Last week’s abrupt end to the seven-day-old Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka has made a mockery of the state’s politicians even for South India where larger-than-life antics of political supremos is par for the course.
The BJP government fell after its main backer, the Janata Dal (Secular), pulled its support when the BJP refused to agree to various JD(S) demands, including its insistence on getting the lucrative urban development as well as mining and geology portfolios in a coalition government.
While there is nothing unusual about coalition partners making such demands—at least in private, what is appalling is how brazen former prime minister and JD(S) chieftain H.D. Deve Gowda had become in his public arm-twisting and what a toll that has taken of his personal credibility.
The brinkmanship and endless drama enacted by the father-son duo of Deve Gowda and former Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy is not only farcical but has made the people of Karnataka see through their greedy power grab.
The JD(S)’s behaviour is a classic example of how short-term goals can blind politicians to seemingly long-term gains. In the case of the Gowdas, it has also meant an uncanny ability to convert a huge advantage into an adversity, and respect into ridicule.
It was just two months ago in this very column that I was writing about how Kumaraswamy has earned the goodwill of the people of Karnataka through his government’s pro-farmer, pro-poor and development initiatives, and his extensive district tours. So much so that Kumaraswamy had slowly begun to come out of the long shadow of his father and started attracting new voters to the party’s fold. The JD(S)’s unexpected good performance in the elections to urban local bodies, which were typically considered the party’s weak areas, before the current saga unfolded was a testimony to this trend. But the Gowdas appear to have taken all the wrong lessons from that election. They got carried away by the civic polls and began to think, mistakenly, that their support will remain undiminished irrespective of how they behaved toward their junior coalition partner, the BJP. But, after the father-son duo repeatedly reneged on the promises they made to the BJP, the people of Karnataka—including JD(S) supporters and sympathizers—are angry with them and heaping scorn all across the state.
The numerically dominant Lingayat community, in particular, is furious at the Gowdas for depriving fellow Lingayat B.S. Yeddyurappa, the BJP chief minister, from getting what they view as his well-deserved and legitimate shot at power. It is now likely that the community will vote en masse for the BJP. Whenever assembly elections are held in Karnataka—April is a possibility—the recent political developments will have huge import. Indian voters seldom spare parties and leaders considered to be destabilizers and there are many instances of this phenomenon. The Congress party posted its lowest national tally when the party was seen to be responsible for the fall of the A.B. Vajpayee government in 1999 by a single vote. The Gowdas won’t be spared either for their repulsive political conduct and greedy ways, and will pay a heavy price for their actions.
The political conditions in Karnataka now are akin to the situation that prevailed between 1996 and 1999. The BJP failed to mobilize the required support in 1996 and despite being the single largest party, it failed to form a stable government. The isolation helped the BJP as the voters decided to push the party towards power, and the party grew much stronger from this isolation.
If elections to the Karnataka state assembly were to be held soon, I predict that the JD(S) will be reduced to just about 10 to 15 seats. Thus, the next assembly election promises to be a contest between the BJP and the Congress, with the JD(S) facing a humiliating defeat.
Given the huge sympathy for the party and the image of a “martyr” that it has acquired, the BJP is likely to secure a majority on its own. In the 2004 simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and the assembly, the BJP received greater support in Lok Sabha seats and less support in assembly elections, a phenomenon referred to as split-ticket voting. But the recent developments may have changed this trend as the overwhelming opinion in the state is to give the BJP a chance.
The Congress will also benefit as the party is likely to secure the Muslim vote though it is a divided house in the state and bereft of any leader capable of claiming Karnataka for itself. All in all, Karnataka deserves better politics and politicians. The Gowdas didn’t care but the voters do.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org