That no party is sure which way the Karnataka voter will tilt is clear from the statements made by the Prime Minister and the Karnataka Chief Minister. While Narendra Modi attacked Congress president Rahul Gandhi for “insulting” Deve Gowda (he had called Gowda’s party BJP’s ‘B team’), Siddaramaiah made an enigmatic statement that he may not be the automatic choice for chief minister if the Congress wins.
The Karnataka CM was quoted as saying: “I can't say that only I can become chief minister if the Congress party comes to power in the state. But as the elections are being held under my leadership, there is a possibility that I could become CM again.”
Most surveys (read here, here) so far indicate the possibility of a hung assembly, though one survey does put the Congress ahead. This is why both Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress want to keep their options open in case the Janata Dal (Secular) needs to be wooed after 15 May, when the results are out.
JD(S) leader H D Kumaraswamy has often claimed that he plans to be king, not kingmaker. Thus far, this has been dismissed as an empty boast, since the assumption has been that even if there is a hung assembly he will not get the top job.
That assumption needs to be challenged since the premise on which it is based is doubtful: that neither of the two national parties will be willing to play second fiddle to a party that got fewer seats.
However, it is possible to posit another scenario where both Congress and BJP are keen to keep the other out of power if the price to pay for this is handing over the top job to JD(S) temporarily. If keeping the other national party out of power is more important than seeking the chief ministership, both Congress and BJP may be willing to do a deal with Kumaraswamy on this.
The logic of not staking a claim to the top job is this: for the Congress, a win in Karnataka is crucial since this is the only major state it currently runs. But JD(S) has an old score to settle with Siddaramaiah who left the party to head the Congress. So, if it falls short of the 113-seat majority mark by more than a few seats, it will have to offer the head of Siddaramaiah. If Kumaraswamy drives a hard bargain, the Congress’ next objective would be to keep the BJP out of contention, and hope that if the party’s fortunes change in May 2019, it can make another stab for power later.
For the BJP, denying Karnataka to the Congress may be as big an objective as winning, since this will demonstrate that the BJP can block the Congress even in a southern state. It may hope to keep Karnataka out of Congress’ grasp and postpone the destabilisation of a government led by the smaller party until May 2019. Who knows, if the BJP falls short or needs an ally in 2019, JD(S) could well fit the bill.
Fears of a hung assembly may have changed the nature of the challenge for both Congress and BJP. While a win is the best outcome for both, they will settle for the next best option: denying victory to their main rival. This is why Kumaraswamy’s hope of being ‘king’ and not ‘kingmaker’ cannot be dismissed as delusional.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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