of price rise and its many-sided impact on the lives of voters. The incessant rise in prices since January, especially of food and essential commodities, had an impact on all sections but most particularly on the poor. Inflation is a fist that has hit the poor hard. It has substantially eroded incomes, forcing the poor to work longer hours, often on two or three different jobs. It has also forced a devastating rearrangement of the priorities of the poor, most notably affecting their expenditures on health and education. The BJP has evidently reaped the electoral dividends of the people’s frustration over this important livelihood issue.
If the BJP got off to an early start, the Congress, by contrast, got bogged down in factionalism. Former Chief Minister S.M. Krishna was asked to resign as Governor of Maharashtra and return to State politics to lead the election campaign as chairman of the Congress’ election management and coordination committee. His induction brought a certain dynamism into the campaign in the initial stages, although the momentum soon floundered as party satraps began working at cross purposes.
The Congress high command even created posts to keep individual leaders happy. It made Mallikarjun Kharge the chairman of the election committee of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee, Siddaramaiah the campaign committee chairman, and C.K. Jaffar Sharief the manifesto committee chairman.
Candidate selection created enormous resentment among those who were denied the ticket and this, too, ate into the campaign time. However, the visits of Central leaders, notably Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, helped galvanise the party if not the actual campaign.
The JD(S) campaign was equally sluggish and after the formalities of manifesto drafting and release were done with, there was practically no centralised party campaign. Rather, individual candidates focussed on their own campaigns. Janata Dal chief H.D. Deve Gowda’s sons, H.D. Kumaraswamy, who contested from Ramnagaram, and H.D. Revanna, who contested from Hassan, won with big margins.
At the Vidhan Soudha in Bangalore, BJP supporters at the swearing-in ceremony of the government on May 30.
Deeply suspicious of each other, Congress and JD(S) leaders did not even attempt to make contact for an electoral understanding, if not a pre-poll alliance that could have paid off handsomely.
Thus, the Congress could not campaign on the major issue of concern to the electorate, namely, price rise, and the JD(S) could carry no conviction on the other important campaign issue, namely, providing a stable and efficient administration. Despite this and despite a lacklustre campaign, both the Congress and the JD(S) fared reasonably well as the results show. The BJP’s ride to power was, therefore, more a failure of the opposition than an affirmation of a saffron agenda.
The jubilation in the saffron camp is understandable. It is, after all, its first attempt at government-formation without the crutches of a coalition partner in a southern State. However, a more reasoned analysis of the results would suggest that there is no basis for euphoria in the BJP.
Statistically speaking, the most significant paradox of these elections has been the disconnect between the Congress’ position as the single largest party in terms of vote share and its significantly smaller harvest of seats. This requires some explanation (see chart on region-wise vote share).
A region-wise tally of vote share shows that the Congress’ percentage is high because it has consistently mopped up more than 30 per cent of the votes polled in the four groupings of districts in the State. In contrast, the BJP’s overall lead in terms of seats won has largely been due to the over-5-percentage-point lead it got over the Congress in urban Bangalore and in the coastal districts. Significantly, the BJP’s vote share in the southern districts is almost 10 percentage points lower than not only the Congress but also the JD(S). In the northern districts, the balance is almost even between the Congress and the BJP.
What does this mean for secular politics? For one, the electoral arithmetic is such that an alliance between the two avowedly secular parties would result in a total decimation of the BJP in the parliamentary elections. The JD(S) has mobilised almost one-fifth of the popular vote despite being the weakest of the three main parties.