Yeddyurappa’s swearing-in as Karnataka’s chief minister, clearly without a majority in the legislative assembly, is not new for the BJP. Occupying the office knowing fully well that the numbers are not enough and that they can be “managed” later is an old game that the party had tried way back in 1996, in its first ever tryst with power.
In 1996, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the stage was Delhi and now, it’s Karnataka and the centre of action is Bengaluru.
Of course, there is a huge difference in the circumstances: the BJP then was a rookie just coming out from nowhere, while now it’s a party that rules the Centre and most of India. Most importantly, it’s now a party with the highest resources, both in terms of money, institutions and muscle.
However, the question is will Yeddyurappa meet with the same fate as that of Vajpayee, who had to resign in 13 days ahead of a non-confidence vote in the Parliament or will he survive the test.
The move by Vajpayee 22 years ago was widely decried because all along he and his party knew that he had no majority or mandate, but still rushed to form the government in the hope that sufficient MPs could be weaned away from the opposition parties. In the end, Vajpayee lost his chance, but used the opportunity to take a high moral ground through his hour-long speech in the parliament. At the end of the speech, that was imbued with sentiments of victimhood, he resigned.
Yeddyurappa also knows that he doesn’t have the numbers and he can prove his majority in the house only by defections that are illegal. If he has to remain in power, he cannot simply get defectors from the Congress and the JD (S) to fill in, but get them resign or abstain so that his existing number becomes the majority. In other words, a number of newly elected MLAs from either the Congress or the JD(S), or both, have to voluntarily lose their seats either by resignation or by abstaining so that the total number comes down, making way for the BJP possessing more than half. If they abstain, they will be disqualified and thrown out of the assembly under the Anti-Defection Law.
Getting MLAs from opposition parties to sacrifice their seats, that too immediately after the election, is a huge task and hence obviously must involve irresistible allurement. HD Kumaraswamy, the chief ministerial nominee of the Congress-JD(S) combine says that the offer was about Rs 100 crore (although he didn’t say if it was for each MLA or for all of them).
Probably, in 1996, Vajpayee’s floor managers also might have thought on similar lines, but in the end they couldn’t attract even a single MP and Vajpayee didn’t even wait for the floor test. Will Yeddyurappa also face a similar situation because reportedly the opposition MPs are physically out of their reach, except one or two? And will he also convert the floor of the house to make a Vajpayee-style moralistic statement that the Congress has undermined people’s mandate for a BJP government by forming an illegitimate anti-democratic alliance with their pre-poll enemy?
Vajpayee’s highly eloquent speech was televised live on Doordarshan, which probably helped him later win the elections in 1999. In case he doesn’t get the majority, Yeddyurappa also has this television opportunity at a much bigger scale than in 1996.
Curiously, there are more similarities between 1996 and now. The man who toppled Vajpayee in the Prime Ministerial race then was a regional satrap with just 44 seats, that was about a third of what the Congress had (136): HD Deve Gowda of the Janata Dal. Today, Yeddyurappa faces the same threat from his son, Kumaraswamy.
Gowda was in no race in 1996, but was the consensus candidate for a secular United Front (UF); and Kumaraswamy also was not in the race for the chief ministership because of his poor numbers, but was suddenly propped by the Congress that had more than twice as many MLAs. Reportedly, it was Sonia Gandhi’s idea to reenact the 1996 model.
It remains to be seen if the reprisal of the 1996 experiment to keep the BJP out of power in Karnataka becomes successful or not. Interestingly, the past offers more lessons for even what could happen, or shouldn’t happen, subsequently.
After Vajpayee lost his chance, Deve Gowda became the Prime Minister, but the Congress withdrew support in 1998. The BJP came to power one more time, but a year later, the then Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha pulled the rug from under their feet. By now, the BJP had made most of their moral capital that they had first invested three years ago. In the 1999 elections, its alliance won well and Vajpayee remained in office for a full term.
In fact, besides the perpetual poaching threats and vulnerability of the fence-sitting MLAs of the Congress and the JD (S), what the non-BJP leaders have to ensure is that there are no see-sawing political instability in the coming days and months. If the government appears unstable and the bickering becomes public, that will only strengthen the chances of the BJP.
The Congress and the JD (S) should not see this as a way to keep the BJP temporarily out of power, but as a starting point for alliance-building ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The days of the Congress as a single party that can win elections is over. In Indian political history, there has never been space for two equally powerful national parties. The BJP has become a stronger national party at the cost of the Congress, and now the only way to stop its advances is by building alliances. As the decades-long Kerala experience and the 2004-2015 UPA rule show, it’s indeed a workable solution.
All one has to see now is if Yeddyurappa and his party are able to lure sufficient number of suicide defectors from the opposition.
If not, somebody in the assembly on the day of the vote of confidence can get up and repeat what veteran CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee had yelled at Vajpayee in 1996 when he tendered his “thyaag patr”: “You are all alone, you stand all isolated.”
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