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May 23, 2018 | 21:08 GMT

3 mins read

India: Why Modi Is the Real Loser in Karnataka's State Elections

(Stratfor)
The Big Picture

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party were hoping for a win in elections in Karnataka, one of the few states under opposition control. The results of the vote will likely set the tone for the other state elections set to take place this year. And they may have provided opposition parties with a plan to challenge Modi in the 2019 national elections.

India's latest regional elections turned out to be a real nail-biter with implications for the entire country. As the dust settles, the results of Karnataka's state vote have left Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a little bit weaker and increased the chances that a unified opposition will challenge him in 2019. 

Although Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to make gains in the elections, it fell nine seats short of a majority in the regional assembly. As a result, it had the option either to try to form a coalition government with Janata Dal (Secular) — likely conceding Cabinet positions in the process — or to make an aggressive bid to persuade legislators to defect to the BJP. The BJP chose the latter approach, and Karnataka's governor swore in a BJP government before the party could demonstrate it had the necessary number of seats.

The decision turned out to be premature. The BJP's main competitor, the Indian National Congress, made a surprise move to form an alliance with Janata Dal (Secular), even going so far as to concede the region's top post to the party to seal the deal. The new coalition — combined with a media backlash against the governor's apparent haste — kept the BJP out of power.

Now that the drama has unfolded, its most important implications are on the national level. The BJP not only snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but it also provided the catalyst for an unlikely alliance between the Indian National Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) that will probably cost the ruling party seats in the 2019 national elections. Since Karnataka is a mid-size state, the BJP will likely feel the loss once the seats have been tallied nationwide and parties start preparing for attempts to form a government.

India's political parties are drawing the battle lines in the war for control of the world's largest democracy.

The new arrangement between the Indian National Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) has provided India's opposition with a new model for challenging Modi and the BJP on the national stage. Following the Karnataka example, the Indian National Congress could form an alliance with some of the country's many regional parties by agreeing to let a smaller party fill the position of prime minister. The possibility will incentivize multiple parties to take a hard look at joining forces with the Indian National Congress as the 2019 elections draw closer. Already, the leader of a powerful regional party, a former BJP ally, has shown potential interest in joining a coalition against the BJP by attending the new Karnataka government's swearing-in ceremony. And in Uttar Pradesh, where voters heavily supported Modi in 2014, two regional parties recently formed an alliance against the prime minister and his party.

India's political parties are drawing the battle lines in the war for control of the world's largest democracy. The smart money is still on Modi for the national elections, given his formidable campaigning skills and the many barriers to cooperation among India's smaller parties. But as Karnataka's election proves, the incumbent prime minister's victory in 2019 is far from guaranteed.

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