BS Yediyurappa, Chief Minister of Karnataka, this morning pulled of a personal victory in the high stakes by-election battle with the Congress and Janata Dal Secular. Powered largely by defectors from those parties, the BJP, at noon, was placed to win 12 of 15 seats.
In July this year, Yediyurappa, in a feat of political engineering, accrued turn-coats from the ruling Congress-JDS coalition to dislodge the government and return for the fourth time as the state's top boss.
Those who abandoned the Congress-JDS at the time did not pay any electoral price for the switcheroo. Yediyurappa needed six seats to ensure that he has a simple majority; now, he has the cushion of an extra six.
The indefatigable 76-year-old Yediyurappa was the prevailing face and issue of the by-election campaign; it was his policies and behavior that were on trial; controversial national issues such as the writing down of Article 370 in Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) did not figure.
The by-elections were necessitated by the rebellion of 17 MLAs who pulled down the Congress-JDS government in July this year. The Supreme Court disqualified them but allowed them to contest again; they then formally joined the BJP last month.
Yediyurappa, arguably the most overtly religious leader in India, has been on a whistle-stop tour of all important temples in the area for the past two days. He also had a non-stop relay puja in the Chief Minister's residence in Bengaluru.
So what do these by-election results tell us about the political temperature at the end of a hugely divisive and turbulent political year? The first takeaway is that for the opposition to do well against the BJP, they need a Sharad Pawar-like figure in every state. DK Shivakumar, Senior Congress leader, is an aspirant in Karnataka but not yet in the Pawar league of beating the BJP at its own game.
Shivakumar, who left jail in October to a tremendous reception after being arrested by the Enforcement Directorate, has in the past proved he's no slouch at fighting for the Congress - he tried valiantly in July to prevent defections - but his efforts this time around were easily bested by Yediyurappa.
Aware that his government had a simple majority of just 105, Yediyurappa did not take any chances and campaigned non-stop for the by-elections. As usual, the Congress and JDS whose alliance broke up after their government was pulled down though they had won before the vote. H D Deve Gowda, JDS leader and the Shivakumar-Mallikarjun Kharge faction of the Congress talked openly about pulling the Yediyurappa government down. Former Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah who was not in favour of allying with the JDU was ominously silent. The faction-ridden Karnataka Congress made the BJP's job easier.
Second takeaway: the JDS is the biggest loser from the by-election results. Former Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy (father Deve Gowda chiefs the JDS) was hoping for a hung verdict in order to at least keep his bargaining position open with both the Congress and the BJP. Kumaraswamy now has to worry about his party whittling down in size; the Congress and BJP are now attractive destinations for his flock.
Thirdly, Modi and Shah, running the most centralized avatar of the BJP in the party's history and wanting to control states through cipher leadership, have not been able to achieve it yet. Yediyurappa has crossed the Modi & Shah-imposed retirement age of 75 for active politics and has not got much central support for his unflagging desire to be Chief Minister. Yet, he remains his own force and is unapologetic about his desire to stay in active politics and has made it clear that the BJP in Karnataka would collapse without him. In a fit of pique in 2012, he quit the BJP to form his own party, but returned to the mothership in January 2014 ahead of the national election that would see a Modi sweep.
So the federal impulse in Indian politics remains strong despite the BJP government in Delhi doing everything to ensure a unitary polity. The party's regional heavyweights like Rajasthan's Vasundhara Raje Scindia and Madhya Pradesh's Shivraj Singh Chouhan will not be pushovers for Modi and Shah. Both have declined to come to Delhi and despite being made vice-presidents of the BJP, they have refused to cede their regional ambitions to make a comeback as Chief Ministers of their states.
D K Shivakumar today said "We accept defeat" but the Congress in Karnataka has been battered by its continued infighting with the clueless Congress "high command" unable to ensure any party discipline.
The Congress was hoping for a Maharashtra-type victory where it managed to be part of the government without even bothering to put up a fight. Strangely enough the Congress does not seem to realise that it has been reduced to party number four in Maharashtra, a state where it was, till recently, the dominant party, at least among the opposition.
BJP leaders in Maharashtra have been threatening to do a Yediyurappa to the unlikely and recently-sworn in alliance led by Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, Congress and the NCP. Considering that the alliance still disagrees on who gets which ministry, Thackeray needs to be careful of the BJP waiting in the wings.
Finally, if the JDS collapses further after these results, the BJP is likely to be a bigger beneficiary than the Congress. "Once the Yediyurappa era is over and he won't allow any one else to be CM, the BJP will face a vacuum where the Congress will step in," said a senior Congress leader, asking not to be named.
These are the sort of hopes that power the national opposition party these days. No wonder their victories are so infrequent and so short-lived.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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