An old school masterstroke of Congress

An old school masterstroke of Congress

Janatha Dal (Secular) national president, H.D. Deve Gowda (C), speaks with Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad (L) as they stage a dharna in front of the Gandhi Statue against the Karnataka Governor's order to invite Bharatiya Janatha Party Legislative Party
K Rahman Khan and Salman Nizami speak to Danish Ali on May 11
Ghulam Nabi Azad speaks to Ali
Siddaramaiah and Ali make ground for alliance with public statements
Azad and Ashok Gehlot arrive in Bengaluru, meet HD Devegowda on May 14
BJP falls short of a majority; Congress and JDS announce an alliance on May 15

The Karnataka verdict has a lot of takeaways and there are lessons to be learnt.

Though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has already formed the government, they are far away from sealing their position as the ruling party in the state.

And if anything, overconfidence or as they say it -- their ego -- has cost the two national parties.

The confusion

While there was no macro individual driven anti-incumbency, yet on a micro level, there was a lot of anti-incumbency against the sitting MLAs. And yes, because of the Lingayat issue, coupled with a religiously polarising campaign run by the BJP, there was a macro level issue based anti-incumbency. Not many in Karnataka Congress were ready to believe that there was any kind of anti-incumbency. But despite these factors, it had an edge.

And before we question Rahul Gandhi's leadership, we have to provide for the fact that the local Congress reps took him into fool's paradise, with a cock and bull story about pro-incumbency. This can be proven by the fact that there are 15 sitting ministers of the Congress that lost the election. Had it not been for veteran Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad's rural road shows, the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee would have continued to believe in the fact that there was no anti-incumbency.

BJP, on the other hand, tapped into it and increased the intensity of their campaign. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi's extensive campaign, they hoped that they would sail through to the magical majority mark. The BJP knew their weaknesses and tried to fix them. They didn't, probably, shy away from giving a realistic assessment to the national leaders.

So, the first lesson is that the BJP top to bottom approach is helping them in seat conversion, while the Congress' bottom to top approach has been costing them dearly. In the buildup to the polling, the local Congress leadership communicated their confidence to the centre.

The BJP, on the other hand, realised that they were no match for Siddaramaiah's intense campaign and called in Prime Minister Modi to sway votes in their favour.

The move paid off as there was a lot of swing that happened in the northern part of the state, sending all the opinion polls for a toss.

However, just after the voting ended on May 12, the tables started turning, despite BJP having a massive edge. As per the sources, an internal post-poll survey by the BJP gave them 118 seats. On the other hand, the Congress seemed to be losing ground to the BJP in their last bastion.

Enter crisis management

The Congress had an impulse that it wouldn't be a clear majority for the BJP in the state. That is where the Congress veteran crisis manager Azad stepped in. He made his trusted lieutenant Salman Nizami camp in the state. Nizami, along with veteran Congress leader K Rahman Khan, approached National Secretary General of JD(S) Danish Ali to prepare for the alliance. The picture was clear, according to highly placed sources in the AICC. The Congress was clear that they are ready to cede the chief minister's post to the son of former Prime Minister HD Devegowda, HD Kumaraswamy. As per the reports, Azad, who enjoys a great personal bond with Devegowda, also had an informal discussion with Ali.

Further ice was broken by Siddaramaiah making it public that he would be fine with a Dalit CM in the state on May 10. The development had more than what met the eye. The former CM, who shares bad blood with the Gowda family, after having switched over to the Congress from JD(S), wouldn't have been accepted as head of government by the latter.

By the evening of Sunday, Ali, speaking to media, made it clear that JD(S) was in no mood to go with BJP and was willing to go with the Congress.

Meanwhile, sources suggest, that just before the result day, when Azad and another senior leader Ashok Gehlot were parachuted to the state, the two leaders directly drove to the home of HD Devegowda in Padmanabhanagar, where the idea of the alliance took birth.

The big day

As the counting began on May 12, the only thing that was to be focused upon, was whether the BJP clocked a majority or not. "We are waiting for the final number. If BJP scores the four below the majority mark, we will form the government," one of the leaders involved in the process of negotiations told DH, in an exuberant mood.

There was an initial scare for the Grand Old Party when the initial numbers suggested that no permutations and combinations would propel them to power. However, as the picture became more and more clear, the nerves of the Congress leaders settled. The warring factions of Mallikarjun Kharge, Siddharamaiah, G Parmeshwara and DK Shivakumar, under the guidance of Azad, put up a united front and pledged support to JD(S) publicly.

As this was taking place, as per the sources, former Congress President Sonia Gandhi made a phone call to Devegowda, to foster an alliance. Meanwhile, Mayawati, who was in coalition with JD(S), along with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Bannerjee also pitched for the "secular" alliance.

While this alliance was being fostered, Congress President Rahul Gandhi took a backseat as Devegowda was upset with him for his election tirade of calling JD(S) a "B team of BJP".

Though the BJP directed its state leaders to reach out to the leaders of JD(S), there was complacency on the part of the saffron party. By the time they realised that they were short of the majority, the damage was already done because of the highly centralised top to the bottom approach of the BJP. The JD(S), seeing the Congress' offer as win-win for both the parties, quickly jumped on to the offer.

Meanwhile, the biggest shot in the arm for the Congress was the confidence of the Gandhi family that Azad enjoys, contrary to what happened in Goa, where Digvijaya Singh asked for one day's time to get an alliance vetted by 'high command'. In this case, it was an instant decision, with a lot of background parleys that sealed the deal.

That said, it was also Devegowda's own inclination towards an alliance with the Congress for its "secular credentials" that also helped. Moreover, the JD(S) forming an alliance with the BJP would have backfired nationally for Mayawati in her core constituency of Dalits.

The Congress leaders were also pinning a lot on DK Shivakumar as well. "He was a big key in all this. Him working together with HDK helped us. He also ensured the support of independents to us," a Congress leader, who was in the loop of all that happened told DH.

Shivakumar is seen as a crisis manager in Congress.