If the Congress had managed to retain at least five or six of the 12 seats that they held before the by-polls of December 5 in Karnataka, party leader and former chief minister Siddaramaiah could have dubbed it: ‘By-poll Bhagya.’ For, every major scheme and plan that he came up with in his tenure of 5 years that ended in 2018 was dubbed some ‘Bhagya’ or the other, which could mean either fortune or blessing in Kannada.
However, like all of Siddaramaiah’s Bhagyas, all his planning, scheming and design ended up with hardly anything to show in the by-elections. Chief minister, B S Yediyurappa, will now head a BJP government that holds full majority, with 117 MLAs in the Karnataka assembly of 224—four more than the ‘magic number’ of 113. The BJP would consider this an endorsement of their stand that they always deserved to form the government as the single largest party that won 104 of the seats in the 2018 assembly election.
Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, upbeat with the Karnataka results, has made statements that reinforce this stand. In contrast, Siddaramaiah and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee President Dinesh Gundu Rao have submitted their resignations and have publicly accepted defeat. The Janata Dal (Secular), king and kingmaker, in the last one year of political instability, thanks to the swiftly cobbled-together alliance between them and the Congress that made Gowda’s son, H D Kumaraswamy, the chief minister in 2018, did not manage to win even one of the three seats that they held before the by-elections.
That’s the visible politics of the situation. And these ‘visible’ marks show very little of the murkiness, disarray, clannishness and plain uneasiness of the BJP victory. The saffron party, unwilling to idolize anyone but Modi and BJP president, Amit Shah, will not willingly give the victory to the person who is actually responsible for it. But this time, Shah did not directly operate on the ground to ensure victory—he let the sheer sentimentality of Yediyurappa’s appeal to his community, the Lingayats, to bring the horses home to the stable.
It may be recalled that even in the earlier instance of Yediyurappa forming a government in Karnataka in 2008 with defectors, the BJP national leadership did not get involved in the unsavoury operation of getting opposition MLAs to resign and re-contest by-elections on their party ticket. This was the origin of the Operation Kamala, the brainchild of mining kingpin Janardhan Reddy, whose planning and execution of choosing opposition MLAs who could win irrespective of party brought political awe from across parties lines, some intellectual disgust and general indifference from the voting public.
The Congress and Siddaramaiah certainly knew this and the entire line that they took in the by-poll election campaign—that ‘disqualified’, ‘purchased’ MLAs should be punished—did not work, given that the voting public is unable to identify any politician as ‘good’ in the current milieu. So, each seat was essentially a battle on its own, with the South Karnataka and Bengaluru assembly segments voting entirely on the character of the candidate—irrespective of party—while the Lingayat-dominated North Karnataka decided that they didn’t care who the candidate was, they had to ensure their man Yediyurappa continued in the CM’s chair.
The South Karnataka line is most evident in the election of independent candidate Sharat Bachegowda, whom the BJP rejected for the sake of Congress defector M T B Nagaraj. Bachegowda’s constituency Hoskote saw a record electoral turnout of over 90 per cent.
The other clear takeaway from these by-polls is that Yediyurappa, at 76, has shown his capability and mass leadership in a way that makes it abundantly clear to people both within the BJP and without, that he is currently the only leader in Karnataka with a powerful community supporting him. The crown is however full of thorns, despite this kind of mass support. He has to now manage 13 disparate MLAs with no loyalty to him whatsoever, all of whom have been promised ministries at the cost of other BJP leaders.
His first ‘headache’ is likely to be Gokak MLA Ramesh Jarkiholi, considered the man who engineered this round of Operation Kamala. Jarkiholi has huge ambitions and will unwillingly accept a deputy CM’s post. And this post will be ‘willingly’ given to him by Yediyurappa, who will always be aware that Jarkiholi is a constant threat to his own position and government. The other fallout of this is Jarkiholi’s clansman B Sriramulu, a close friend of Operation Kamala founder Janardhan Reddy, will be denied the deputy CM’s post that he aspired for, despite being one of the BJP’s strongest leaders and funders.
This brings the political story on a full circle to the Bhagyas: what you wish for may not always be what you get. Yediyurappa is left batting on a very sticky wicket with ugly bodyline bowling expected from his own side. Siddaramaiah has resigned and, though he is still the only leader in the Congress to get huge turnouts for his speeches, he can definitely be termed to have retired to the Pavilion to rest.
The younger lot in the Congress, still being groomed, have not stepped up to the pitch to take a stance. And the JD(S) that wanted to both captain and umpire the game is now on the sidelines, watching and waiting for some opportunity in the distant future to grab power again.