LITTLE did B.S. Yeddyurappa know when he was sworn in as chief minister of the Indian state of Karnataka on May 17th, but his tenure was destined to be brief. Two days later he resigned. The reversal was a humiliation for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose local branch he heads but which also runs India’s central government. For beleaguered opposition parties, it was a rare moment of hope.
The drama began on May 15th, when the results of the recent state election were declared. Three competing parties had each won a sizeable share of seats in the assembly, leaving a hung parliament. The BJP emerged as the biggest single party, with 104 seats, but fell short of the 113 needed for a majority. The party’s only national rival, Congress, which came in second place, immediately locked arms with the third force, a regional outfit called the Janata Dal-Secular (JDS). Together they commanded 116 seats. The pairing of Congress and JDS thus claimed the right to form the state’s next government, with the son of the founder of JDS to replace the incumbent from Congress as chief minister.
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The BJP, however, declared that it should have the right to form a government, as the biggest individual party. Its bosses secured an appointment with the state’s governor, whose job it is to designate the chief minister, half an hour before the Congress-JDS crew were due to show up. Few saw this fortuitous timing as a coincidence. The governor, Vajubhai Vala, although nominally above party politics, is a former member of the RSS, a sister organisation of the BJP, and an associate of its leader, Narendra Modi, the prime minister.
Mr Vala decided that the BJP should indeed have the first go at proving a majority in the state assembly, despite the apparently insuperable arithmetic. What is more, he gave the BJP 15 days to come up with the goods—an invitation, Congress and JDS argued, for the BJP to attempt to suborn their newly elected legislators.
Congress and JDS rushed to the Supreme Court in Delhi, where their lawyers argued at a special hearing lasting till 5am on the morning of May 17th, that Mr Yeddyurappa’s swearing-in, scheduled for 9am, must be called off. Meanwhile, the caucuses of Congress and JDS were being shuttled from one locked-down luxury resort to another. Eventually they were ferried by coach to the neighbouring state of Telangana, the better to protect them from bribery and threats that might persuade them to defect to the BJP. Two Congress members, missing in action, were reputed to have been kidnapped by the BJP and held in yet another luxury hotel.
In theory, “horse-trading”, as the Indian press politely terms efforts to build a legislative majority by hook or crook, is illegal. Congress and JDS both released audio recordings that purported to capture allies of Mr Yeddyurappa offering places in his cabinet or even cash to his adversaries in exchange for their support in a floor vote. (The BJP say these were faked.) What is more, Mr Vala’s decision to give the BJP a shot at forming a government looked biased given that, at recent elections in other states, Congress had been in the BJP’s position but had not got a look-in.
In the end, the Supreme Court allowed the swearing-in to go ahead, but gave Mr Yeddyurappa just two days to prove his majority. When he could not, he was left with no choice but to announce his own resignation. The son of the JDS leader, H.D. Kumaraswamy, will take his place on May 21st; Congress will appoint a deputy chief minister.
There are at least two lessons from this saga for next year’s national election. The first is that Congress and the regional parties are ready for alliance—and that alliances can win. In Karnataka, as in India as a whole, the BJP tends to command a reliable 30-35% of the popular vote. India’s first-past-the-post electoral system can easily turn such a plurality into a big majority, if the opposition is divided. Sizeable regional parties, having digested this lesson, are queuing up to strike pacts with Congress.
The focus of attention is India’s supposedly neutral institutions, which have come under tremendous pressure as Mr Modi’s dominion over politics has grown. Just weeks ago Congress moved to impeach the chief justice of the Supreme Court, convinced that he was skewing the judiciary in favour of the BJP. There have also been complaints about the attorney-general, the federal police and other supposedly neutral agencies.
Arun Shourie, a disaffected former minister from the BJP, accuses Mr Modi of pursuing the “Indirafication” of politics, a reference to Indira Gandhi, a former prime minister who awarded herself sweeping emergency powers. The fact that the Supreme Court overruled Mr Vala has provided a degree of reassurance. But his decision suggests there is reason to worry. The to-do in Karnataka, in short, is probably just a taste of the excitement to come.