The good-natured gesture of newly sworn-in Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa and former chief minister Siddaramaiah in posing for a “friendly” photograph masks the tensions, acrimony, bitterness and rivalry that preceded the return of the BJP government in the state.
After 13 years, Karnataka will have a government at the centre and state ruled by the same party. From 1983, when the Congress was first dethroned from power in Karnataka, until now rarely has this been the case. The last time when the same party ruled both the centre and Karnataka was between 2004 and 2006 when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ruled the Centre and the Congress was in power in the state as part of a coalition.
The BJP’s return to power in Karnataka has, by all accounts, not exactly been through a popular mandate. For, with 105 legislators, it stills falls short of eight MLAs in crossing an absolute majority. In a house of 207, with the disqualification of 17 legislators, the BJP has five MLAs more than the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition.
This makes it a minority government with an inherent instability — probably one of the reasons why Yediyurappa went out of his way to appear conciliatory and non-combative when he tabled the motion of confidence on Monday.
But, swirling underneath, the return of the BJP is bound to bring back key controversial issues to the table. When the BJP came to power in 2008 on its own for the first time in Karnataka, one of the first decisions the party took was to ban cattle slaughter, tightening an already existing law. The Congress, in 2013, when it returned to power under Siddaramaiah, repealed the ban and restored status quo ante.
It should not surprise anyone if the BJP brings back the legislation, especially in a situation where the Centre is ruled by the same party, several other BJP-ruled states have brought in tight legislation on cattle slaughter and marked by an overall swing in the political narrative to the religious right.
Yediyurappa’s budgets were also marked for their financial support to the various religious ashrams and sects in the state, something that was unprecedented at the time. The Congress and later, the coalition, all but cut down such allocations.
During the 2008-13 rule of the BJP, coastal Karnataka turned out to be a cauldron of communal politics. While the situation simmered even earlier, it kind of boiled over with various right-wing Hindutva fringe groups like the Ram Sena unfurling vigilantism, and taking on a self-professed role of being the moral police.
The attack on a pub in Mangaluru which was patronised by men and women and another on a birthday party of youngsters in a city resort were indicative of a larger assault on the liberal ethos of the state. No surprise that the situation cooled down almost immediately when the BJP lost to the Congress in the 2013 elections.
Of course certain more fundamental issues between the Hindu community and the minorities remain with vigilante groups (from both Hindu and Muslim groups) targeting inter-communal couples and attacks on each other.
Now, with a phalanx of BJP leaders in power in Delhi and various states, it is a no-brainer that Yediyurappa and company start off with a political advantage. Karnataka is likely to see even more policies that are in tandem with what the central government would like them to do.
However, though the BJP is now the ruling party, it can by no means be called dominant along the lines of say, Yogi Adityanath’s branch of the party in Uttar Pradesh. This is bound to play on the minds of the party’s think tank in Karnataka.
While the predecessor chief minister H D Kumaraswamy has said he expects the BJP to continue its act of poaching more Congress and JD(S) legislators, another way the party could get a majority is to win most of the seats when by-elections are held to the 17 constituencies vacated by the disqualified legislators.
Tabling the motion of confidence on Monday, Yediyurappa said he did not believe in vindictive politics, that he was for a “forget and forgive” policy and acknowledged that though there were arguments and accusations, they were of a political nature, with both Siddaramaiah and Kumaraswamy never resorting to the politics of revenge against him. Talking in the same vein of conviviality, he hoped for their cooperation during his governance.
For Yediyurappa, who had to resign from his position in July 2011 under controversial circumstances owing to his alleged link in the Bellary iron ore scam, among other accusations of corruption, the return to power gives an opportunity to redeem his image. But, having started on a wrong foot by occupying the top state job on the back of allegations of poaching, he will have his task cut out.
As for the BJP in Karnataka, which witnessed three chief ministers in the five year period from 2008 and accumulated a stockpile of corruption accusations, besides rampant infighting and the breaking up of the party, this time around its credibility as a self-professed “party with a difference” is on the line.