Congress and the BJP can never hope to dominate Karnataka
Forming the government after an election is a necessary part of the democratic process, but it is not sufficient. What is called the mandate, or what the people want or prefer, cannot be pushed under the carpet because it comes back like a bad penny at the next election. Karnataka’s fractured verdict, and it is one because even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its 104 seats has fallen short of the minimum majority, the simple majority. But the BJP leaders, like those in the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular), have chosen to be silent about it. Had they managed to rustle up those eight or nine seats which they needed to form the government, they would have continued their silence on what the mandate meant. There is little doubt that the combined figures of Congress and the JD (S) helps cross the magic line of the minimum majority, and despite their 58.6 percentage of the vote share as opposed to the BJP’s 36 per cent, they do not have the mandate. One can pretend that in the context of the exigency of forming the government, it is futile to look at the niceties of the mandate, which is clearly negative in the case of JD (S). And given the electoral system of first-past-the-post, the Congress is straining credibility when its leaders argue that they have the popular mandate.
Whatever the politicians and the pundits may think, the people are not going to let the parties forget this issue of the mandate. When elections are held the next time round, it is quite likely that those who presumed that they have been mandated to rule will be punished. The BJP will make up the deficit in the next round. The JD (S) will not be able to better its position because it has managed to form the government, and the Congress’ numbers will not improve either. There is a parallel to this in the national politics, from 1996 to 1999. The BJP was the single largest party in three of the Lok Sabha elections, though its vote percentage was at best modest. In 1996, the BJP had 161 seats (20.29 per cent of popular vote) to Congress’ 140 seats (28.80 per cent) and Janata Dal’s 46 seats (8.08 per cent). It was inevitable that then BJP’s prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee failed in his attempt to form the government, and we witnessed the second largest party, the Congress with 140 seats supporting the JD with its leader H.D.Deve Gowda as the prime minister. The anomaly could not be sustained. In 1998, BJP fared better with 182 seats (22.59 per cent) to the Congress’ 141 seats (25.82 per cent) and the Janata Dal was reduced to 6 seats (3.24 per cent). The BJP led the National Democratic Alliance to form the government. After the Congress brought down the Vajpayee government in 1999 by a single vote, the BJP returned with the same number of seats as before, 182 and with a barely improved vote percentage – 23.75. Congress was reduced to 114 seats but with an improved percentage – 28.30. The Janata Dal had split into JD (Secular) which was reduced to 1 seat (0.91 per cent) and the JD (United) to 21 seats (3.10 per cent).
A close look at the Karnataka assembly election results over the decades shows a certain pattern, with the Congress retaining a strong foothold even when it lost elections. For example, in the 1983 assembly elections, the party had 82 seats (40.89 per cent) to Janata Party’s 95 (38.21 per cent). And in the 1985 election, the Janata Party’s unmistakable triumph under Ramakrishna Hegde for a second time with 139 seats (47.62 per cent), the Congress had 65 seats (41.03 per cent). And in 1989, Congress came back with 179 seats (44.2 per cent), with Janata Party reduced to two seats (11.68 per cent) and Janata Dal winning 24 seats (28.86 per cent). But in the 1994 assembly election, Congress crashed to 34 seats (27.36 per cent) and Janata Dal won a handsome 1115 seats (34.02 per cent).
The BJP’s story in Karnataka is interesting and instructive. In 1983, the party had won 18 seats (16.21 per cent), was reduced to two seats (7.59 per cent) in 1985, got four seats (7.70 per cent) in 1989. It improved its position tremendously in 1994 when it won 40 seats (17.05 per cent), and in 1999 it won 44 seats (30.99 per cent). It won 79 seats (31.68 per cent) in 2004 and 110 seats (33.93 per cent) in 2008, before it went down to 40 seats (20.07 per cent) in 2013.
All the three parties – the Congress, BJP and the JD (S) – are now permanent players in the state politics. It would be wrong to believe that if BJP is able to form a government in the state, then it turns into a permanently saffron state as it had happened in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Despite the rhetorical bombast of BJP president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress is a force to reckon with the state politics. And it is true of the BJP and the JD (S) as well. The JD (S) will be a permanent third in the political league of state unless it is able to recover its pre-split Janata Dal vote of 1994. Karnataka cannot be reduced to a bipolar polity though both Congress and the BJP would prefer it.
So, how do we make sense of the mandate in this context? The BJP has failed the test because the other parties together have larger number of seats, and their combined vote percentage is a statistical frill and nothing more. The presence of the third party makes it difficult for the other two major parties to play the bully. In many ways, the Karnataka scenario replicates itself across the country, where the presence of third parties keeps the arrogance of the Congress and BJP on the leash.