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Modi's BJP forms government in key Indian state

Indian PM Narendra Modi's BJP emerged as the biggest winner in the Karnataka state election, but its poll victory was marred by questions over who has the right to form the government. Vasudevan Sridharan reports.

In what is widely considered as the bellwether electoral event for India's parliamentary polls next year, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to only just form the government after the recent state assembly elections in the southern state of Karnataka. Yet, the victory is still in limbo as it is being fiercely challenged in the Supreme Court.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP won in 104 constituencies — 8 short of the required 112 seats needed to form the state government. The Indian National Congress, the BJP's main opponent in federal politics and the incumbent ruling party in Karnataka, managed to secure 78 seats while the regional heavyweight Janata Dal (Secular), or JDS, won 37 seats in the 224-member assembly.

Elections were conducted for 222 seats; polling has been delayed in two constituencies.

Following two days of dramatic twists, the BJP's BS Yeddyurappa, a corruption-tainted politician who had previously ruled the state in 2008, was sworn in as Karnataka's chief minister today.

It came on the heels of an extraordinary midnight sitting of the Supreme Court, which refused to order a stay of the swearing-in based on appeals by the Congress and JDS who together have 116 lawmakers, and who have questioned how a government can be formed without a majority.

BS Yeddyurappa (IANS)

Following two days of dramatic twists, the BJP's BS Yeddyurappa was sworn in as Karnataka's chief minister today

However, the validity of the BJP's claim of having the necessary majority is being challenged and will be heard by the apex court soon.

Horse-trading

Opposition forces crying foul that the BJP does not have the requisite numbers have begun a sit-in outside the state assembly, Vidhana Soudha. The chief minister now has 15 days to prove his majority in the legislative chamber.

"The BJP's irrational insistence that it will form a government in Karnataka, even though it clearly doesn't have the numbers, is to make a mockery of our constitution. This morning, while the BJP celebrates its hollow victory, India will mourn the defeat of democracy," Congress' President Rahul Gandhi wrote on Twitter.

Congress' hopes were swiftly dashed even after it threw its weight behind the third-placed JD(S), when state Governor Vajubhai Vala — a former BJP veteran and political appointee — asked the single largest party to take charge.

Modi and his trusted political lieutenant, BJP President Amit Shah, have been known to pull government formations out of thin air through their organizational finesse. Allegations of poaching and horse-trading of lawmakers surfaced soon after the cliff-hanger outcome.

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Both Modi and Congress' Gandhi addressed a series of rallies during the intense political campaign making it one of the most high-profile state elections. Karnataka is the last major bastion of the ailing Congress, India's oldest political party. 

Nevertheless, the BJP, which is widely seen as a powerful party in the Hindi-speaking heartland but with a weak presence in other parts, desperately needs the province to make inroads into the southern states.

Ever since Modi took office in 2014, the BJP has had a dream run in terms of electoral success. It currently rules as many as 21 states, nearly 70 percent of Indian population, either directly or through alliances with other parties. This is despite a lackluster economic performance and bleak job opportunities, the very platforms on which Modi became prime minister. When Modi came to power, the BJP governed just seven states.

Experts are divided over how much Modi's federal policies may have influenced the voters in the southern state, home to 66 million people as well as India's Silicon Valley, Bengaluru. "The BJP should have won a clear majority and should have increased its popular vote count. It is still behind the Congress in poll percentage terms. It clearly means that the electorate has not fully backed the four year-rule of the Modi government," Dr Satish Misra, political analyst and senior fellow at the think tank Observer Research Foundation, told DW.

The Karnataka election was fought on an array of regional and national-level issues ranging from struggling economic growth to religious tensions and agrarian distress.

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The road ahead

Misra also said that the election results in Karnataka will inescapably have a direct impact on the next general elections that are scheduled to take place around May 2019 when Modi seeks a second term.

Highlighting the possibility that the ruling party might bring forward parliamentary polls to December 2018, when three other states go to the polls, Misra said that this will also force anti-Modi parties nationwide to cobble together pre-poll agreements.

"Yes, a pre-poll broad electoral alliance is underway and the Congress' defeat in Karnataka and its readiness to offer unconditional support to the JD(S) to form the government has prepared the ground for such an alliance. Undoubtedly, the alliance, if it comes through, is going to be very effective," said Misra.

Many astute political experts believe that an early election could be on the cards. Madhavan Raghavendran, a political observer and professor of sociology, told DW that Modi can also draw comfort from the fact that his own anti-incumbency hasn't significantly affected the BJP's vote share. This would augur well for the BJP in the next parliamentary election and is a warning bell for Congress that any discontent with Modi's regime need not automatically translate into votes for their party.

"Anything less than a smooth working arrangement with JD(S) in the coming weeks will only reinforce the notion that Congress is incapable of getting its act together even when numbers pan out in their favor. This may also impact upon any proposed Congress-led grand alliance in future to counter the might of BJP."

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