Straws in the wind: on Congress-JD(S) combine in Karnataka

Congress-JD(S) success in Karnataka’s bypolls has a larger message on Opposition unity

By winning two of the three Lok Sabha constituencies and both the Assembly seats for which byelections were held in Karnataka, the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) combine has demonstrated the power of alliance arithmetic. But the strategic tie-up does not explain the huge margins of victory. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party, which thinks of Karnataka as its gateway to the south, could not have anticipated such heavy losses. The defeat in its stronghold of Ballari by around two lakh votes, a constituency in which the JD(S) is almost non-existent, is bound to raise questions about the BJP’s prospects in the State in the 2019 general election. Even in Shivamogga, the lone constituency bagged by the BJP, the victory was somewhat narrow, with the party’s vote share dropping. As expected, the JD(S) won comfortably in the Mandya parliamentary and Ramanagara Assembly seats, but this was no surprise given that the BJP here is only a bit player. Having tasted success, the Congress-JD(S) tie-up, which began as a marriage of convenience following a hung verdict in the Karnataka Assembly, could strengthen as they prepare for 2019. The results have demonstrated that all apprehensions about how well this partnership was working at the ground level were possibly exaggerated; the Congress high command will now be better placed to put pressure on the State unit to cooperate and strategise with its ally in the months ahead.

For the Congress, the victories will provide another illustration of the need to ally with other parties to take on the BJP. The party has been losing State after State since 2014, winning only in Punjab (where the BJP is only a marginal player) and managing to share power with the JD(S) in Karnataka in a post-election arrangement. Although bypolls have their own electoral dynamic and are not firm indicators of what will happen in a State Assembly or general election, the Congress victories, by huge margins in Alwar and Ajmer in Rajasthan and now in Karnataka, will infuse a measure of confidence in a beleaguered leadership that is trying hard to revive the party’s electoral prospects. Its hopes have been buoyed by the BJP’s own performance in recent byelections, which have been sub-par in States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. Going forward, the results of the elections to the State Assemblies — particularly to those of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — will be critical to how the battle for 2019 is fought. A strong Congress performance will have a bearing on not only how alliances are struck, but also how seats are shared. The BJP may remain the largest political party in the country. But the scattered byelection successes, Karnataka being the latest, will strengthen those in the Congress who favour an accommodative strategy, one that attempts to build locally resonant alliances and provides adequate political space for partners, to throw an effective challenge in 2019.

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