- Charlie Sainsbury
The consequences of India’s Karnataka state elections
Governing the world’s largest democracy is no easy task. What’s more, winning the right to administer India has recently proved to be considerably challenging. Since 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by the charismatic Narendra Modi, has governed India undisputed. Having 271 seats, out of 545 in Lok Sabha - the lower house in India’s Parliament, it seemed that Modi and the BJP were unstoppable. However, the recent elections in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly elections which took place on May 12, have proved that the BJP’s ability to win elections is now under threat. As a consequence, the party’s ability to win the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is now being questioned.
The Southern State of Karnataka, home to India’s ‘Silicon Valley of the East’, is not traditionally BJP territory, but on May 12 the party had won 104 seats out of 224 in the Legislative Assembly. Although it fell nine seats short a majority for the regional assembly, the result had initially proved that the BJP was gaining political support. The BJP then started an aggressive campaign of persuading legislators to defect to the party, thereby giving them a majority within the assembly. However, the BJP’s main political rival, the Indian National Congress, made a surprise move by forming an alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) party. Despite the fact that the Indian National Congress was holding the needed numbers to gain power, the governor invited the BJP to form a new government. He also allowed BJP’s candidate B.S. Yeddyurappa, a key Modi ally, to be sworn in as Chief Minister. The BJP’s position looked secure, but the governors’ apparent haste to form a government gave rise to an aggressive media backlash. Consequently, Yeddyurappa resigned and the Assembly was under the control of the Indian National Congress and its coalition partner.
These events show how Modi’s grip on power is being called into question. Even if the BJP won a sizeable number of seats in Karnataka, in spite of not being its political heartland, the opposition parties have come to realise exactly how to attack the popular party. The arrangement between the Indian National Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) has offered India’s opposition parties a new way of combating the BJP and this could easily be used against Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. For example, the Indian National Congress could form alliances with some of the country’s smaller regional parties by offering them key cabinet positions, potentially even the Prime Minister’s office. This kind of ploy is indeed risky but for the Indian National Congress, concessions are the only way to gain power.
Tactics such as the already mentioned ones are gaining ground across India. In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, a BJP stronghold, the Samajwadi Party has formed coalitions with other smaller parties to win two by-election seats from the BJP. Such parties are proving desperate to gain seats and defeat their BJP rivals. However, the political machine of the BJP remains effective and Modi’s popularity amongst Indians is proving impossible to beat. On the other hand, recent failures of the Modi government such as demonetization which proved problematic for India’s poor, have been capitalised by opposition parties. Nevertheless, Modi’s prospects for the 2019 elections look secure. The BJP is likely to win, but as the results of Karnataka’s state elections show, opposition parties are hungry for power and willing to work together to stop another Modi government. Because of this, the BJP chances for success are far from guaranteed.