AN ASSEMBLY HALF WAY DOWN ITS TERM
The Karnataka Legislative Assembly has completed this month (February) 33 months of its 60 month term, leaving another 27 months before the next scheduled Assembly elections. Having completed half its term, it would be interesting to see the ups and downs that the Assembly that was elected in 2018 has seen. It has seen three Chief Ministers assuming office. It has witnessed 21 by-elections and 3 seats now being vacant awaiting a by-election.
These by-elections have brought in far reaching changes in the politics of the state. I would be useful to undertake a mid-term review of the cut and thrust of Karnataka politics as seen from the lens of the changing composition of the Legislative Assembly of the state.
If one were to review the last eight Legislative Assemblies in Karnataka (last 35 years since 1985) only two assemblies (1999-2004 and 2013-18) saw a single Chief Minister completing a full term ( S M Krishna from 1999-2004 and Siddaramaiah from 2013-18). Twice we have had two Chief Ministers during the term of one Assembly (Hegde and Bommai from 1985-89; DeveGowda and JH Patel 1994-99) and four Assemblies saw three Chief Ministerial tenures (Veerendra Patil, Bangarappa and Moily from 1989-94; Dharam Singh, Kumaaraswamy and Yedyurappa from 2004-8; Yedyurappa, Sadananda Gowda and Shettar from 2008-13; Yedyurappa - twice and Kumaaraswamyfrom 2018-to present). The current Assembly could well break the past record if the strong rumours connected to change of state leadership before 2023 are to be given their due weight. Karnataka has witnessed little stability in the tenure of Chief Ministers.
This change of Chief Minister has not always been on account of the ruling party losing its majority. In most cases it has been due to the internal dynamics within a ruling party. In the last three and a half decades, no leader has returned to power after an Assembly election and only two have remained in power during the full term of the Assembly. This political instability is often reflected in the governance that the state has had and the inability of a ruling party to be able to come back to power.
The changing electoral fortunes of political parties are also seen in the trend in the by-elections. In the 21 by-elections held so far, the party that won the seat originally was able to retain it in only four cases. Of the 17 cases where the by-election resulted in the election of candidate from a different political party, in all but two cases, the beneficiary was the BJP. This accounts for the BJP tally going up in the Assembly from its original 104 (in 2018) to 119 today.
This has largely been at the cost of the Congress which has fallen from 80 to 67 and the JDS which has plummeted from 37 to 32. The by-elections have contributed to an element of stability for the BJP government in the state. It is clear that in the by-elections when the voters re-elected the legislators who had shifted their political base from the Congress and JDS to the BJP, it was not so much an endorsing of their act as much as their preference for ensuring that the ruling party had a clear majority paving the way for political stability.
It would also be important to record that in the 33 member Cabinet of Yedyurappa, 12 of the ministers have changed their political affiliations during the term of the legislature. If close to four of every ten of the Cabinet ministers were elected to the 2018 Karnataka Legislative Assembly, on the tickets of either the Congress, JDS or independents and later changed their political affiliations it is indicative of the dramatic shifts in the composition of the House. It is also reflective of how the ruling party needed to accommodate those from other political persuasions in order to both come to power as also to remain in government.
The desperation to provide accommodation was evident in the fact that of two of the ministers, one lost the by-election and was elected to the Legislative Council before being made a minister and the other preferred not to contest the by-election and was also accommodated in the Legislative Council before being inducted into the Cabinet. The inevitable pressures and pulls in running a government are patently visible.
The dynamics of politics between general elections to the State Assembly have clearly caused instability in the state and have contributed to the inability of successive governments to focus on administration and governance. This also possibly explains why after 1985, no ruling party has been voted back to power in the state.
With most Assemblies in the last three decades witnessing two or three changes in the Chief Ministers, there is limited scope for continuity in terms of policy thrust and clear direction from the perspective of governance. Much of this has to do with the internal dynamics of the three major political parties in the state - the BJP, Congress and the JDS. The JDS has shrunk as a political force and has off late being able to make a bid for power riding on the shoulders of one of the other two political players in the state.
The High Command culture in the Congress party and a sense of drift the party has witnessed since its 2014 national defeat has led to the party at the state level being intensely faction ridden and hopelessly divided. For the BJP, coming to power in Karnataka was its first tryst with being a ruling party south of the Vindhyas. In its two stable stints in power (2008-13 and 2019 to the present) it has relied heavily on those who joined the party after the assembly elections. This has created its own sense of political instability and pulls and pressures for political accommodation.
In the process, the Karnataka voter has often been taken for a ride. The voter's response is often seen in the results of the subsequent Assembly elections. Does the BJP do a course correction before 2023? Is the Congress making the adequate preparation for making a bid for power the next time around? The JDS seems to be reconciling itself to its role as a distant third player. The next two years are crucial in shaping the course of Karnataka politics.