Karnataka is not Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Bihar that rank among India’s electorally big-time states, contributing 249 of the 545 Lok Sabha seats. Yet, in a long time, the elections to the Karnataka Assembly assumed a magnitude that seemed a tad disproportionate to the 28 seats it brings to the Lower House of Parliament. The election’s significance lay in the fact that both the national parties, the Congress and the BJP, invested competitive stakes in it while a third player, the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S), was out to demonstrate that an entity that did not even have a pan-Karnataka presence will count in the sweepstakes for political power.
The Karnataka election was billed as a “dress rehearsal” for the 2019 Lok Sabha combat even before the pitch is battle-readied as the parties have four more elections to contend with in Madhya Pradesh (MP), Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Mizoram. Barring Mizoram, the contest in the northern states will see the Congress pitted against the BJP but interestingly, there are smaller outfits that bring in votes and are being courted by the Congress and BJP in MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In that sense, Karnataka underscored the importance and accentuated the potential role of the regional forces in a not-so-unforeseeable scenario that might result in an inconclusive verdict or a bare majority for one party in 2019.
The Congress, with a history of being supercilious towards the state parties unless it was pushed to doing business with them, recognised that the JD(S) was not a pushover. Sonia Gandhi, who continues to chair the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) after relinquishing her position as the Congress president, has a sharper instinct for realpolitik and statecraft than others in her party and was not persuaded by the reports coming in from sections of the Karnataka Congress that projected a return of Siddaramaiah.
Sonia reckoned that a rout in Karnataka, one of the only four states ruled by the Congress, would become a self-fulfilling prophecy of the BJP’s oft-repeated chant of a “Congress Mukth Bharat” (an India freed from Congress rule) and undermine the prospect of a fight back in 2019. Besides, a breakthrough for the BJP would bolster its claim to establishing a pan-India presence and project it as the “rightful” heir of the Grand Old Party.
When the JD(S)’s general secretary Danish Ali approached senior Congressman and Sonia confidant Ghulam Nabi Azad to discern the party’s mind, Ali returned comforted in the thought that the Congress was open to an alliance. Meanwhile, Sitaram Yechury, the CPM’s general secretary, called the JD(S) patriarch and former prime minister H D Deve Gowda, indicating that the erstwhile protagonists of the 1996 United Front (UF) experiment had got into the act of stitching together a “secular” coalition. One move led to another and the backroom developments culminated in Sonia’s phone call to Gowda on May 15 when it was apparent that the Karnataka outcome could be inconclusive.
As the movements unfolded, it was evident that the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, took a backseat, yielding the coalition centre stage to his mother who displayed remarkable pragmatism in 2004 when she had reached out to her adversaries such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The Congress’s rank-and-file were unprepared to forgive the DMK for the patronage it extended to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that assassinated Rajiv Gandhi while the NCP’s leader Sharad Pawar was the first in the Congress to flag the issue of Sonia’s “foreign” origin.
Not that Rahul was not in the loop. He was as much a participant in the decision to reach out to Gowda as Sonia was but the leaders of the non-BJP Opposition such as Mamata Banerjee, Pawar and Mayawati have a far greater rapport with Sonia from the UPA era than a younger Rahul. In the Opposition spectrum, Rahul had a working equation with Akhilesh Yadav, the president of the Samajwadi Party (SP), when they fought the last Uttar Pradesh election together and is comfortable with Omar Abdullah (National Conference) and Tejashwi Yadav (Rashtriya Janata Dal).
In Karnataka’s specific context, the fact that Rahul let loose as intense a tirade against the JD(S) as the BJP in his election campaign was seen as a thorn if talks were to be revived with Gowda and H D Kumaraswamy. The flexibility the Congress displayed in Karnataka has spilled over to the other election-bound states. In Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath, the newly appointed Congress state chief, indicated that he would approach the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party that have pockets of votes in the districts adjoining Uttar Pradesh and another local entity, the Gondwana Ganatantra Party that made a limited impact back in 2003.
Nath’s overtures indicated a reality: the Congress accepted that defeating an entrenched BJP was more daunting than it imagined and, therefore, the votes the minor players brought in would add to his kitty.
However, a must-have of an Opposition front is a cohesive leadership. As the Congress serenades the regional entities, for the moment it appears that the satraps are unprepared to hand over the leadership mantle to Rahul. Pawar is ready to embrace the BJP on his Maharashtra home turf, but would he brook the thought of playing a Rahul adjutant in Delhi? At this juncture, the concept of a Federal Front sounds more tenable than it does. A front would enhance the bargaining power of the regional parties vis-a-vis the Congress and even give them an upper hand.
Switch to the South and the scene looks messier because it is unclear where the Telangana Rashtra Samithi and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) stand. The question has no easy explanation.
(The writer is a political commentator based in New Delhi)