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Politics

BJP dominance in Karnataka bodes well for Modi in 2019 polls

Controversial state election rings death knell for opposition in India's south

Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party celebrate after hearing that it won the most number of seats in the Karnataka state assembly elections on May 15.   © Reuters

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 to form a new government in a state held by the opposition since 2013.

The BJP secured 104 seats of the 222 up for election in the May 12 poll, falling eight short of a majority. Nonetheless, the party gained a significantly higher share of the vote than the incumbent Indian National Congress, which won just 78 seats. In a last-ditch attempt to retain control, the INC has now forged an alliance with Janata Dal (Secular), a regional party, and claims it has the majority required to govern with a total of 117 seats.

But Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala, who was appointed by the central administration and is a former BJP member, on Wednesday invited Modi's party to form a government, leading its rival to petition the Supreme Court in New Delhi to stay the decision. After a rare overnight hearing, the court said it would reconvene on Friday.

If the BJP manages to regain power in Karnataka, it and its allies will control 22 of the 29 states in India, ruling over about 70% of a population of roughly 1.25 billion people. That the BJP has won the greatest number of supporters in Karnataka is significant for Modi, as his party has managed to break the opposition stronghold in the south. This will further improve his prospects for re-election in 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 severe 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, faced a considerable amount of criticism for its sudden move to ban high-value banknotes in November 2016, which took 86% of the cash in the country out of circulation. The prime minister was also criticized for the introduction of a goods and services tax in July 2017, which many considered to have been executed too hastily.

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 the BJP would likely manage to persuade legislators to switch sides to help it garner a majority over the next 15 days.

"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 note on Wednesday. Mizoram and Puducherry are small states, meaning that the opposition will lose a significant amount of influence.

Since coming to power, Modi has helped his party win a series of state polls, including in Tripura in the northeast, Himachal Pradesh in the north and the western state of Gujarat in recent months.

Rival parties described Governor Vala's decision on Wednesday as the "murder of democracy." But their cries may already be too late. The 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.

The BJP is confident that it can secure the majority it needs, saying that it has contacted like-minded politicians from other parties to rally their support. The INC, on the other hand, is understood to be doing its best to keep its members from defecting.

"The 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 Amit Shah, a close aide of the prime minister, 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!"

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