In the Westminster form of democracy—which India adopted—comprehensive victory for a party in an election is when it wins an absolute majority of seats as well as the highest percentage of votes.
In the recently held state polls in Karnataka, Bharatiya Janata Party obtained neither, with the Congress’ share of ballots being 1.8% more than the former. At the same time BJP, emerging as it did as the largest single party, could claim a moral victory. Having done so, though, it descended from the high ground to incredible immorality.
BJP’s vote share of 36.2% in Karnataka reflects a continuation of the post-2014 general election trend of an erosion in this party’s support. In 2014, BJP attracted 43.37% of votes in Karnataka; there was thus a clear 7.17% reduction. BJP argues it has gained 3.83% from the 2013 state election when its votes, combined with the breakaway factions of BS Yeddyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Paksha and B Sriramulu’s Badavara Shramikara Raithara Congress, was 32.37%, and insists people’s preferences are different in a Lok Sabha election as compared to a Vidhan Sabha election. This is partly correct as far as Karnataka is concerned.
In the 2008 state elections, for instance, BJP polled 33.86% of votes versus Congress’ 34.76%. In the Lok Sabha election the following year, the former’s vote share rose to 41.63% while latter’s only rose to 37.65%. There was no Narendra Modi factor in either case.
But BJP had the advantage of being in government in the state at the time of the 2009 general election. It could also be contended that Yeddyurappa was popular and untainted by corruption charges against him that were to follow; and Lal Krishna Advani—then the BJP’s national spearhead—was a relatively respected figure in Karnataka.
BJP imagines Karnataka voters will be decisively swayed by Modi in the next general election. The fact is, he campaigned in the state more extensively this time than he is ever likely to in future—certainly not in a general election, which would demand an equitable distribution of time and energy nationwide. Besides, the heavy deployment of RSS cadre and cabinet ministers in the state election cannot be replicated. Last but not the least, there may be a price to pay for the attempt to subvert democracy, not to mention court cases coming to haunt Yeddyurappa.
Most importantly, unlike 2009 and 2014 in Karnataka, Congress is likely to fight the next Lok Sabha election in alliance with Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy’s Janata Dal (Secular). The combined votes of the two stood at a whopping 56.3% in the assembly election. While there are undoubtedly contradictions between the two, a battle for survival could force the duo to be disciplined and provide good and stable governance. If this happens, the coalition would still be in a honeymoon period and its vote share could soar past 60%, thereby inflicting a crushing defeat on BJP.
Karnataka is, therefore, the launch pad for UPA3. The Congress-JD(S)’ success could potentially catapult an anti-BJP formation to a triumph in the next Lok Sabha election. It could breathe belief into people in other parts of India about the viability of a Congress-led coalition at the centre. This, indeed, could be strengthened if Congress can regain office in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh.
Unity and seat adjustments between Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Nationalist Congress Party and Left parties (in West Bengal), among others, would create a formidable force. If Telugu Desam Party joins the conglomeration, it would become even more powerful.
Indian voters’ perception appears to be—notwithstanding the Left withdrawing support on the issue of Manmohan Singh’s nuclear deal with the United States—UPA1 was a success and UPA2 a failure. In effect, a government with the Left’s support largely worked, whereas one with Trinamool Congress as a part of it didn’t. The meltdown in Manmohan Singh’s second 5-year term was singularly initiated by Mamata Banerjee’s maverick tendencies, which sabotaged crucial, potentially game-changing moves.
In short, a tricky decision for the Congress—which will by far command the largest number of MPs in a prospective alliance—would be to choose between the Left and Trinamool in a pre-poll arrangement. This is a dilemma as the latter will in all probability win 30 plus seats in West Bengal; and so, post-poll its numbers could be hard to overlook.
Even if the BJP was to retain its support of 31%—established in the 2014 general election—Opposition unity would reduce it to a minority in the Lok Sabha.
In the more realistic scenario of the erosion in support not reversing, in the Hindi-speaking belt alone BJP is in danger of losing 110 seats against a Congress-led front. A joint Congress-NCP campaign in Maharashtra will also make inroads into BJP’s current seat share, especially if Shiv Sena splits with BJP. Even in Gujarat—as last year’s state election showed—Congress has narrowed the gap. There’s no way BJP can compensate the loss with seats from elsewhere.
One should not of course underestimate Modi. He is desperate and irresponsible enough to artificially raise the temperature with Pakistan, which could earn him a ratings spike. But the constituency Modi serves will only be satisfied if he makes Pakistan grovel either in battle or in diplomacy. This is unlikely to happen in the short term against an unpredictable nuclear state.
Normally, it’s the economy that decides an election. Here Modi has failed in general, especially in creating jobs. Thus, BJP becoming the largest single party in the next Lok Sabha election is no longer a foregone conclusion.
London-based Ashish Ray, former head of CNN in India, is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent