At around 10:30 Tuesday morning, as the Karnataka result trends indicated that the BJP could comfortably reach a majority, the Congress headquarters on Akbar Road in Delhi looked forlorn. In the only flurry of activity, around half-a-dozen photojournalists rushed to click the pictures of a solitary sweeper cleaning the party’s lawns, who continued to do his work unfazed.
After some time, a couple of Congress leaders emerged, saying the party “accepted the verdict”, but that it had not expected to be down by so many seats.
An announcement followed that Randeep Singh Surjewala, the in-charge of communications for the Congress, would hold a press conference at 12:30 pm. But at the last minute the press conference was deferred to 2 pm, among rumours that senior party leaders were discussing the situation.
By the time the press conference drew near, the Congress had picked up, to lead in 75 seats, while the half-way mark in the 222-member House (elections are still to be held for two seats ) remained out of reach for the BJP.
Surjewala pushed the Congress briefing back again, to 3.30 pm, amidst news coming from Bengaluru that the party might back the JD(S) and stake claim to form the government under H D Kumaraswamy’s chief ministership. The mood in the party office was now changed. There was still no clarity on when the Congress briefing would happen, but it was now certain it would be about the party’s claim to form the government in the state, a giant leap from a few hours earlier.
By 3:30 pm, it was clear that Delhi would not see a press briefing till the party leaders, along with the JD(S) leadership, had met the Governor in Bengaluru. Congressmen speaking in private admitted as much, saying the situation was still fluid. The embarrassed expressions of the morning at the Congress headquarters had now turned confident but tense, at the party’s willingness and agility to spring this surprise.
At 5.30 pm, Surjewala, who was yet to appear for the press briefing, put out a series of tweets saying: “As Congress-JD(S) win 95 seats & lead in 20 seats, absolute majority for the coalition is clear. Coalition also has 56% vote share. Coalition leaders meeting the Governor shortly to stake claim as per established constitutional norms in Karnataka’s interests.”
The Congress office in Bengaluru, deserted since morning, was slightly more energised by evening. Party flags that had been brought in around noon were finally fluttering from its first-floor balcony. Workers analysed where they had gone wrong, despite an apparent lack of anti-incumbency. Was it Modi who changed things? Was it the recommendation for a minority status for the Lingayat religion that did them in? “In the last month, all of us became overconfident. We spent more time doing roadshows than going to the people,” said state party unit member Srinivasalu. “Perhaps, Siddaramaiah should not have angered the Vokkaligas that much. He should have mended fences with GT Deve Gowda,” said another party worker. “In politics, it always pays to wait,” said Srinivasalu, as talk of a deputy chief minister’s post for state Congress chief G Parameswara floated around. “And Parameswara has waited.”
While the alliance was a way to “save secularism”, there were concerns about how it would play out on the ground. “If you give your house key to the neighbour, you will be allowed in only when he agrees to open the door,” said Srinivasalu. “But that’s the way it is. Let’s see.”
The JD(S)’s office in Bengaluru remained surprisingly empty through the day. By evening, the crowds thronged the address that mattered only a little less than the Raj Bhavan: 281, Padmanabhanagar, H D Kumaraswamy’s residence in Bengaluru.