Karnataka state elections throw up unclear verdict

BJP supporters celebrating their party's success in the Karnataka elections in Bangalore yesterday. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress have said they will form the state government in an election where much is at stake for them. Without
BJP supporters celebrating their party's success in the Karnataka elections in Bangalore yesterday. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress have said they will form the state government in an election where much is at stake for them. Without Karnataka, the Congress would control only three states. The BJP is looking to gain a foothold in South India where it is weak.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BJP's 104 seats short of 113 needed to secure majority; tussle with Congress to form govt

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as the single largest party in the crucial state elections in Karnataka but fell short of a simple majority, triggering confusion and intense political manoeuvring.

Celebrations started early yesterday morning with senior BJP leaders seen feeding each other sweets on live television. But by late afternoon, the BJP won only 104 of the 222 assembly seats up for election, short of the 113 seats needed to secure a majority in the 224-member assembly.

In another surprising twist, the opposition Congress party - which was tipped to win 78 seats - struck a post-election alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular), which was winning in 38 seats.

Both the BJP and the Congress have said they will form the state government in an election where much is at stake for them.

The BJP is looking to gain a foothold in South India where it is weak, while the Congress, which governs Karnataka, is hoping to stem a string of losses in state elections and gain legitimacy as the leader of the opposition ahead of general elections next year.

Karnataka, home to the country's IT capital Bengaluru, is among India's more prosperous states. It is one of five states and two union territories that make up the country's southern part, which has its own languages and regional and cultural identity.

  • 104

    Number of assembly seats won by the BJP in Karnataka state, out of a total of 222 seats up for election.

    $1.9b-$2.1b

    Expenditure by political parties in the Karnataka election, double that in the past election, according to The Centre for Media Studies.

The BJP was in power in Karnataka but lost to the Congress in 2013 due to a mining corruption scandal that engulfed its senior state leaders. In that election, the Congress won 121 of the 224 assembly seats, while the BJP had just 40.

The Congress is desperate to cling on to Karnataka state. Without it, the party would control only three states - Punjab, Puducherry and Mizoram. The BJP controls 21 out of India's 29 states.

It is now up to the Karnataka governor, Mr Vajubhai Rudabhai Vala - who was appointed by the BJP-ruled federal government in September 2014 - to invite either side to form the government. He can either give the BJP time to prove it has a majority or accept the alliance of the Congress and JDS.

"The BJP is the single largest party and so he will likely call them first. If they can somehow produce a majority, they will form the government. He will go through the process and give them time," said Dr N. Bhaskara Rao of the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies. "This drama will continue."

A BJP delegation met the governor yesterday even as the other side also tried to meet him and stake claim to forming the government.

Mr Modi, addressing BJP party workers, said he was satisfied with the Karnataka polls and called it a win that was unprecedented as the BJP was portrayed as a North Indian party.

"I thank my sisters and brothers of Karnataka for steadfastly supporting the BJP's development agenda and making BJP the single largest party in the state," tweeted Mr Modi.

This election, like any others in India, was also about money power. The Centre for Media Studies, a non-profit development research think-tank, called the Karnataka election a "money guzzler" and said expenditure by political parties was between 95 billion rupees (S$1.9 billion) and 105 billion rupees, double the expenditure of the previous election.

It said these figures were based on field reports in the media, feedback of journalists and discussions with key functionaries at different levels in the field.

Still, analysts noted that a combination of factors, including a better reachout to voters, a message of state pride combined with the prime minister's popularity, had given BJP the edge.

"The BJP seems to have expanded its footprint...The change happened in the last one week (of campaigning) with the prime minister's rallies that have made the difference," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist and Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Jain University.

But he added: "The post-result machinations are all efforts by both the Congress and BJP to try and neutralise the other in preparation for politics of general elections."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2018, with the headline 'Karnataka state elections throw up unclear verdict'. Print Edition | Subscribe