The power-swapping deal worked out between the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Bharatiya Janata Party in Karnataka some 20 months ago mandates handing over the mantle of chief minister in the coalition government to the BJP on 3 October.
With the D-day fast approaching, developments over the next week will have a crucial bearing on the state’s politics, and some bearing on national politics if there are to be early Lok Sabha polls.
The wily father-son duo of Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy has kept the BJP guessing about their plans over the past few months. Will he or won’t he hand over reins of the government to the BJP—to help it head a state government for the first time in the Southern region—is the question that has kept the state of Karnataka engaged for several weeks now.
The present coalition state government, led by Kumaraswamy, is quite popular in the state. It has acquired the image of a pro-farmer, pro-poor and pro-people government that has also met the aspirations of major caste groups, particularly the numerically strong Vokkaligas and Lingayats. Initiatives such as waiver of crop loans and distribution of free bicycles, books and uniforms to school students have made the state government popular.
The youthful Kumaraswamy, who was a non-entity until he became chief minister, has emerged as a personally popular, development-oriented chief minister. His extensive visits to villages in different districts have helped him emerge out of the shadow of his father Gowda and acquire a political stature of his own, and lift the sagging political fortunes of the party.
Apart from its stranglehold on the Vokkaliga community to which the Gowdas belong, the JD (S) has made inroads into the numerically strong section of Lingayats—largely supportive of the BJP due to the prominence enjoyed by Lingayat party leaders such as B.S. Yediyurappa, the current deputy chief minister—as many aspiring leaders from that caste are seeing a political future in that party.
To put pressure on the BJP into letting his son continue as the chief minister, Gowda has been hobnobbing with the Congress leadership about a possible realignment. His meeting with the newly appointed governor Rameshwar Thakur last week has set tongues wagging about Gowda’s motives.
Meanwhile, the Congress party is in a state of disarray in the state. If the JD (S) and the BJP fight the Lok Sabha polls together, all current indications are that they will sweep the polls and can win as many as 25 out of 28 seats in the state. Given this reality, the Congress may be willing to support Kumaraswamy as chief minister to break the formidable partnership between the JD (S) and the BJP.
The BJP still hopes—and believes—that Kumaraswamy will hand over reins of power to the party in the first week of October. The party, however, fears that Gowda may withdraw from the arrangement soon after, raising the bogey of secularism, to push the state into mid-term elections, in which he expects the JD (S) to do well.
The BJP, at the national level at least, is already looking like a loser, having lost a number of allies since the last Lok Sabha polls. With mid-term elections to the Lok Sabha looming large, losing one more potential alliance partner will weaken the NDA’s ability to stop the Congress-led UPA’s hopes of returning to power at the centre.
Knowing fully well the BJP’s concerns, Gowda is offering a deal to the BJP. The deal is that the JD (S) will join the NDA in return for continuation of his son as chief minister for the remaining term of 20 months. The state unit of the BJP is opposed to the idea and may force its view to prevail if the party fares well in the coming polls to urban local bodies.
However, the national leadership of the BJP, which is busy sewing and shopping for new allies for Lok Sabha polls, may decide that a deal is worth making if the JD (S) agrees to a favourable Lok Sabha pact. But the key concern that the party will have to contend with is whether they can trust Gowda, who flummoxed the Congress and pulled the rug from under it 20 months ago with a display of histrionics that will put many actors in Bollywood to shame.
Could the BJP or, for that matter the Congress, do business with a leader who is so self-centred and marvels in political chicanery? Perhaps, they have no choice as neither of them can rule Karnataka without making a deal with the Gowdas.
So, keep a close eye on Karnataka to get a sense of the far-reaching consequences for the BJP and the Congress, come Lok Sabha polls.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org