As of the writing of this column, Karnataka seems to be headed towards a six-way split in the just-concluded Urban Local Body polls. At the outset, let it be said that the ULB polls are neither representative of a majority of the State’s electorate, nor are they conclusive on the swing voter’s mood, given that the battle in these polls is mostly about who is able to turn out their committed voter base. Nevertheless, three clear trends emerge from the leads as of now. The Congress continues to maintain its pole position in the Urban Local Bodies in what appears to be an improvement of its 2007 performance with currently a 40 per cent share of the overall seats across Local Bodies. The battle for the second spot seems to have moved towards the JD-S and away from the BJP as of now, which again is a repeat of 2007 perhaps with significantly lower seat shares. Predictably the BSY’s KJP and the Bellary upstart BSR Congress proved a spoiler for the BJP by bagging a chunk of seats.
While the Congress is set to significantly better its performance, the overall result seems far from a sweep. It however can take some pleasure that the ground zero of Hindu consciousness in recent years – Mangalore and also Udupi have turned their backs on the BJP to favour the Congress. Nevertheless the Congress’s 40 per cent seat share while putting it in a pole position in Karnataka doesn’t say much about its likely performance a couple of months from now when the Karnataka State Assembly goes to polls. It is instructive to remember that the Congress, despite leading in the 2007 ULB polls and enjoying the larger voter share in the 2008 Assembly polls, still ended up behind the BJP on seat count. Part of the reason for this of course is the first-past-the-post electoral system we have and the fact that the Congress vote share is spread thin across the State unlike the BJP and the JD-S which are well concentrated in specific pockets.
The bigger story perhaps from Karnataka is the trajectory politics in the State is taking, in a direction that is counter to the rest of the country. We have seen State after State in India consolidating towards a single-party majority or a majority for a stable coalition. Karnataka, it would seem, is far from consolidating and instead is headed in the opposite direction of greater fragmentation with this six-way split between the three major parties on the one hand, the two splinter groups on the other hand and a large number of independents. In a decade where even Uttar Pradesh, the mother of all politically fragmented States, found it in itself to consolidate towards a single regional party, Karnataka and perhaps its neighbor Andhra Pradesh, are clearly headed in the opposite direction.
The lesson for the BJP is quite clear. Its indecent haste in attempting to consolidate what was a fragile political advantage in 2008 over the Congress has backfired. Operation Lotus was intended to overcome this fragmentation and build a stable majority for the BJP through inorganic growth. In the process, the opportunistic compromises the BJP made resulted in political demands it could not credibly fulfill leading to this sorry state of affairs. There is a lesson for BS Yeddyurappa here as well. As much as he attempted to paint himself the victim he has emerged neither as King nor as likely king-maker. He is now headed down the path of being a bit player with the added vulnerability of his flock deserting him to cross over to the Congress.
With the JD-S holding ground and beating the BJP to second spot we may be back to a pre-2008 scenario where a Congress short of seats in the Assembly looks to others to make up the gap. While the KJP and the BSR Congress may be fertile ground for the Congress to poach seats from it is worth pointing out that Karnataka’s track record at stable governance in a Coalition scenario is nothing to write home about. The Congress which never loses an opportunity to remind voters of SM Krishna’s governance conveniently glosses over what followed after SM Krishna’s tenure in office – the highly forgettable Congress-JD(S) coalition government led by Dharam Singh. The subsequent revolt in JD(S) and the HD Kumaraswamy led JD(S)-BJP coalition government was an equally forgettable period for governance in the State.
It is a shame that despite an entire decade being lost to such highly forgettable political experiments Karnataka seems headed in the direction of further political fragmentation largely on account of the BJP’s failure to consolidate and the plateau in Congress’ vote share across the state. The political fragmentation in Karnataka may also see the birth perhaps of a viable Urban Political formation if the efforts by industry leaders in Bangalore to fund a Political Action Committee go anywhere.
Two possible scenarios are likely in the State Assembly polls in a couple of months from now.
The Congress closes the gap further by leveraging its pole position, attracting further cross-overs from the KJP, BSR Congress and perhaps even the BJP. This may just about get it past the halfway mark. Alternately a chastened BJP and a slightly pleased BSY kiss and make up in the interest of their mutual political survival to deny the Congress the ability to close that critical gap for a working majority.
With no clear Leader who is able to capture the imagination of the entire state, the Congress will likely struggle to close that gap on its own. Therein is a small window of opportunity for the BJP to get back in the game in a state that gave it its first southern footprint.
As of today it is advantage Congress in Karnataka.