This is the first big break we've got," said an exultant Congress member of legislative Assembly from Karnataka, "if they mess even this up..." He didn't use the word "mess".
By "they", he meant the three big guns in the Congress from Karnataka: Veerappa Moily, Oscar Fernandes and the distinguished, now extinguished, S M Krishna. The "break" was the Congress' superlative performance in the state's local body elections earlier this week. Extrapolated against Assembly seats, it meant that the Congress might be able to manage a simple majority in the Assembly when elections are held later this year - in April or early May. This is, of course, subject to the usual caveats that issues in local body elections are different from Assembly elections, the party symbol counts a lot more in Assembly elections, and so on.
But two or three things stand out. First, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was roundly defeated in coastal Karnataka, specifically Mangalore and Udupi. Mangalore is the playground of the Bajrang Dal, the Sri Ram Sene and the pink "undie" revolution against these forces who, just last week, barged into a church where prayers for Lent were on, on the grounds that they had heard "conversions" were going on. The Congress has not held Udupi for the last 40 years. North Karnataka contributed the largest number of kar sevaks to L K Advani's rath yatra, which culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar is from Dharwad in North Karnataka. In all these three areas, the BJP has been defeated. In their defence, leaders are saying they were in similarly dire straits in the local body elections in 2007. And, yet, they won the Assembly elections held barely months later, though they concede, in vastly different circumstances.
The fact is, internally, the BJP has given up on Karnataka for the next five years. The elements that are trying to buck the party up are the two worthies from the Janata Dal Secular (JDS) - headed by the lovable former Prime Minister of India, H D Deve Gowda, and his son H D Kumaraswamy. Soon after the local body election results came out, Deve Gowda told the BJP to, for heaven's sake, recalibrate its position on the Cauvery river waters. Using the alibi of the Supreme Court order, the ruling BJP has gone a bit soft on the Cauvery water issue and agreed to give the waters to Tamil Nadu, expecting that in return, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa will recognise the BJP's supreme sacrifice and will support the party's prime ministerial bid when the time comes. But Deve Gowda is telling the BJP this would be disastrous for the BJP in Karnataka. Of course, it is understood that it will be disastrous for the JDS as well, which is hoping to form a government in Karnataka with the BJP's help, if the combination gets even one seat more than 113 - the simple majority number needed to form the government. Of course, this means that the JDS, which is supporting the United Progressive Alliance at the Centre, will oppose it in the state by tying up with the BJP. But then, who ever said one of the virtues of Deve Gowda was political consistency?
And what of the other side? The Congress is trying hard to get the BJP to power. Two of the most important office-bearers in the Karnataka Congress - in the Assembly as well as the party - have non-bailable warrants for criminal offences against them. One of them was charged with encroaching on and commandeering more than 60 acres of forest land. Forest department trucks and cranes had to "reclaim" this land. The case is still in court. Another has been charge-sheeted by the Lokayukta. Little wonder, then, that when the Congress speaks publicly about the BJP's corruption, people shout back: "What about you?" The war against corruption was launched in Jaipur at the Congress conclave. It hasn't reached Bangalore yet.
The worst part of it is, the Congress in Karnataka doesn't have a thought in its head. It has offered no vision for the state; no path of alternative development; and no corrective strategy. So frankly, if the Congress wants to avoid the caste or religion appeal route to politics and is looking to offer good governance to the people of Karnataka, the road map is a well-kept secret.
But the people of Karnataka are generous. Despite a bad drought and lack of development, they still have faith in party politics. If the Congress had a plan, it might have managed a good majority. Currently, it can aspire to a simple majority. But it should get its governance act together. It owes Karnataka that much.