Clockwise from left: H. D. Kumaraswamy, Yeddyurappa and Siddaramaiah Image Credit: Supplied

New Delhi: Branded as the semi-finals to the 2019 general elections, the Karnataka state poll results threw up an unexpected surprise yesterday, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerging as the single largest party, but short of an outright majority. The Congress quickly proclaimed support to third-placed JD(S) to keep the saffron party out of power.

All eyes are now on Governor Vajubhai Vala, who will have to decide whether to call the BJP to try to form the government or go with the JD(S)-Congress combine, which together have a clear majority in the 224-member Assembly.

Out of 222 seats, the BJP won 104, falling short of the halfway mark, while the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) combine got 118 seats.

Both Congress and BJP had put all their weight behind the Karnataka state legislative assembly election. It was seen as an existential battle for Congress and losing Karnataka meant erosion of Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s credibility. The loss is now likely to disappoint the Congress party in the country and adversely impact the party’s position in the 2019 general elections.

In separate meetings with Karnataka Governor Valubhai Vala on Tuesday, BJP’s Chief Ministerial candidate BS Yedyurappa and Congress-backed JDS leader HD Kumaraswamy staked claim to forming the government.

Clockwise from left: H. D. Kumaraswamy, Yeddyurappa and Siddaramaiah

Yeddyurappa said the BJP should be given the chance to prove its majority first as it was the single largest party.

“Karnataka has given the mandate of Congress-free Karnataka. The Congress is trying to come back to power through the back-door and people of Karnataka will not tolerate it,” he told the media.

is the population of Karnataka

JDS, which finished third, told the governor it would form the government with Congress support.

Congress agreed to give “unconditional support” to JDS leader and former prime minister (PM) HD Devegowda’s son HD Kumaraswamy as CM of a coalition government.

Three states only

of the 50 million approved voters turned out in Saturday’s election

Congress, which lost control of the national government to Modi in 2014, is desperate to cling on to Karnataka.

Without it the party would control only three states — Punjab, Puducherry and Mizoram — which together account for just 2.5 per cent of India’s 1.25 billion people.

The BJP rules 21 out of India’s 29 states. Since its landslide national win in 2014 the party has stormed northern India, claiming around a dozen crushing state victories.

Earlier in the day, veteran Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad said, “we had a telephonic talk with Deve Gowda and Mr Kumaraswamy and they have accepted it. Whoever JDS will decide, will head the government.”

BJP also rushed its union ministers JP Nadda, Prakash Javadekar and Dharmendra Pradhan to Karnataka to manage the situation.

Congress candidate Anil Kumar from Heggadadevanakote constituency celebrates his win. PTI

Now it is up to the Governor to decide who will get first shot at proving the party strength. While the convention has been to invite the single largest party to form the government first, in Meghalaya and Goa, Congress was not invited to show strength despite being the largest party.

Congress already threatened to move the court if the Governor did not invite the Congress-JDS alliance to form the government.

“We trust the Governor to take a fair decision. The BJP will not succeed in its ‘Operation Kamal’ this time in Karnataka. We have 118 seats to us, so legally we have the right to form the government,” Siddaramaiah said.

Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said the Governor should follow “constitutional traditions.”

“Way back, BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee was invited to form a government by the then president KR Narayanan. The guiding principle behind it was that a party or a combination of parties that has won the largest number of seats be invited,” Surjewala justified.

BJP’s B. Harshavardhan celebrates his win from Nanjangud constituency in Mysore. PTI

Meanwhile, former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee said the proper legal course was to allow the single largest party to form the government.

“The single largest party should be allowed first to form the government on the condition that they be given a short period to prove their majority at the floor of the house. This has to be done at the floor of the House not at Governor House. The second scenario is if the single largest party is unable to form the government, give a chance to coalition. In the third scenario, if the floor test fails, it will be President’s rule,” Sorabjee said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi thanked the voters of Karnataka for making BJP the single largest party.

“I thank my sisters and brothers of Karnataka for steadfastly supporting the BJP’s development agenda and making BJP the single largest party in the state. I salute the stupendous work of @BJP4Karnataka Karyakartas who toiled round the clock and worked for the party,” he tweeted.

BJP president Amit Shah also thanked people of Karnataka.

“I thank people of Karnataka for voting BJP as the single largest party. This mandate clearly reflects that Karnataka has rejected Congress’s corruption, dynastic politics and divisive casteism. Like rest of the nation, the great land of Karnataka has shown their unwavering trust in PM @narendramodi’s clean, transparent and pro-development governance,” he tweeted.

Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan said the results of Karnataka assembly polls were a “big setback” to Congress president Gandhi.

“It is a big setback for the face of Congress. What could be the future of a person if he has no present. Unless the opposition or its alliance partners accept Rahul Gandhi, there is no future for him and now everyone is holding him responsible for the defeat in Karnataka and accusing him of not taking them onboard,” Paswan told media.

5 key takeaways from poll verdict

1) Karnataka is the first major Indian state electing an assembly this year, to be followed by three more. The results will act as a clear indicator of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity and appeal as he and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seek re-election in 2019. If the BJP gets to govern Karnataka, Modi is widely expected to bring forward the parliamentary polls to even end of 2018 to benefit from the favourable public support.

2) If the BJP manages to form a government in Karnataka, the party and its allies would govern 22 of India’s 29 states. Since its landslide national win in 2014, the Modi juggernaut has stormed northern India, claiming around a dozen crushing state victories. A stable BJP government in Karnataka could free up the federal government to pursue serious reforms, including removing foreign direct investment restrictions and moving towards privatisation of government entities.

3) The powerful Lingayat community, a Hindu sect that comprises 17 per cent of Karnataka’s population, was expected to play a decisive role in the elections. After Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah declared the community a separate religion, the party expected the decision to translate into votes in its favour. Instead, the community largely ended up voting for the BJP, for which it has always voted traditionally.

4) If the Congress party loses Karnataka, it would control only three Indian states — Punjab, Puducherry and Mizoram — which together account for just 2.5 per cent of the country’s 1.25 billion people. The loss of the state would be a major setback for Congress and its new president, Rahul Gandhi, the fifth-generation scion of India’s famed Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, as he prepares for the 2019 parliamentary elections.

5) If the Congress party manages to retain Karnataka as a coalition partner with the regional party Janata Dal (Secular) or JD-S, it would set a possible model for a united opposition coalition to take on the might of Modi in the 2019 polls, and would make the Indian prime minister’s re-election prospects more challenging.

— Compiled from agencies