The news from Karnataka is in, and it will not be welcome for the state opposition, led by H D Kumaraswamy's JD(S) and Siddaramaiah's Congress. The bye-elections are a sweep for the ruling BJP, for whom B S Yediyurappa can now lead a majority, and, probably, a stable state government.
Remember the context here: the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the last assembly elections, but the Congress - which was the incumbent - allied with the JD(S) after the polls and installed Kumaraswamy, whose party had in fact come third, as the Chief Minister. (This was hailed at the time as a strategic masterstroke, much like the current reaction to the motley alliance in Maharashtra).
Some predicted the Congress-JD(S) alliance would last only as long as the general elections in 2019 - and, in the end, such expectations were not far off the mark. After one or two abortive attempts to topple Kumaraswamy, the BJP finally succeeded, thanks to the defection of 16 legislators from the ruling alliance. We need have no illusions about what happened. Nobody thinks they switched because of a change of heart or an ideological crisis of conscience. These legislators thought they could get away with it, saw the rewards would be richer on the other side, and shifted. The reaction of the constitutional authorities was, frankly, far from neutral. And for this combination of reasons, a minority BJP government was sworn in. The defectors were granted time to change parties and to go back to the people with their new affiliation, and the BJP's strategy was overwhelmingly successful in the by-polls.
This sequence of events has been deeply cynical and reflects a mercenary and power-hungry attitude to power on all sides. Ideally, you would want voters to reject such behaviour. But that would be an unrealistic expectation. Both the opposition and the BJP want to draw moral conclusions from the results. The opposition wishes to berate the voters for "rewarding defectors". The BJP claims that voters were outraged at the original subversion of the people's will by the Congress-JD(S) coming together post poll. But the simple fact is that bye-elections are not referendums on morality. People tend to vote for stability. If a legislator they already voted for comes back to them, and is backed by the incumbent government, they see having him represent their constituency as being in their interest. And so they vote for him. In any case, state by-polls tend to go in favour of the incumbent government - MLAs are a crucial intermediary with the state capital, and the state government is the source of most of the services that people depend upon. They want legislators assured of an open door in the corridors of power in the state capital. This dynamic is doubly strong in circumstances like these, where the defecting MP in fact holds the balance of power and thus has extra clout. Drawing any other inferences from this result would be premature.
That said, two or three things lessons need to be drawn from this misadventure, particularly by the Congress and regional parties. The first is on alliance governments. Regardless of what whiny op-eds from Delhi may demand, alliances must be formed around more solid ground than merely anti-BJPism. If there is not some ideological glue between the parties, then there must at least be a solid programme of action that is agreed upon by all parties in the coalition. Further, they must ensure that there is at least some modicum of peace between their workers and ground-level politicians. This is the hardest to pull off. But it is non-negotiable.
Second, the government so formed to keep the BJP out must at least look active and cohesive. In today's India, alliance governments have a higher bar to clear in terms of effectiveness than one-party governments. The Kumaraswamy government impressed nobody. In fact, it dissipated with record speed any goodwill that it came into office with. Concerns that every man was simply in it for himself appeared borne out. Why, then, should voters worry that the alternative is B S Yediyurappa - not known for his record of probity in politics - or be concerned about the measures that the BJP takes to attain power? Thus the Maharashtra government, for example, must privilege swift movement on all those issues that the Devendra Fadnavis government kept on the back burner, or which had proved to be controversial and divisive. The onus will also be on the Shiv Sena to recreate an identity for itself, as the senior partner in the coalition, that indicates it can be both an active proponent of a local and inclusive identity, and an effective manager of state government services.
Finally, the fact is that, for whatever reason, the BJP has been able to expand its geographical footprint into parts of south Karnataka where it was never the Number One contender. This has long been, of course, the BJP's strategy - to buy its way into contested geographies through defection and assimilation, and then use that foothold to expand the ideological and manpower reach of itself and its affiliates. The opposition - not just in Karnataka but further afield - must realise that it can only contest this strategy through a counter-mobilisation. It cannot compete on money, institutional influence, or in brute political power. It thus can only deploy a counter-narrative. In Karnataka's case, that would mean hammering home the subservience of the local elements of the ruling party to interests determined by the high command in New Delhi.
With every victory, whether won at the polls or through subsequent backroom dealing, the BJP's advantage grows sharper. For the opposition, whether the Congress or regional parties, the threat is existential. The next battlefront, Jharkhand, might turn out similarly to Karnataka or Maharashtra - with the BJP as the single largest party and several local players forced to consider whether to ally against the BJP or with it. The lessons of Karnataka may have to be applied sooner than you think.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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