The seven-month old Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress coalition in Karnataka has become a talking point after senior Congress leader and minister D K Shivakumar claimed that the BJP was poaching MLAs of the ruling combine with the intent to topple the government. Soon after, two Independent MLAs withdrew support to the government. There was talk that at least seven ruling coalition MLAs may switch sides and destabilise the government though Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy said there was no threat to the coalition. Other developments, such as the BJP legislative contingent shifting to a hotel in Gurugram, have also strengthened the speculation that the Kumaraswamy government is wobbling.
Numbers, however, tell a different story. The JDS-Congress combine have a total of 117 MLAs in a 224-seat assembly, whereas the BJP has only 104 legislators. The BJP will need a minimum of nine MLAs to gain a majority in the House. The strong anti-defection law makes it near impossible for the BJP to attract the necessary number of MLAs from the Congress and/or the JDS to its side. A vertical spilt in either of the ruling parties looks unlikely now, especially since the general election is round the corner. In all probability, the Karnataka story seems a case of shadow boxing, where factional undercurrents in the Congress, ambitions of legislators and the BJP’s narrative-building seem to be playing out. For the BJP, the talk of an unstable government in Bengaluru could be about optics, wherein the party could send out the message that coalition governments are inherently unstable, unless, of course, pivoted by a dominant party and a decisive leader. Karnataka, which sends 28 MPs to the Lok Sabha, is important for the BJP since it is the only state in southern India where it has substantial electoral presence. The BJP had won 17 seats from Karnataka with 43 per cent votes in a tripartite contest in the 2014 general election, while the Congress logged 40 per cent of the votes to win nine seats and the JDS got two seats and 11 per cent votes.
The Congress may want to wrest the narrative on Karnataka since the coalition government in Bengaluru is touted as an example of the party’s willingness to accommodate allies and share power. The party also needs to signal to the electorate that it can keep ambitious leaders in check and provide for a stable coalition government. An unstable, bickering coalition in Bengaluru is hardly the advertisement for the mahagathbandan the Congress hopes to stitch before the general election.