The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has swept the Karnataka by-elections by wresting most seats from the Opposition. The outcome has given a clear majority to the Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa to rule the state for the remaining term. He need not depend upon either the lone Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MLA or the lone Independent to run the government. He need not even go anywhere near the father-son combination of HD Deve Gowda and HD Kumaraswamy who have been dreaming of another hung House to play their favourite “king maker” role.
The outcome also gives leeway to Yediyurappa to deal confidently with his own party high command in Delhi. The chief minister had to face humiliation as he took weeks to constitute his cabinet after a shaky win on the floor of the house in July this year. Reminiscent of Congress high command days, news reports suggested that Yediyurappa had to return to Bengaluru from Delhi empty handed after failing to secure an appointment with the BJP chief and home minister Amit Shah.
How did this ‘miracle’ happen? How did a chief minister seen bumbling along without adequate backing from his own high command managed it so well? The story of Karnataka’s electoral politics has gone through tortuous twists and turns for over 19 months rivalling a thriller. And as far as the outcome is concerned, the simplest explanation one could hear is that frustrated by the continuing impasse the electorate finally chose to vote BJP to power.
Is it as simple as that? Consider the following facts. BJP contested elections in May 2018 assembly elections with Yediyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate. In the 224-member house (excluding the Anglo-Indian nominee) the party wins only 104 seats falling short of majority by eight. The chief minister still goes ahead and stakes claim to form a government as the head of the single largest party. The governor obliges, but Yediyurappa had to resign within 48 hours of being sworn-in as he lacked the required numbers and avoids facing a trust vote.
The Congress which had dreamed a second term under its incumbent chief minister Siddaramaiah too had to bite the dust as it could only win 78 seats. The Janata Dal (S) helmed by the Gowdas won 37 seats. The results were in line with pre-poll predictions and a boon for the father-son duo who had been out of power for over a decade.
Congress chooses to play second fiddle to JD(S) with the sole aim of keeping BJP out of power and therefore props up a government headed by Kumaraswamy. The liberals and the secular parties thought this could be a new formula of Opposition unity which could even be replicated at the national level. But the subsequent Parliament elections in 2019 delivered another surprise where prime minister Narendra Modi returned with even bigger mandate.
Since it was the case of the tail wagging the head, the government in Karnataka didn’t last long. The inner contradictions between Congress and JD(S) emerged in no time. Within two months of taking over the mantle a teary chief minister Kumaraswamy bemoaned that “I am like Shiva who drank poison.”
Several Congress ministers in Kumaraswamy’s cabinet were openly issuing statements against him. They were seen as proxies to Siddaramaiah. Since the rivalries of the Gowdas and Siddaramaiah goes long back this was considered a natural outcome. Meanwhile, news reports suggested that the BJP had embarked upon a plan called ‘Operation Kamala 2.0’, which meant shoring up its support by drawing members from other parties.
Magically, 15 members of Congress and two members of JD(S) rebelled. The chief minister was forced to call for a trust vote. The subsequent drama that unfolded was the stuff readymade for 24-hour news television channels. While the MLAs were cooped up in a Mumbai hotel “fearing for their lives”, they were being wooed to come back “home” to Congress party by its chief trouble shooter DK Shivakumar who was seen chewing vada pav squatting on the footpath opposite the hotel.
While the Congress party rushed to the Supreme Court crying foul, Yediyurappa in July claimed chief ministership once again. He won the trust vote after disqualification of 17 rebel MLAs by the then speaker KR Ramesh Kumar. The disqualifications had put the BJP in a comfortable position as the effective strength of the House had come down to 208 whereas the BJP enjoyed support of 106 MLAs.
Under the anti-defection law, a legislator is deemed to have defected if he/she either voluntarily gives up the membership of his/her party or disobeys the directives of the party leadership on a vote. This implies that a legislator defying (abstaining or voting against) the party whip on any issue can lose his/her membership of the House. The legislators can change their party without the risk of disqualification if they form a group with at least two-thirds of the members supporting the merger. In such a case neither the individual nor the newly formed party or group face any disqualification.
In this case since only 17 MLAs head rebelled the second option did not apply. Since the MLAs claimed that they have resigned voluntarily from the membership of the party, the speaker chose to disqualify them for the remaining session of the assembly. This means they may have had to contest elections after the completion of the five year term of the House. Of these 17, two cases faced complaints of election malpractices and therefore elections were not held.
The rebels went to Supreme Court against the Speaker’s ruling. The court agreed with the speaker on the question of immediate disqualification of the members, but did not support the disqualification for the full-term. The court ruled that the MLAs were free to contest the elections once again.
The rebel MLAs were given BJP membership and party tickets to contest the by elections. By electing the rebels the electorate seem to have given a complete go by to any morality that may be involved in the whole process. Congress and JD(S) clearly failed to convince the electorate as they ran a lacklustre campaign. Since it was a divided house, the contest went three-ways, obviously BJP took advantage of the situation. Worryingly for the Congress, though its campaign sought to expose the BJP’s cloak and dagger methods of unseating the Opposition, both in Karnataka and Maharashtra, it did not seem to work.
There are issues which would be evident to the electorate and it should be assumed that they considered the facts before casting their votes. For instance, BJP lost these seats to rival candidates in 2018 elections and the same candidates once again have won those seats by simply changing their party. Meanwhile, DK Shivakumar, the chief strategist of the Congress had to face a jail term in Delhi as he was slapped with several cases by the departments of Income Tax and Enforcement Directorate. This made him inactive during the campaign and JD(S), which have had no qualms siding with either BJP or Congress to be in power in the past had begun to warm up to the saffron party as well.