Indian politics rarely lacks melodrama. But the recent elections in the southern state of Karnataka have set a new standard for last-minute twists and moustache-twirling villainy. After a frenetic campaign that produced no clear winner, last week saw, in succession, a deadlock over which party would be invited to form the government; several controversial decisions by state Gov. Vajubhai Vala, who is an apparatchik of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); allegations of millions of dollars in bribes; the self-imposed house arrest of scores of legislators; and a middle-of-the-night emergency dash to the Supreme Court. More drama was packed into seven days than is found in a big-budget Bollywood blockbuster.
In the end, the BJP’s archrival party — the Indian National Congress — and a smaller regional party known as the Janata Dal (Secular) formed an eleventh-hour coalition, which will be sworn in on Wednesday. It’s a temporary halt of the BJP’s yearslong drive to wipe Congress off India’s political map. But while it might be a welcome reprieve for the opposition, the tumult of power grabs, attempted bribes, and shady deals reveals the increasingly delicate state of India’s democracy.
The hysteria reached a fever pitch because Karnataka is a crucial state for next year’s battle royal, when India’s more than 850 million voters will cast their ballots in the country’s parliamentary elections. Karnataka is the eighth-largest state by population (61 million people as of the 2011 census), but it’s the fifth-largest in economic terms. Plus, it’s home to India’s formidable IT industry housed in and around the megalopolis of Bangalore, abundant natural resources, and sizeable inflows of foreign direct investment.
However, numbers alone do not do justice to Karnataka’s symbolic importance. In 2008, the BJP won control of the state for the first time; because the party’s base is primarily in the north and west of the country, southern voters had previously viewed the party as a foreign import. Subnationalism is quite strong in the south, and the Hindu nationalist BJP has had trouble — linguistically, culturally, and politically — adapting its Hindi belt roots to a segment of the country once dominated by the Congress and now more reliably by a slew of state-specific regional parties.
After the 2008 victory, the party’s tenure in Karnataka soon crashed and burned: B.S. Yeddyurappa, the state’s chief minister, unceremoniously resigned in 2011 after authorities fingered him and his allies in a massive natural resource scam that brought governance in the state to a standstill. In the subsequent election in 2013, the opposition Congress easily triumphed, a victory made possible by the fact that Yeddyurappa quit the BJP over his forced ouster, formed his own party, and played spoiler. Five years later, Yeddyurappa patched things up with the BJP as the party made a big push to reclaim its onetime southern foothold in advance of next spring’s general election. For the BJP, reclaiming the state would have given it a prized perch from which it could launch its determined effort to make further inroads into the south.
For Congress, the race was no ordinary electoral tussle — it was an existential one. Since coming to power in May 2014, Modi and the BJP have steadily expanded the party’s footprint across India in an effort to bring about a Congress-mukt Bharat (Congress-free India). The BJP views the Congress party’s devotion to secularism, welfarism, and dynastic politics as key sources of India’s weakness, at home and abroad.
To date, their project has proceeded swimmingly. Whereas the BJP and its allies held power in just eight states in 2014, today they rule in 20. The long-dominant Congress has seen its fortunes decline precipitously. In 2014’s parliamentary elections, it won a paltry 44 seats — its worst performance on record. Today, it clings to power in just four states. For Congress, a victory would not just stop the BJP onslaught, but it would also give the party’s young leader Rahul Gandhi (the peripatetic scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty) a much-needed image boost after a string of embarrassing election defeats.
While many have long written the young leader off, he has appeared more consistent, focused, and invested since assuming the presidency of the Congress party last December — raising hopes that he has turned a corner. More practically, a victory would also ensure access to Karnataka’s plentiful coffers and the rent-seeking opportunities the Congress sorely needs to raise funds for national elections.
With this much at stake, the campaign turned nasty quickly. At one rally, Modi had dared Rahul Gandhi to speak for 15 minutes about the achievements of the Congress’s government in Karnataka in any language, including his “mother’s mother tongue,” and without reading from a piece of paper — a cheeky reference to his mother’s Italian origins and Rahul’s lack of charisma. The incumbent Congress chief minister, Siddaramaiah, wasted no time in challenging Modi to speak about the achievements of Yeddyurappa’s prior scandal-ridden government “for 15 minutes by looking at a paper.”
On May 15, the day votes were counted, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, but it failed to secure an outright majority (winning 104 out of 222 seats). As BJP leaders huddled, the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) issued a surprise of their own: an opportunistic postelection pact to keep the BJP out of power. Together, they had 115 seats — barely crossing the majority mark in the legislature. Although the two sides had slung plenty of mud against each other during the election campaign — at one point, Congress dubbed the JD(S) the “BJP’s B-team” — expediency created a marriage of convenience.
With both the BJP and the opposition staking claim to the government, the largely ceremonial governor of the state had a politically momentous decision to make: Which side would he call first to form the government? Governors are handpicked by the central government and meant to serve as nonpartisan figures above the fray, although they have a checkered history when it comes to upholding this norm. Fortunately, they have few essential tasks; unfortunately for the Congress, government formation is one of them.
Karnataka’s governor, a BJP stalwart named Vajubhai Vala who was appointed in 2014, was a longtime ally of Modi’s dating back to the latter’s stint as chief minister of Gujarat. With little hesitation, Vala invited his erstwhile party-mates to form the government and gave them an unprecedented 15 days to prove their majority — a long enough window to poach opposition legislators with promises of money and ministerial berths.
India’s Constitution is silent on the criteria governors should use when deciding whom to invite to form a government in ambiguous cases like this. So while Vala’s decision to side with the BJP can be defended, giving the party more than two weeks to cobble together a majority sparked widespread outrage. Wasting no time, the Congress coalition rushed to the Supreme Court of India seeking a stay on Yeddyurappa’s swearing-in. At 2 a.m. on Thursday, a trio of sleep-deprived justices opened the court’s chambers for an emergency hearing, but they refused to halt the proceedings.
A flurry of activity followed. Yeddyurappa was sworn in without an evident majority and immediately hosted a one-man Cabinet meeting. In an effort to protect its legislators from being bought off by the BJP, Congress bused them all to a posh golf resort outside of Bangalore and placed them under lock and key.In an effort to protect its legislators from being bought off by the BJP, Congress bused them all to a posh golf resort outside of Bangalore and placed them under lock and key. One of Yeddyurappa’s first decisions was to order the police to withdraw their security cover at the resort, making it easier for desperate BJP emissaries to contact the sequestered lawmakers. Meanwhile, the JD(S)’s top leader, H.D. Kumaraswamy, told a press gaggle that the BJP was offering his legislators a $15 million bounty if they were to switch sides. The court, having initially refused to stop Yeddyurappa’s swearing-in, later declared that 15 days was an excessive period of time to prove one’s majority and ordered them to put it to a vote on Saturday afternoon.
Despite the BJP’s best efforts, the party failed to pry enough defectors away from the opposition to claim a majority. This is not for lack of trying; the opposition publicly aired as many as six covertly recorded entreaties from the BJP to switch sides in exchange for vast sums of cash. The BJP even got another assist from the governor, who appointed a longtime Yeddyurappa ally as speaker pro tem to manage the vote (in violation of parliamentary norms).
Congress, despite seeing its standing dramatically plummet in the state, has lived to fight another day. Since its epic defeat in the 2014 parliamentary elections, Congress has often appeared dazed and confused by Modi’s rhetorical flair and wily political skills. This time around, it demonstrated surprising agility in the aftermath of the vote count — stitching together an opportunistic coalition, rushing to enlist the Supreme Court’s help, and keeping its flock together despite gobs of cash pledged to would-be turncoats. The election also imparts an important lesson: If opposition parties have any hope of keeping the BJP at bay in 2019, they must band together.
Arguably the biggest loser is Indian democracy. The Karnataka soap opera would be highly entertaining, if it did not so effectively shine a light on the underbelly of Indian elections. As in President Donald Trump’s United States, in India, divisive politics is ratings gold. Beneath the surface, however, lasting damage to norms and institutions is eroding trust in the system. The campaign was marked by personal attacks and childish retorts, rather than policy proposals and ideas for reform. The politically motivated actions of the governor call into question the integrity of a constitutional position that is supposed to be above the fray. (The Supreme Court’s performance, however, was a relative bright spot.)
The millions of dollars spent on the campaign (believed to be one of the most expensive state elections in India’s history) and the millions more pledged to would-be defectors reveal that all the talk about cleaning up money in politics is merely doublespeak. And regardless of which side wins, the voters of Karnataka are left asking: Does it really matter? As many as 35 percent of newly elected legislators across parties face at least one pending criminal case, while 24 percent have been accused in a criminal case of a serious nature that would warrant real jail time. Four of these tainted legislators are charged with attempted murder. Meanwhile, the dueling factions in the Karnataka spectacle have charged each other with committing the “murder of democracy.” On this at least, both sides can agree.