Modi’s burden has become heavier after Karnataka setback

New Delhi May 25  The hopes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) adding Karnataka to the list of 19 states where it is in power has been dashed although it came close to fulfilling it. However, the eight seats which the BJP needed to cross the finishing line in the legislature eluded the party.

In hindsight, it might have been better for the BJP if it had conceded defeat when it saw that it had fallen short of the target of 112 in the 224-member House. Instead, by opting for a floor test, it provoked all the avoidable controversies about horse-trading which have haunted the Indian political scene ever since the Aya Ram-Gaya Ram days of defections in the late 1960s.

The Governor, too, did his office no service by swearing-in B.S. Yeddyurappa as the Chief Minister when the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress combine was pressing its claim, and allowing him a fortnight’s time to prove his majority. It was inevitable that the inordinately long period would be seen as some kind of a helping hand to the Chief Minister by not only the BJP’s opponents but also a fair number of observers.

The belief that 15 days was too long a period was confirmed by the Supreme Court’s drastic reduction of the time needed by Yeddyurappa to two days. At a time when the legislators have to be carted around from one town to another and holed up in luxury resorts to stop any of them from being lured away by the powers-that-be, it is necessary to give an aspiring Chief Minister as little leeway as possible.

In the end, the Supreme Court’s directive apparently proved crucial, for the BJP chose not to wait have its legislative strength tested on the floor of the House.

What is worrying for the BJP is that the setback in Karnataka has shown that, for once, the extra effort put in by Narendra Modi by raising the number of his rallies in the state from 15 to 21 did not pay dividends. It can even be argued that if the Prime Minister had stuck to his original plan to address 15 public meetings, the BJP might have fared worse.

Since Modi remains not only the party’s star campaigner but also the only one who can make the difference between victory and defeat, any hint that he can no longer easily enable the party to cross the winning line cannot but be of concern when the BJP faces three more crucial assembly elections in a few months’ time in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Clearly, the burden which he already carries as the spearhead of the BJP’s campaign will become heavier after the outcome in Karnataka.

As it is, the BJP’s tally of 104 fell short of the 110 it won in 2008 with a vote share of 33.8 per cent. Moreover, its percentage this time of 36.2 is well below the 43.4 per cent it received in 2014 when Modi was at the height of his popularity. There is little doubt that the Modi magic is not as effective as it once was.

As for the state itself, the early ringing down of the curtains on what was expected to be riveting drama on Saturday afternoon can hardly be seen as a welcome development (except for the hardened opponents of the BJP) because the prospect of a hodge-podge alliance between the Janata Dal-Secular and the Congress is not a pleasant one.

For a start, no one knows how long it will last since it will take time for the two parties to forgive and forget their recent verbal duels including the Congress’s jibe about the Janata Dal-Secular being the BJP’s “B” team.

Now, as virtually the Janata Dal-Secular’s “B” team in the government of H.D. Kumaraswamy, the Congress will have to shed some of its pretences as the Grand Old Party of Indian politics. Having already been reduced to such a secondary position in UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the Congress would not like Karnataka to be added to the list, especially when it polled 640,000 more votes than the BJP with a vote share of 38 per cent, up from 36.6 in 2013.

Even as the Janata Dal-Secular-Congress tie-up has been hailed by Mamata Banerjee as being in line with her idea of a federal front, there will be many a slip between the cup and the lip before such a grouping materialises.

It goes without saying that the new ruling group in Karnataka will provide the first test of the possibility of an anti-BJP glue holding two not-so-friendly parties together. The test will be all the more crucial since the Janata Dal-Secular was supposed to have had a tacit understanding with the BJP in constituencies such as Chamundeshwari, where the saffron party was said to have put up a weak candidate because the Janata Dal-Secular was expected to have the upper hand in a direct fight with the Congress. This was what led to Siddaramaiah’s defeat there. It remains to be seen if episodes such as these will be overlooked by the new allies.