How 48 hours in Karnataka showed just how far India has strayed from political norms


The Vidhana Soudha, the seat of the state legislature of Karnataka, India. Jagadeesh NV / EPA

Those who cry foul at Sunday’s presidential election in Venezuela might pause to consider the state of affairs in India, the world’s largest democracy.

Seemingly, all is functioning as it should, elections at various levels are held on schedule and politicians have to demonstrably labour to please voters. But the shenanigans after a recent state election raise questions about the real health of the Indian democratic process.

When Karnataka was left with a hung legislature, the supposedly impartial governor of the state unblinkingly invited the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to form a government.  It was the single largest party in the legislature but nine short of the magic number.  The governor is a former member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a sister organisation of the BJP, and gave the party a generous 15 days to prove it could form a government. Meanwhile, he ignored the opposition alliance’s offer to do the same with its undoubted majority.

The opposition — the  BJP’s national rival Congress and a regional party, the Janata Dal Secular (JDS) — appealed to the Supreme Court. It reduced the grace period allowed to the BJP’s leader in Karnataka, BS Yeddyurappa, who resigned shortly before a headcount of his legislators.

The Karnataka episode could have significant nationwide political implications, not least for the forthcoming general election. But it is important for much more than that.

The 48-hour drama underlines just how far India has strayed from the democratic processes enshrined in its constitution. State governors are no longer expected to make even a pretence of being above party politics. Horse-trading, the Indian media’s customary euphemism for backroom political deals to build a legislative majority, is against the law but entirely the norm. And the fact that India’s highest court had to adjudicate in the post-election process suggests the guardrails are at least badly damaged, if not increasingly being removed.

All three  dispiriting manifestations of democratic decline pre-date the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s current dominance of national and state politics. But previously, they were considered reprehensible and undemocratic.

This was the case almost every time India’s iron lady, Indira Gandhi, dismissed elected governments if constituted by anyone other than her Congress Party. From the 1960s, she blatantly politicised the office of state governor using article 356 of the constitution, which imposes president’s rule on a state. The non-Congress government of Morarji Desai, the federal successor to Gandhi, did the same.

President’s rule, which is recommended by a state governor and is administered by him or her, has been declared more than 100 times since India became independent in 1947. Gandhi was responsible for more than one-third and Desai for the removal of 16 Congress state governments. President’s rule became less knee jerk after 1994 when the Supreme Court brought it under judicial review. But overall, the presumption of non-partisan state governorship went the way of most good intentions. And India is left with a system in which state governors are almost always expected to be political appointees and to act as agents of the federal government.

Even the BJP’s fractious ally, the Shiv Sena, said as much after the Karnataka incident. Arun Shourie, a disillusioned former BJP minister, denounced the “Indirafication” of politics, by which he meant Gandhi’s notorious highhandedness. The consequences were on shameful display in Karnataka.

This brings us to horse-trading and the immense possibilities offered by oodles of time. An Indian party intent on forming the government in a state but short of the legislators it needs customarily goes shopping.

Bribes — monetary, ministerial posts and other goodies — are dangled before elected members belonging to other parties. It has become so much the political way of life that Indians routinely make jokes about their leaders’ proclivities. During the manoeuvring in Karnataka, one Twitter user jokingly asked Amazon for “help asap (with) some shopping issues”, claiming he wanted “the best deal” to buy seven lawmakers as a “gift” for the BJP president Amit Shah.

The naked bribery has led to an odious, if ludicrous, companion practice, which is called “resort politics”. In Karnataka, for instance, Congress and the JDS had to corral their legislators in luxury resorts to prevent them from defecting to the BJP at a price. The blatant sale and purchase of political loyalty is no longer considered shocking in India today.

Finally, there is the intervention of the highest court in the land in Karnataka’s government formation. The Supreme Court has had to tackle election disputes, gubernatorial decisions and the like before. But the fact it had to weigh in on the Karnataka impasse and bring matters to a swift and orderly resolution says a great deal. On their own, Indian politicians seem unable or unwilling to do the right thing and even then, not always for the right reasons.

Could the Karnataka poll be a foretaste of what is to come in the national election? It is certainly a dismal portent from one of India’s richest states.