NEW DELHI — After a controversial election in Karnataka, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is in the process of winning over allies so that it can govern in the state held by the opposition since 2013.
Although BJP secured 104 seats of 222 up for election in the May 12 poll, it fell eight short of majority. Nonetheless, BJP still held significantly more votes than the incumbent Indian National Congress, its main opposition, which won just 78 seats. In a desperate bid to retain control, INC has now forged an alliance with Janata Dal (Secular), a regional party, and claims it has the majority to form a government with a total of 117 seats.
But Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala, who was appointed by the central administration and a former BJP member, on Wednesday invited Modi’s party to form a government, leading the opposition to petition the Supreme Court in New Delhi to stay the decision. After a rare overnight hearing, the court said it will now reconvene on Friday.
If BJP manages to remain in power in Karnataka, it and its allies will control 22 of the 29 states in India, ruling around 70% of a population of roughly 1.25 billion people. That BJP has won the greatest number of supporters in Karnataka is significant for Modi who is now viewed as a leader so popular that his party has managed to break the opposition stronghold in the south. This will brighten his prospects for re-election in the national polls next year.
Analysts say the INC, which lost 44 seats in Karnataka — a state with a population of over 65 million — will be dealt a sharp blow if the BJP wins the floor in the state assembly.
“The key takeaway from this election is that the BJP has popular support outside its usual strongholds in north and western India,” research firm Capital Economics said in a note. “In turn, this should reassure PM Modi that he should stick to a path of gradual policy reform.”
The Modi government, which came to power in May 2014, has faced severe criticism from opponents for its sudden move to ban high-value banknotes in November 2016 that sucked out 86% of the money in circulation. Modi also received flak for the hasty and chaotic rollout of a goods and services tax in July 2017.
But since then, the economy has bounced back and is now expected to grow 7.4% in 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund. Political consultancy Eurasia Group said that BJP will manage to convince legislators to switch sides to help it garner a majority over the next 15 days, a prerequisite of government.
“If the BJP succeeds in forming a government in Karnataka, it would relegate Congress to controlling only Punjab, Mizoram, and Puducherry,” it said in a Wednesday note. Mizoram and Puducherry are small states, meaning that the opposition will lose significant political heft.
Since he came to power, the charismatic Modi has already helped his party to win a series of state polls, including in northeastern Tripura, northern Himachal Pradesh and western Gujarat in recent months.
The opposition called Governor Vala’s decision on Wednesday “a murder of democracy.” But those cries may already be too late. BJP’s B. S. Yeddyurappa was sworn in on Thursday as Karnataka Chief Minister amid loud cheers by supporters chanting Modi’s name.
Prominent constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap said it was the governor’s decision which party to invite to form a government, and the matter should not have been taken to court. “The majority has to be decided only in the floor of the House … [The] remedy [now] is the [state assembly’s] session should be called at the earliest in two to three days,” he told NDTV news channel.
BJP is confident that it can get the majority it needs, saying that it has contacted like-minded politicians from other parties to rally their support. The opposition, on the other hand, is understood to be doing its best to keep its members from defecting.
BJP’s “irrational insistence” that it will form a government in Karnataka, even though it clearly does not have the numbers, “is to make a mockery of our constitution,” INC President Rahul Gandhi tweeted. “While the BJP celebrates its hollow victory, India will mourn the defeat of democracy.”
BJP President and Modi’s close aide Amit Shah tweeted in response: “The ‘murder of democracy’ happens the minute a desperate Congress made an ‘opportunist’ offer to the JD(S), not for Karnataka’s welfare but for their petty political gains. Shameful!”