Local ethical traditions had rarely been invoked in an assembly election in Karnataka before. During this election, however, it was different. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress President Rahul Gandhi struggled to pronounce the ethical maxims of Basavanna, the founder of the Lingayat dharma in the 12th century: Nudidante Nade (Let your actions match your words) and Ivanaarava Ivanaarava Endenisadirayya, Iva Nammava Iva Nammava Endenisirayya (Don’t ask: Who is he? Who is he? Say: He is one of us. He is one of us). Amit Shah’s election tour included a highly publicised visit to the memorial of Kuvempu, the great Kannada writer who asked that individuals overcome their social identities and become a universal human (Vishvamanava).
The symbolic raids remained symbolic. For instance, having launched the most expensive election campaign ever seen in the state, Modi coolly quoted from D R Bendre’s poem of contempt for the “dance” of the blind gold” in the world during his speech in Dharwad, the poet’s hometown. And, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s communally charged speeches criticised the state Congress government for worshipping Tipu Sultan instead of Hanuman.
As the names of election candidates were announced, over a dozen candidates shuffled across the Congress, BJP and Janata Dal (Secular). Abetted by political parties in the interests of winnability, such actions stoke an active voter cynicism that all politicians are the same. Indeed, the winnability factor made the BJP abandon its claims to being a clean party and bring in the notorious mining barons from Bellary into the election. Further, forgetting its high decibel rhetoric against “dynastic” politics, it fielded two of the three Reddy brothers and six of their relatives in the election.
The fragile fate of political morality showed in even more graphic terms on the counting day. No sooner had the election results come in, television commentators started guessing that the Governor of Karnataka would surely invite the BJP, which had emerged as the single largest party with 104 seats, to form the government. The guess was ominous: Where would the BJP find the extra candidates to cross the halfway mark in the 224-member assembly? Only two Independent candidates had won this time. And, the remaining 115 candidates were with the Congress and JD(S), which together had already laid claim to form the government.
Familiar phrases like horse-trading and resort politics soon surfaced in the commentaries. The phrase, “horse-trading” doesn’t quite capture the venality when allegedly a hundred crore rupees and a ministerial berth are among the blandishments held out to an MLA. And the phrase, “resort politics” trivialises the violation of the integrity of electoral representation. Uncertain about the loyalty of their MLAs, the Congress and the JD(S) moved them over to Hyderabad. The scenes of the MLAs being held together added spectacle and suspense to an election process, no doubt, but they, at the bottom, insult the voter’s faith in elections as a means of managing representative democracy.
While the Supreme Court’s interventions — the reduction of the time the Governor had allowed the BJP to prove its majority and its instruction that open voting be done on the floor of the house and the proceedings be publicly telecast — restored hope in the highest judicial body in the country, it also showed how finding a majority in the assembly can seem a technical matter alone if a party is determined to win at all costs.
The Congress and JD(S) have justified their coalition on their shared commitment to secular ideals. In an ethical gesture that allows the Congress to work with its coalition partner with a good conscience, Rahul Gandhi has apologised to JD(S) leader Deve Gowda for accusing the latter of having a tacit alliance with the BJP. While a coalition government has emerged as the norm at the Centre, owing to the frequent incidence of coalition break-ups at the state level, doubts about its effective functioning and stability at that level remain.
Will the Congress-JDS coalition remain stable? Besides the challenges of a satisfactory apportionment of ministerial berths and official appointments between the two parties and the balancing of the factors of caste and religion, the overall commitment of the political parties to the coalition arrangement will matter greatly. Norms of co-operation to guide the interactions of the cadres of the two parties will need to evolve too. A conflict at this level hampers the effective implementation of policy measures. And, there is no forgetting, of course, that the stability of the coalition also depends on the role of the opposition party: Will the BJP extend constructive assistance? Or, will it work overtime to bring down the coalition?
A likely consequence of the Congress-JD(S) coalition is the sharper polarisation of politics in Karnataka along the communal and secular divide. The Congress and JD(S), which have significant differences between themselves, might come to appear indistinguishable due to their coming together on a secular plank. Such a consequence will reflect the ongoing polarisation of the larger Indian polity into the BJP versus the rest.
In what appear to be signs of a reinvention of the Congress party, the responses of its national leaders show a greater degree of respect and understanding about working with a regional party like the JD(S). The determined post-poll efforts of the two parties to form a government together have shaken the sense of invincibility of the BJP and its election management methods. Lastly, Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples, dargahs and churches during the campaign suggested that the party was reorienting itself to the question of religion in public life.
If the Congress and the JD(S) manage to work well together, they will perform well in the 2019 parliamentary elections in Karnataka, which sends 28 MPs to the Lok Sabha. Expressions of approval for the Congress-JD(S) coalition by the leaders of the BSP, CPM, NCP, RJD, SP, TRS, TDP and TMC have already energised discussions in this regard. The Karnataka elections may have inaugurated a new phase in Indian politics.