Karnataka jolt

A sobering lesson for Messrs Shah and Modi

By Manini Chatterjee
  • Published 21.05.18
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Anyone who likes a drink, or has been in the company of tipplers, knows only too well the different stages of inebriation that follow from every peg or pint imbibed. It begins with a sense of well-being that slowly turns into elation, and then comes the stage of over-confidence and feelings of invincibility. Finally, if one has had far too much or has become addicted to the stimulating brew, there is a loss of reason, an inability to think clearly.

Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party - and certainly Messrs Narendra Modi and Amit Shah - are diehard teetotallers who would shudder at the very thought of loosening up with a drink after a hard day's work the way we lesser mortals do.

But then alcohol is not the only intoxicant. Power can be a much more potent drug and the exhilaration of forming governments in state after state can become an addiction all its own. And like with any excessive intoxication, it can give a sense of false bravado that debilitates the capacity to think and reason. It is a state known as "power-drunk" which the dictionary defines as being intoxicated by power and rendered irrational by it.

The Karnataka fiasco faced by the BJP on May 19 is a textbook example of the perils of getting too drunk on power. As the results of the Karnataka elections started filtering in on May 15, the spokespersons of the BJP on television screens had every reason to beam. The party was clearly doing much better than the incumbent Congress. Without waiting for the final tally, seasoned journalists and TV anchors declared that the BJP was the winner and marveled at the invincible prowess of the Modi-Shah duo in securing yet another state for the party.

Their breathless wonder was not entirely misplaced. After all, the BJP was in power - either singly or in coalition - in as many as 20 states in the country. Karnataka would not only increase the tally to 21 but was also the "gateway to the South", they said, exulting over how the "Modi magic" had once again helped the ruling party get a mandate.

No one thought it fit to point out that this was not the first time that the BJP had "breached" the Vindhyas. The party had ruled Karnataka before. In fact, in 2008, the BJP led by B.S. Yeddyurappa had won 110 seats in the 224-seat assembly. If the Modi magic was so mesmerizing, surely the BJP should have done better - and not worse - than a decade ago?

But exaggeration comes naturally in a state of intoxication. And that is why, perhaps, the BJP leadership did not wait for the final numbers to emerge before declaring victory; nor work out a Plan B in advance in case it fell short of the majority mark.

Repeated victories - either through mandate or manipulation - seemed to have dulled the party leadership's senses. Once it crossed the 100-seat mark, party workers were encouraged to start the celebrations even as the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) worked out a post-poll alliance that had been in the making before the counting started.

Banking on "past precedent", the BJP was confident that even with 104 seats - a handful short of the required number - it would manage to form the government.

The BJP's confidence lay in the fact that it had managed a more difficult feat in as many as three states just a year ago. In Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya, the Congress had secured more seats than the BJP. In Goa, the Congress won 17 seats compared to the BJP's 13 and the halfway mark was 21; in Manipur, the Congress won 28 seats, just three short of majority, and the BJP 21; and in Meghalaya, the Congress won 21 seats to the BJP's paltry two. Yet, in all three states, the BJP managed to cobble together small parties and independents to form the government. It got no flak for these unprincipled post-poll arrangements; rather Amit Shah was feted for being a latter-day Chanakya who reduced the Congress to a hapless bystander with his superior "managerial skills".

If the party had so easily manipulated majorities in these states despite winning fewer seats than the Congress, Karnataka would be a cakewalk. Here, it was the single largest party by the long shot - never mind that the "single largest party" dictum had been discarded with disdain by the governors of the three small states which the BJP added last year to its kitty.

Once the Congress and the JD(S) met the governor and showed that they had a clear majority of 117 seats, a more prudent BJP would have changed its tactics. But just like that one last drink that proves one too many, the Modi-Shah duopoly allowed hubris to replace shrewd political instincts.

The trouble with being power-drunk is that you cease to consult others to collectively work out alternative strategies. In the BJP of yore, the parliamentary board or some other such body would have discussed various possibilities. But neither the prime minister nor the BJP president bothers to seek counsel from their own party colleagues who have had a little more experience - even if not the same dizzying success - as them.

If they had done so, then someone - Rajnath Singh or Sushma Swaraj or Nitin Gadkari, or even the mothballed L.K. Advani or Murli Manohar Joshi - would have pointed out that a better course of action would be to allow an H.D. Kumaraswamy-led coalition government take oath of office. And then try to bring it down and form an alternative government with defectors from the two parties.

Instead, Modi and Shah sought to brazenly use the instruments of government to secure an illegitimate majority. Neutral observers were shocked when the governor, Vajubhai Vala, announced at 9 pm on May 16 that he would swear in Yeddyurappa exactly 12 hours later, and gave him as many as 15 days to prove his majority.

The timing of the announcement and the timing of the swearing-in were clearly aimed at preventing any legal intervention; and the 15-day-window was equally generous in facilitating "horse-trading". The BJP had lost the "single largest party" argument with its shenanigans in Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya; its talk of an "unprincipled" post-poll alliance, too, cut little ice, given that it had formed a coalition with the Peoples Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir and had tied up with Nitish Kumar in Bihar who had been part of a winning pre-poll alliance that had trounced the BJP.

In addition to making a mockery of the governor's office, the BJP also ended up besmirching the reputation of the attorney general, K.K. Venugopal, and his predecessor, Mukul Rohatgi. The two eminent lawyers insisted that the BJP had the numbers and tried in vain to give the party more time to prove its majority. If not 15 days, then at least seven; if not seven, then at least three days, Rohatgi pleaded before the three-judge bench of the Supreme Court on Friday morning.

And that brings us to the stellar role played by the apex court. Another sign of the power-induced inebriation of the Modi-Shah duo is their sense of impunity. But even though the Supreme Court has been dragged into much unseemly controversy of late, it is a testament to the enduring strength of India's democratic institutions - despite the sustained assault from the current executive - that it can rise up when the occasion so demands. The Supreme Court bench heard the Congress-JD(S) petition through the night and delivered a nuanced verdict: it did not stay the governor's decision to swear in Yeddyurappa, but ordered that he prove his majority the very next day. That curtailment made all the difference - it did not give the BJP enough time to bribe or browbeat vulnerable MLAs into its ranks.

For the BJP, Karnataka should serve as a sobering moment. The Congress has been far more sure-footed and agile than anyone thought it was capable of; the Opposition parties have come together to revive an ideological battle against the sangh parivar; and the Supreme Court has stood up to prevent the defilement of democratic principles.

With his two-day stint as chief minister, Yeddyurappa may be the BJP's fall guy. But make no mistake: the Karnataka jolt is an outcome of the Modi-Shah duo's 'we are invincible' vanity...

manini.chatterjee@abp.in